Is India becoming a gynecological two-dollar shop? Is the country, often described as conservative in relation to family laws, remarkably liberal in its attitude towards surrogacy? Is surrogacy something that allows fulfillment of dream and desire for the rich, but gives no protection to the poor? Is it a new form of exploitation of the illiterate and vulnerable in a developing country like India?
A volley of questions comes popping up as the billion-dollar wombs-for-rent industry grows rapidly in the country amid increasing calls to discipline it.
The central government in India is busy preparing to enact a law to regulate commercial surrogacy and set things in order.
The Assisted Reproductive Technology Bill, 2010, prepared by a 12-member expert committee of the Indian Council of Medical Research, is now with the country’s law ministry awaiting final touches before being presented to Parliament for approval.
The chief aim is to make sure in no way are poor surrogate mothers exploited by rich infertile couples and vice versa, said Dr R.S. Sharma, deputy director general of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and member secretary of the Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) drafting committee.
The exercise is in response to the clamor against exploitation of the poor.
“We are extremely concerned about the health of women who become surrogates,” Women Protection League President Vandana Sharma was quoted in a recent interview.
Professor Malini Bhattacharya, a member of the panel, said the main objective is to achieve transparency to eliminate negative effects. “We are neither against medical technologies nor surrogacy,” she said.
Former National Commission of Women Chairperson Girija Vyas demands a discourse on whether the business of wombs for rent is good for society. “The draft of the bill should be in public domain,” she said.
According to ICMR director general Dr V M Katoch, aside from many things the bill seeks to define a couple as two persons who live together and have legal sex, so lesbians and gays will be out of the ambit.
However, surrogacy expert Dr Nayana Patel is skeptical. “The guidelines are good, but there are some problems. I think more and more agents will crop up, making the process more cumbersome and expensive,” she tells China Daily Asia Weekly.
“It will create too many channels. Things will not be as transparent as they are now. The proposed guidelines for foreigners are really tight. The stipulations will make things difficult for them to come to India to have a child.”
A social commentator has expressed strong reservation about the entire process. “A woman locked up for nine months to ensure a healthy child for others is just wholly unacceptable.” wrote Roy Lange in his blog.
Many, however, strongly feel that women should be free to choose what they do with their bodies.
“Some friends ask me why I am putting myself through all this. I tell them: it’s my own choice,” an anonymous surrogate said.
Here is a woman, who is neither a feminist, nor a politician, but a voice of millions of poor people struggling to eke out a living, and survive with children and families with a modicum of comfort and dignity.
A woman in her late twenties said she had decided to become a surrogate in extreme distress during the economic downturn.
“My husband lost his job, and my own salary was substantially slashed,” she says on condition of anonymity.
“I had to do it because it was a matter of survival. I didn’t sleep with anyone to earn this extra money so why should I be apologetic? Who would have paid off the mortgage for the apartment we had bought? Were we supposed to beg during those bad times?”
Dr Nayana Patel echoes the view saying, “They (surrogate mothers) are neither murdering anyone nor deceiving people nor doing some immoral act like prostitution. So what’s the problem?”
“Surrogacy after all offers an extra source of income for struggling Indian women and a cheaper option for aspiring parents abroad. They are doing a good act by giving a baby to someone,” she adds.
However, a Supreme Court judge differs.
Surrogacy, he observed, has gained acceptability, not respectability in society.
“Due to lack of proper law, women from the poor and weaker sections of the society are getting exploited,” said Justice Balbir Singh Chauhan during a recent seminar on surrogacy in New Delhi.
China Daily Asia Weekly on June 10, 2011, page 05