Surrogacy in India has two sides to it. While thousands of couples (even gay couples) both from India and abroad have found immense happiness through surrogacy, the industry which stands at a value of Rs 400 million, has come under the scanner for its exploitative nature because the surrogate mother in most cases gets into the process because of her financial needs and ends up with very less even though the couple seeking surrogacy pay through their nose.
Without any proper rules and laws in place the surrogacy industry has grown by leaps and bounds, most often by flouting all possible norms.
This is why in August this year the Union Cabinet approved the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016, which is aimed at curbing unethical and commercial practices and preventing the exploitation of poor women as substitute mothers.
The bill does not allow anyone to become a surrogate mother in return for money. Couples who are married for more than five years and are not above the age of 50 in case of women and 55 in case of men can also opt for surrogacy. Surrogacy will not be allowed if the couple already has a child and a surrogate mother can only be a person who is a close relative to the couple.
Can a relative be a surrogate?
The last premise is the most difficult one because considering the social norms and mindset in India, unlike in the West, surrogacy within the family is next to impossible. Although sometimes within extended families biological parents often give their third or fourth child for adoption to a relative but surrogacy within the family is still unheard of.
Saheli Mitra, a journalist and writer, said: “No this is impossible. This is not a Hindi movie. This rule is utterly wrong.”
This, she says, despite her harrowing experience with commercial surrogacy. Saheli Mitra and her husband have a biological son but they wanted to have another baby either through adoption or through surrogacy. They opted for surrogacy. Saheli writes her experience in her post in Bonobology.
We visited an IVF clinic, one of Kolkata’s best and were treated like royalty. They never asked us why we wished for IVF or surrogacy. We were 35 then and I was perfectly fertile and capable of having my own kids. They were ready to help us with what they called ‘a very pretty and educated young woman’ who would be the egg donor. It was actually a vicious moneymaking network but we didn’t know it then.
The infertility clinic brought up a surrogate, a woman who wished to give her two daughters proper education with the money she would get through surrogacy. We not only gave the surrogate whatever she wanted, paid according to contract, but even decided to fund her daughters’ education. She got pregnant, but within a month she stopped taking our calls or coming to the clinic. The clinic sent people to track her, we came to know that she had aborted the fetus because by then she had got half of the sum assured and her husband had bought a shop that they wished to buy. The clinic asked me to sue her, we didn’t. I was pretty shocked at the unprofessional attitude of the clinic.
Despite her negative experience Saheli feels that only allowing altruistic surrogacy closes all doors on childless couples because in the Indian mindset no one within the family would agree to be a surrogate mother.
But Ashisha Shah (name changed), who had twins through surrogacy says she is grateful to the surrogate mother because she would have never known what motherhood is if she hadn’t had her children through surrogacy. “I have a genuine health problem which was an impediment to motherhood. But if I had to look for a relative who would be a surrogate I would have never become a mother. It would have been impossible.”
Gita Aravamudan, the writer of the book Baby Makers, which is based on her two-year long detailed research on commercial surrogacy in India, very pertinently points out:
I don’t think this is possible or practical. There are several issues here which make the proposal totally unacceptable. It is difficult to find a surrogate within the family. A poor relation could be pressured into acting as a surrogate against her will. A child would find it emotionally very confusing to have a genetic mother and a birth mother in proximity. If the government insists on altruistic surrogacy, this surrogate could also end up not being compensated for the physical and emotional labor she has put into bearing a child for another woman. She in turn could also use emotional blackmail by claiming the child is hers.
Anirban Bhattacharya, who is the script writer of the documentary film Womb on Rent that delves into the surrogacy scenario in Delhi, feels that in 1995, when artificial insemination and IVF became accessible to common people, this was the idea that women within the family can opt for surrogacy.
But I don’t think it is feasible any more in India. Because commercial surrogacy has deep roots now what this bill will do is push the industry underground. It is hard to find a womb donor within the family and it is easier to rent a healthy womb and there is no risk to relatives that way. Surrogacy involves a complicated and risky process. Womb donors are impregnated with multiple embryos to improve chances of survival of the fetus. They are given hormonal injections with adverse effects, to hold on to the baby because it is a foreign object to the breeder woman’s body. Yes, surrogate mothers in the commercial parlance are called breeder women. And in three months, if more than one baby holds the healthiest baby is selected and the rest are washed. Can you imagine doing this to a relative? This is OK when done to a Bangladeshi refugee or a Nepali sex worker who is in dire need of money.
I did a survey with 80 people. I sent out a question to at least 50 people through social media. Thirty people I asked in face-to-face interaction.
The question to the women was: Would you want to become a surrogate mother to a relative?
The question to men was: Would you want or even encourage your wife, sister, daughter, mother, girlfriend or friend to become a surrogate mother?
Only two out of the total 80 respondents said that they would support surrogacy in the family. One respondent was a college student who said that she wouldn’t mind becoming a surrogate mother but she would not know how to handle the situation emotionally because she would inevitably become attached to the baby.
Author Ayan Pal was the male voice that supported surrogacy. He said: “Surrogacy is a gift beyond any. To let in the seed of love in one’s womb is the greatest gift anyone can gift another. I completely support surrogacy, and if any woman in my immediate family decides to do this for anyone else, I will be happy to support her in any which manner I can.”
All the other men when asked the same question said that they could not imagine anyone in their family doing this because having a baby has an emotional aspect too and they felt that no matter how altruistic the act maybe it would unnecessarily complicate the whole relationship within the family.
Rajasri Saraswat who is an Indian living in the US, said, “I am not a big proponent of surrogacy for two main reasons. I don’t believe that biological way is the only way to be a parent and secondly in poor countries surrogacy can be used to exploit the weak and needy. Having said that I would like to confess there was a period when I wished I could be a surrogate to a cousin. She failed to conceive for almost 10 years of her marriage and when ultimately she got lucky she lost the baby. At that point my cousin was a shattered soul emotionally and physically and I so wished I lived in India and carried her baby. The good news is very recently she has adopted a baby boy and is enjoying the bliss of motherhood.”
Saroni Ray, a homemaker based in Pune, said, “Economically backward women in India found it, maybe, a respectable way to earn some lump sum money. If the monetary angle is gone I don’t think many relatives will be benevolent enough to do it. I won’t for sure.”
Most women in the survey said that they could never imagine becoming a surrogate mother within the family. Most were certain that they would become attached to the child after carrying it for nine months.
Sunayana Sarkar, a career woman and a mother of one, said, “In my opinion, this law that only family can become surrogate mother complicates the situation. I would imagine that when a woman carries a child, there is some level of emotional attachment that we cannot completely disregard. Having a surrogate in the family is a constant reminder of the relationship. But in a country, where there are cultural barriers for adoption and surrogacy, I find this notion of open surrogacy unrealistic and hence the possible law troubling.”
Indrani Das, an IT professional, said, “I would not be a surrogate mom. I did not even go for a second child I am so done using my womb for childbirth. I think there are enough orphans and children uncared for in this world people should adopt if they can’t have babies.”
Western nations might be opting for altruistic surrogacy and sometimes successfully dealing with the social and emotional complications around it, but one thing is for sure: Altruistic surrogacy is yet to sink in into the Indian mindset. It remains to be seen how the 2016 Surrogacy Bill fares in the long run.