Ethical, legal issues thrown to the winds as poor women play surrogate mothers

Right in the heart of this city, which found a place on the atlas as the Milk Capital of India, is a ‘fertility clinic-cum-hostel’ to house women who rent their wombs, mostly for foreign couples.

The facility, which runs under the name Akanksha Fertility Clinic, caters for 30 surrogate mothers at any given point. Driven by poverty, the women bear and nurse a child of another couple, for a price.

Thanks to the emergence of surrogate motherhood as a multimillion-dollar industry in the country, the clinic is doing a roaring business. What is the success formula? An unending supply of poor and illiterate women and the absence of laws have made the trade the fastest way to make money.

A peep into the clinic-cum-hostel and random interaction with some of the women are an eye-opener. Nazira, wife of a mason near a village in Ahmedabad, chose to become a surrogate to help the family come of out a financial crisis.

Now several months into pregnancy, Nazira will get Rs. 3.25 lakh after the delivery as per a contract signed by her and the commissioning couple. This is in addition to a monthly allowance of a couple of thousand rupees for the gestation period of nine months. If she has twins, the ‘party’ (intending parents) will have to pay her 20 per cent more.

Another surrogate in the hostel, who did not wish to be identified, said she needed money to get her daughter married. She preferred foreign couples because they paid in dollars.

Hansa Pramod, an employee of the clinic, has been delivered of three children for two foreign couples. “First time I moved from rented accommodation to my small house and the second time, to a bigger house,” she told The Hindu.

She admits that when she gave away the children (twins) to an American couple the first time, she felt uneasy but consoled herself in the thought that they were not hers.

Another inmate had four foetuses in her womb, two of which were aborted as the couple did not want so many children. There is no clarity on whether two foetuses were aborted for medical reasons.

“At the moment, there is no law in the country on surrogacy and therefore, it is neither legal nor illegal,” said a senior Health and Family Welfare Ministry official, admitting that ethical, moral, social, monetary and legal issues were raised by various sections of society.

Rent-a-womb is a thriving industry today. With no dearth of ignorant and poor women, and no laws to regulate the mushrooming fertility clinics, it is the fastest way to make money.

Costs less in India

A commissioning couple can get a surrogate for half the price in India compared to the cost in the U.S. or the U.K., where surrogacy is not allowed or permitted only in special cases. European countries do not allow surrogacy at all.

A random scan of the website and some telephone calls to the in vitro fertility (IVF) clinics across several cities makes it clear that surrogacy is rampant and could cost between Rs. 8 lakh and over Rs. 10 lakh, though the surrogate herself gets less than 50 per cent of the money earned by these clinics as the doctors double as agents. There is no mandatory health or life insurance for the surrogate in case of her death. Surrogacy is also advertised as an enterprise in newspaper advertisements and clinics.

There is no supervisory and regulatory body under which all assisted reproductive technology clinics offering their services could be placed, except a set of guidelines, brought out by the Indian Council of Medical Research in 2005, which, however, are not legally binding, ICMR Director-General V.M. Katoch told The Hindu. Based on these guidelines, the ICMR has now come up with a draft Assisted Reproductive Technologies (Regulation) Bill, 2010, which is with the Ministry of Law and Justice for vetting and is expected to be tabled in Parliament in the winter session.

Justifying commercial surrogacy, Dr. Nayna Patel of the Akanksha Fertility Clinic said all surrogates were volunteers and had legally entered into an agreement with the intending parents. “We not only look after them during delivery but also impart them skills which ensure them livelihood for the future,” she said, dismissing charges of moral and ethical issues as the women were uneducated and poor. “We follow the guidelines and have the best technology available,” she said. The clinic celebrated the birth of 500th surrogate child last month and most newspapers front-paged it!

But CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat says ethical and moral issues are certainly involved in commercial surrogacy. “It is the height of irresponsibility and shame that the government does not have any law to regulate these fertility clinics. The government should bring in the proposed law, though it has many weaknesses.”

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