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India Moves to Protect the Rented Womb

KOLKATA, India, Aug 3 2013 (IPS) - India’s matinee idol Shah Rukh Khan and his wife Gauri Khan announced recently that they had their third child through surrogacy. Gossip columns said that Gauri Khan, a mother of two teenagers, had tried to conceive for the last couple of years and at last resorted to surrogacy.

The announcement, coming after intense speculation by the media, caught fans by surprise; this is something not openly discussed in Indian society, least of all by a celebrity. But the veil of secrecy surrounding surrogacy was lifted earlier by another Bollywood celebrity, Aamir Khan, who with his director wife Kiran Rao went for a surrogate baby in 2011.

Doctors specialising in IVF (In Vitro Fertilisation) say that celebrity endorsement has suddenly made it fashionable among the swish set.

But to many in small towns and slums, surrogacy has become familiar for the possibility of earning money through carrying a child for another couple. The clients are usually non-resident Indians (NRIs) and white couples from western countries where commercial surrogacy is illegal.

The mothers are often ignorant and illiterate, and prone to exploitation in this ‘unorganised sector’. There is no legal framework to protect them.

The 2012 report ‘Surrogacy Motherhood: Ethical or Commercial’ by the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research (CSR), found that about half of the surrogate mothers surveyed were paid between Rs 300,000 (4,900 dollars) and Rs 400,000 (6,500 dollars). Of those interviewed, 68 in the capital, Delhi, and 78 in the financial capital Mumbai said they were working as domestics earning around Rs 3,000 (50 dollars) a month.

“But often that’s half the story,” CSR director Ranjana Kumari told IPS. “The woman gets a small instalment at conception. If she has an abortion, she doesn’t get anything. In case of unhealthy pregnancies, abortion pills are given by doctors to terminate the pregnancy, and surrogates often think it is a miscarriage. In absence of any regulation, poor women often get exploited.”

“Commissioning parents” – as they are known in the business – pay on average a total of Rs 1.2 million (20,000 dollars) for a surrogate baby (more if twins are born). Much of this money goes to the Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) clinic, agents and lawyers. “Most often the woman gets about half of what is promised,” Kumari says.

Another study last year by SAMA – Resource for Women and Health, a Delhi-based NGO – corroborates Kumari’s observation. “The surrogates were not given information regarding the various procedures or tests conducted in the course of the treatment,” said the report conducted in Delhi and Punjab states.

By way of contracts, the report says, surrogates said that “they had `signed papers’… without any negotiation or discussion…the document, in English in all cases, was not read by the surrogate or her husband; nor was it read out to them and they were told only verbally what it states.”

But ART clinics are now mushrooming. According to CSR, the surrogacy business in India is worth more than 500 million dollars a year.

Unemployment or low-paying jobs and the resulting struggle to run households were cited to SAMA as some of the reasons behind ‘renting the womb’. Women felt that “along with their husbands they bore the responsibility of paying off debts, or buying a house,” SAMA found.

“We are not against surrogacy but against the rampant commercialisation of surrogacy which leaves the woman getting the short shrift,” Kumari told IPS.

She added that though doctors warn against it, mothers who already have had two or three children go for more IVFs than recommended, and this affects their health. “Are they just production machines?”

Activists and health professionals have been demanding regularisation of ART clinics to ensure better monitoring. The first draft of an updated bill was drawn up back in 2008, R.S. Sharma, deputy director of the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), told IPS.

A new Assisted Reproductive Technologies Bill 2010 is under the consideration of the health ministry, he said. The bill has to be approved by various ministries before going to the cabinet.

“The bill will oversee the registration of IVF clinics. Clinics operating as banks (which source surrogates) often lead to vested interests. Now one will have to make a choice between a clinic and a bank,” Sharma told IPS.

Among guidelines to safeguard the mother’s health and stop commercialisation is the requirement that “the surrogate mother has to be between 21-35 years and be a mother already of one. Only two deliveries will be allowed through IVF, and that too at two years’ gap between each.”

ICMR is also preparing a national registry with details of the clinics, Sharma said. He has proposed creation of state boards to better monitor functioning of the clinics.

Kumari told IPS that a new study by her centre in collaboration with the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi is in the offing.

“Next, we will launch advocacy campaigns. We need a proper law to stop exploitation of these women by various sections. Sometimes even the family members are involved, coercing them to conceive for monetary benefit.”

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