Commercial surrogacy has officially existed since 1985. The first successful gestational pregnancy resulted in the birth of a child, Melissa in 1986, and the surrogate mother refused to cede custody of the child to the couple she had made a surrogacy agreement with.
Historically in India, kings and wealthy men often adopted their sibling’s children to ensure heirs to the throne or business. This was a great sacrifice and also at times caused rifts, but was still leagues apart from commercial surrogacy as we know it.
Today, India is a haven for surrogacy, or atleast it was. Since it was legalised in 2002, the industry has grown to be worth close to $2 billion dollars. It offers a 9 month contract to financial security to many women and families struggling to make ends meet. The expectant parents desiring a surrogate are often from countries outside India, where commercial surrogacy has been banned or is simply too expensive an option. Countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Bulgaria have banned surrogacy with many more following suit.
In 2016, a bill was introduced in the Indian parliament to regulate the surrogacy industry. If passed, the new law would ensure that only Indian couples who had been married for a minimum of five years, and faced diagnosed difficulties conceiving would be eligible. More so, the surrogate would need to be a ‘close relative’ of the mother. Sruthi Sriram, a registered art therapist deems commercial surrogacy “a better way to earn money using the body” than most of what we see in society today. “If the women are offered counselling, and care after the baby is born, not just during her pregnancy, and she is willing, why not?”
While questions on the issue are plenty, knowledge on how surrogacy actually works and the laws involved seem hazy at best. The tendency to liken the process to prostitution or associate it with other organ donation activities is high.
As more women enter the workforce and face additional stress, and due to genetic or environmental reasons, one in every 10 women in India has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which can lead to a variety of symptoms including infertility. Men too are victims of infertility, making the child bearing dream of surrogacy a very real option for families with means. “When there are so many genuine health problems preventing conception, why not let someone lend their womb?” quips Sandhya, a senior executive at a Chennai based digital marketing agency.
The scales of money involved are extremely different. Manasi Karthik, a researcher, points out that “surrogates in India are meant to live in very basic residential quarters until they deliver, having been promised fees in the margins of $6000. The same thing in the United States would cost anything between $50,000 to 100,000.” These numbers seem to reiterate the need for more fair pricing schemes, should commercial surrogacy stay legal.
India continues to hold tightly to its values and sentiments. Parents desiring surrogacy from abroad are often same sex couples, who will now be disqualified from surrogacy in India. Homosexuality is criminalized in India, and the idea of divorce or a single parent is still fairly taboo. “What happens to a child in these circumstances, or if the parents don’t feel a bond with the child?” asks Karthik Kumar, a director of a Chennai based digital firm, “We don’t really know, so it requires much deliberation”.
Should Indian parents alone have access to commercial surrogacy? Or should it be a strictly regulated industry catering to the globe? As the bill sits in parliament, questions are still plenty, while public debate and open data seems to be largely missing.
Tara Thomas is a writer and content consultant based in India with big love for music, the outdoors, new cuisines, and travel adventures that take her to remote corners of the world. She hopes to one day solve a cryptic crossword solo (or with a little help from her friends.)