In what critics say is a major setback to India’s rapidly growing surrogacy industry, the central government has banned foreigners from hiring surrogate mothers in India.
As a preferred destination for surrogacy, thousands of childless people from around the world have flocked to Indian surrogacy clinics over the years.
But activists say the practice exploits the rights of disadvantaged women.
From New Delhi, Bismillah Geelani investigates both sides of the debate.
India is one of the few countries where surrogacy is allowed and over recent years the country has become a popular destination for what some describe as “made to order babies” or “rent a womb”.
For foreigners like David Alice, a UK-based gay man, the country represents a chance to fulfill their wish for children.
David opted for surrogacy after his repeated attempts to adopt a child failed.
“Obviously being in a same-sex relationship, it’s incredibly difficult to adopt,” says David, “I think if I had been a US citizen it would have been a lot easier and ultimately I know wanted to have a family of my own, and surrogacy ended up being the only route I could take.”
India has become known as the surrogacy capital of the world, with nearly 3,000 surrogacy homes across the country.
But not anymore. The government has now imposed a ban on foreigners hiring surrogate mothers. And a proposed law is seeking to extend the ban to the entire commercial surrogacy industry, estimated to be worth more than 2 billion US dollars annually.
The development has come as a major disappointment for some in India’s surrogacy circles.
For 28-year old Shabnam who is pregnant with her second surrogate child, it means a total loss of livelihood.
“I came into it because my husband is handicapped and can’t work,” she says, “I thought I would help others and solve my problems as well. The ban is totally unjustified; after all we are not doing anything wrong. We are doing a service and this is now our need. They should not ban it. They should not deprive us of this support.”
Bajrang Singh opened a surrogacy home in suburban Delhi just a few years ago.
“Our job is to search for surrogates and counsel them. We carry out all the investigations to ensure that they are fit to carry out a pregnancy. The idea basically was to give the surrogates proper nursing care and treatment during the course of pregnancy,” explains Bajrang.
Singh says that as a new entrant into the industry he will be okay, but the surrogate mothers will be the worst hit by the new ruling.
“I am more worried about the surrogates because most of them are poor and come from slum areas,” he says, “But with just one surrogacy they earn more than what they can earn otherwise in a decade.”
Dependent on surrogacy for a living, Shabnam and Singh are against the ban.
But outlawing commercial surrogacy has been a long pending demand of many women’s groups, including the National Commission for Women.
Chairperson Lalita Kumara Mangalam says surrogacy exploits poverty and violates the dignity of women.
“There’s no informed consent, the only reason they come into it is out of their poverty, so that is the only choice they have if you look at it as the right to choice,” she says, “As soon as the word commercial comes into the picture the exploitation of the poor women begins.”
The surrogacy clinics or homes are often accused of underpaying the women and treating them as hostages during the nine months of their pregnancy.
In some cases the commissioning parents have also abandoned babies born with birth defects.
Experts say there are various ethical, social and legal issues involved in surrogacy, but that an outright ban will only exacerbate the problem.
Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi–based Centre for Social Research says strict regulations and effective implementation would be a better solution.
“A law that would have regulated the whole process, brought about transparency and ensured protection of the rights of everyone involved, has been pending for so many years, the government didn’t move on that and now has come up with this ban which is just a knee-jerk reaction,” she says, “Banning is the worse we can do, it has never solved any problem.”
As the ban goes into effect, others in India fear the ban will only push couples into a surrogacy black market.