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A Rented Womb


Nirmala Ganapathy in New Delhi
The Straits Times/ANN

A COMPLETE FAMILY: British parents (R) and Alison Duffett (C) and their seven-day-old son Oliver robert, born to an Indian surrogate mother, are photographed with Dr. Nayna Patel at kaival Hospital in Anand, some 90kms from Ahmedabad.

A proposed legislation is expected to bring some order to India’s burgeoning surrogacy industry, known as the ‘pot of gold’

At a fertility clinic tucked behind a popular market in New Delhi, a factory worker has come for her routine check-up. While she is shy about revealing her real name - she calls herself Sangeeta—she is frank about her pregnancy and the future of her baby.

HIRED: This picture taken on Sept 3 2009, shows surrogate mothers in various stages of pregnancy resting in a dormitory in India’s Gujarat state.

The 26-year-old is three months pregnant and, unlike many others at this clinic, will be delivering her baby abroad.

"I will go to Belgium," she says brightly. Her plans are not born of sheer optimism—Sangeeta is carrying the baby for a Belgian couple who are unable to have children of their own.

She conceived through in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and has been paid about US$7,500 for her services as a surrogate mother. Her tale is not an uncommon one in India, where surrogacy is growing more popular, especially among poor women.

Surrogate mothers like Sangeeta are paid anything from 3.5 million rupees ($76,000) and above for their services. While there are no figures available on the number of women who have turned surrogate mothers in India, the National Commission for Women said last year that 3,000 clinics are involved in the practice.

The industry is estimated to be worth more than $500 million each year and is predicted to generate $2.3 billion per year by 2012. That’s why Indian Law Commission calls the sector a "pot of gold".

What makes Sangeeta’s baby different, however, is that he or she—it is illegal to determine the sex of an unborn child in India—could enjoy greater protection under a new law on surrogacy being drafted.

A first of its kind here, the Assisted Reproductive Technology (Regulation) Bill seeks to sort out grey areas surrounding the citizenship of a child born through surrogacy to foreign nationals, and attempts to put in some safeguards for surrogate mothers.

Its drafting comes in the wake of several controversial cases in which babies were deprived of citizenship, as well as concerns that the lack of legal protection for surrogate mothers will encourage ‘rent-a-womb’ exploitation of young, poor women.

More significantly, the new law being drafted also reflects some of the emerging trends in Indian society—if passed, it will allow gays, lesbians and unmarried couples to have children through surrogate mothers.

"What we have done in the Bill is that we have defined a couple as two individuals living together and having a sexual relationship," explains Indian Council of Medical Research scientist RS Sharma, who sits on the committee drafting the Bill. "Gays and lesbians fall under this definition."

Not surprisingly, this part of the Bill has sparked debate in conservative India, drawing criticism in particular from the Catholic Church in Kerala. It has warned that the new law would undermine family values, and has urged MPs to refrain from enacting laws that are "destroying the family system".

Concern also remains over whether the proposed law will be enough to protect the rights of surrogate mothers and their children.

Many medical practitioners, however, welcome the legislation.

"India is very far-sighted," said Dr Anup Gupta, the founder of Delhi IVF, a clinic that handles five to six cases a month. "The legislation will facilitate surrogacy. The idea is to see how we can improve."

Apart from facilitating the setting up of an assisted reproductive technology bank, the Bill will make it mandatory for foreigners to prove that their home countries will give the child citizenship, and also ensure that there is a local guarantor who will monitor the surrogate mother and the unborn child.

"Today, whatever is happening in this area is not controlled by any government regulation," says Dr Sharma.

While there are guidelines for surrogacy, they are not mandatory, and the loose set of dos and don’ts is seen as outdated. "There are some IVF clinics strictly following the guidelines and a few which are not," notes Dr Sharma.

The debate, however, appears to have had little impact on Sangeeta, who having never travelled abroad, is looking forward to flying to Belgium for the delivery of her baby.

"It’s noble also," she says. "I am doing something good for someone."


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