Monday, 7 December 2015

Unheard story of surrogate mothers

29-year-old Lakshmi hails from a remote village in Anantapur and is a victim of the ills that any woman born into a poor family in India can suffer. She had rented her womb once for the money to clear her weaver husband’s loans. Despite knowing that the process is fraught with dangers, she is ready to do it yet again, this time to get her step daughter married
Only her eyes and nose were visible. The scarf that she wrapped around her head concealed most of her features. Her moistened eyes revealed her helplessness and pain.  “The physical and mental trauma that one goes through during childbirth has repercussions beyond money. I wouldn’t want any woman driven by poverty renting her womb, if she can help it,” her simple words were conveyed in a voice choked with emotion at a panel discussion on commercial surrogacy. 
29-year-old Lakshmi hails from a remote village in Anantapur and is a victim of the ills that any woman born into a poor family in India can suffer. She has never been to school, was married off before she was a major to a maternal uncle twice her age, and is mother to two young boys of her own as well as a teenage daughter of her husband from his previous marriage.
Her husband, a weaver, is partially blind and has no steady income. “Reddy Anna”, the agent who looks for women in need of money promised to get her a princely sum of three-and-half lakh rupees, an offer that would enable her to clear her husband’s loans if she rented her womb. After the required tests were conducted at a Hyderabad clinic, she was under medical supervision.
“I was surprised to see so many women like me and was told that it was one of many centres. I was anaemic but was provided good care till the baby boy was delivered. I cried uncontrollably after giving away the child that had grown inside me. To everyone else it was just a commercial transaction almost like renting a car park,” says Lakshmi. 
All deliveries of this nature as a rule are conducted through the C-section. The surrogate mother receives no post- operative care with the entire paraphernalia disappearing as quickly as they came once the baby is delivered and bundled away to distant lands.
Like clinical trials, surrogacy is a lucrative option for most foreigners who view India as the ideal place for “reproductive tourism”.  The low cost of in-vitro fertilisation and the lack of a stringent regulatory framework to protect the rights of surrogate mothers and babies is being viewed as a serious flaw in India, one of the few countries where commercial surrogacy is legal. 
Lakshmi has seen cases where surrogates have died as a result of complications during pregnancy or inadequate post-natal care. There are also horror stories of multiple embryos being implanted in the womb for higher chances of success. The worst case scenario is where babies born with disabilities are abandoned by the biological parents.
The estimated 9 billion dollar industry is at present a boon for the tourism and hotel industry, fertility clinics and brokers like “Reddy Anna” who make enough commission to have them permanently scouting for “rented wombs”.
The Indian government is in the process of finalising the draft of the Assisted Reproductive Techniques (regulation) Bill with greater attention to the rights of surrogate mothers. The government’s decision to prevent foreigners using India as a cheap “baby market” and importing embryos is however coming under fire.
Driving the lucrative foreign market underground is fraught with risks, say experts. While the rights of “needy infertile married couples” for surrogacy termed as “altruistic surrogacy” are being accepted unquestioningly, fertility experts and women’s organisations feel commercial surrogacy definitely needs a proper legal framework and regulation.
A total ban may not be the answer, they feel. With no health insurance care or policy for children born with disabilities, poor lives are being compromised in the present state of affairs. “There is no exploitation. This is a voluntary business contract between human beings involving exchange of money,” says a fertility expert, whose practise revolves around women like Lakshmi.
The cost of having a surrogate baby for foreign couples is a round 18,000 to 25,000 dollars, a third of what it costs in a developed country like the United States and poor women are paid for their services she reasons.
The question is, do we “ban commercial surrogacy”, which is a billion dollar business and risk black market operations or ensure greater regulation and protection for our poor women? Even as the debate goes on, Lakshmi has rejected her own advice and agreed to rent her womb yet again. This time to get her step-daughter married. “I know my life is at risk. Show me an alternative way of earning this money and I won’t do this again,” she says. I have no answer at least for now and neither does the government.