Surrogate Motherhood Among Poor Indian Women

Deepak Mahaan

In a new twist to the outsourcing for which India has become renowned, poor Indian women are renting out their wombs to foreigners.

Surrogate motherhood -- carrying to term and giving birth to another woman's baby - once was limited in India to helping close relatives who couldn't complete a pregnancy due to medical difficulties.

But leading gynecologist Dr. Kamla Selvaraj says it's now becoming a regular "profession" in India, with more and more women willing to carry babies for others, for a fee.

India has for years been providing foreigners with in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment at a cheaper rate than the equivalent services in Western countries.

Surrogacy comes in when the biological mother is unable to carry the child. Alternatively, a surrogate also provide eggs when the woman wanting a child is unable to do so herself.

Apart from low-cost IVF treatment, India also is offering surrogate mothers at a considerably lower price than couples would pay in the U.S. or Europe.

Women's counselor Harleen Ahluwalia says surrogacy cases are estimated to have nearly doubled in the past three years.

"Foreigners find Indian legal procedures easy and less exploitative, unlike [in the] U.S., where any complication could cost a fortune," she said.

Although surrogacy cases have been reported from various regions, one area that appears to be over-represented is Anand district in the western state of Gujarat, where more than 50 economically deprived women are reported to be presently carrying babies for foreigners and non-resident Indians.

While a couple in the U.S. will generally pay tens of thousands of dollars to a surrogate mother and affiliated agencies, in India the cost could be around $5,000, plus medical and attendant costs.

Leading advocate of surrogacy, Dr. Naina Patel of the Akanksha Fertility Clinic in Anand, contends that it is a positive service. "Infertility is a global problem and we have its global solution," she said.

Responding to criticism that poor Indians are being exploited, Patel insisted that surrogate mothers were extremely well looked after by those paying for their services. They were housed comfortably and were under expert medical supervision to ensure healthy children for their clients, she said.

But not all share Patel's enthusiasm and many believe surrogacy carries a huge physical and emotional cost for the women.

Dr. Mohanlal Swarankar, chairman of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences in Jaipur and one of the leading fertility experts in India, is firmly opposed to the practice of surrogacy and wants what he called the "commercial sale of wombs and babies" to be outlawed.

"Surrogacy affects the whole moral fabric of a society and could trigger complex psychological and ethical dilemmas with no easy answers," he said.

Swarankar said he worried that in a country where women are often forced into submission, "Who could tell if a woman hadn't been pressured to be a surrogate mother for the sake of big money?"

He also warned that "the social stigma attached to carrying the child of another man" could traumatize women and their relationships with their husbands.

Swarankar said he offers IVF treatment only to legally married couples, as he believes "providing a child to an infertile couple is a service to God."

He said he was also distressed at the increasing number of young healthy, married working women unwilling to put their careers on hold to have a baby, and thus paying someone else to do so on their behalf.

This was nothing short of sacrilege, he said.

Meanwhile, in the absence of clear-cut statutes, Indian courts have found themselves grappling with cases of proprietary rights of rival mothers. Most rulings to date are stated to favor surrogate mothers, and legal experts note that if a surrogate mother decides not to give up the baby, nobody can force her to do so.

The Indian Council of Medical Research is now drafting guidelines for the Indian government, to cover all aspects of artificial reproduction.

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