“I had five miscarriages and doctors gave up on me,” she said. “Surrogacy helped me become a mother. I am lucky. But how can the government take this away from other women yearning to be moms,” Gursharan asked on Saturday, days after the Lok Sabha passed the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill 2016, which blocks commercial surrogacy by terming it a punishable offence for all involved.
Anand-based Akanksha Infertility Clinic, a cornerstone in India’s Rs 1,300 crore-plus commercial surrogacy industry, wore a weary look with surrogate mothers asking each other about the bill. The hospital, helmed by Dr Nayana Patel, has delivered over 100 babies annually since 2010. Sixty-two mothers are in different stages of pregnancy at the facility right now.
Kajal Parojiya, 32, a mother of two who chose to be a surrogate the second time around, is anxious. Her aim, she said, was to ensure good schooling for her children. “My husband makes Rs 5,000 per month. We barely scrape by. In such a situation, the Rs 3.6 lakh that I got for being a surrogate helped me ensure my kids’ education. I opted for this again to build a small house,” she said. “This new law will hit us hard.”
Like Kajal, Varsha Patel, 30, insists that being a surrogate is of her own volition. A first-time surrogate from Vadodara, she told TOI: “Exploitation is not the norm but the exception. Every woman here has come for money – it’s as stark and simple as that. Many are dirt poor. Surrogacy helps them in ways only the marginalised understand.”
A day after the bill was passed, when Dr Patel met surrogates at her hospital, there was fear and apprehension in the air. The doctor quietly told them, “If the Rajya Sabha too passes the bill, this will be the last batch the facility will host.” The announcement was received in silence.
But activists and those concerned about the “abuse” of poor women in the “rent-awomb” world of commercial surrogacy said the legislation was long overdue. Author and campaigner Pinki Virani, who has been calling for a stop to the “unethical trade”, had told TOI earlier that the bill has loopholes, but these are pluggable.
“What is important is to understand that the abetted human reproduction industry involves high stakes, made higher by a failure rate of 75%. Practitioners set themselves up as benevolent fertility fairies even as they perpetuate patriarchy, making a woman feel worthless if she doesn’t have a child. Also, there’s a higher-than-average risk of cancer afterwards and it doesn’t seem to matter that the more convoluted the process of starting a tiny human in a lab, the more complex the after-effects on that child,” she said.
The debate, though, won’t die down in a hurry. “The bill is vague and inconsistent,” Dr Patel said. “It is fine with the altruistic surrogate, who is a near relative, but there is no definition of ‘near relative’. Getting regulations in place is good but completely abolishing the system might pave the way for real exploitation, with families pressuring women to become a surrogate.”
She added, “The trade will be pushed underground. A woman not able to bear a child of her own still has major stigma attached to her in society. In these modern times when infertility is on the rise, the bill is not in sync with social reality. It requires certification of infertility, but ignores male infertility issues, negates other health complications that inhibit conception not coming under the ambit of infertility. Rather than tackle these larger issues, the bill focuses only on infertility.”
The future of Anand’s surrogacy business that provides employment to about 3,000 people in the district stands on slippery ground. It’s an ecosystem that involves doctors, nurses, travel agents, hotels and restaurants, super stores et al. Also known as home to Amul, the town with a sizeable NRI population is set to lose the not-so-flattering sobriquet of ‘baby factory’. In the past decade, while foreign nationals took home 304 babies, NRIs got 307, before a 2015 regulation banned surrogacy for people from abroad.
Sameer Kukreja, a security firm owner, who turned surrogacy advocate after he and his wife spent five years trying for a baby, said, “A majority of those forming the new regulations don’t know the sector or medical intricacies involved. There might be exploitative practices, but better regulation makes more sense than a ban.”
Some names have been changed to protect identity)