The word “surrogate” comes from the Latin word “surrogatus” meaning substitute. A surrogate mother therefore, is one who chooses to carry a baby in her womb for another woman. With fast paced lifestyles, rise in impotency, and greater number of homosexual marriages, surrogacy is becoming a popular trend. Surrogacy is of two kinds- altruistic surrogacy, wherein a woman decides to be surrogate without any monetary compensation and commercial surrogacy, wherein the surrogate mother has to be paid in return for the deed. Commercial Surrogacy has come under a lot of scrutiny for both moral and legal complications. It is, in fact, illegal in most parts of the world.
Surprisingly, for a country which is conservative and wary of change of any kind, India was fast in becoming the only country in the world to legalise commercial surrogacy. Since the birth of her first IVF baby, Durga, on October 3rd, 1978, India has seen rapid progress in the field of Assisted Reproductive Technology, also known as the ART. Of course, the idea of surrogacy is not new to Indians. The story of how Krishna’s, brother Balaram was taken from Devaki’s womb, and planted in Rohini’s is one we have heard at our grandmother’s knees. But what accounts for this sudden boom in the baby industry in India in recent years?
There could be three reasons chiefly contributing to this development- the foremost being the ease of procedure. In the year 2008, following the much controversial case of the infant Manji, the Supreme Court declared commercial surrogacy to be legal in India. This assured the couples opting for surrogacy a lot less legal hassle and a lot more convenience. The draft of the ART Bill recognises surrogacy agreements under the Indian Contract Act, 1872 and also provides for single persons who wish to be parents. The second factor is the economic practicality. According to the 228th report on Need for Legislation to Regulate ART, the usual fee for surrogacy in India is around $25,000 to $30,000, that is, nearly one-third of that in developed countries like the United States of America! The third cause is of course, the most evident one- the devastating poverty. India never falls short of people who need money and therefore, never falls short of voluntary surrogates.
The reaction of Indians to this trade is very varied. While a part of the society shakes their head and frowns at the idea of commodifying a child, another section celebrates the approach as “pro-choice”. As a woman, and as a human being who empathises with the condition of the destitute, I cannot help but take a more neutral stand on the situation. Women who opt for commercial surrogacy as surrogates are mostly those who cannot afford morality. At the same time, the choice they are making is one between starvation, prostitution and commercialisation of their wombs. In a sense it’s almost as though the moneyed classes are exploiting and taking advantage of their penury. The surrogate mother in India is in no way receiving the same amount that she would get in the US. Nonetheless, she gets for her nine months of labour (no pun intended) what she would have otherwise had to struggle for, for at least fifteen years of her life. With this money she can finally afford the luxuries of having a roof over her head, having three square meals a day, educating her children or even perhaps be able to set up a small business of her own.
All said and done, the surrogate mothers do seem to be getting the worse part of the deal. For instance, the surrogate mother is required to relinquish all rights on the child at the time of birth. Although, surrogates are selected amongst women who have already had children so that they are aware of the physical, mental and emotional intensity of pregnancy, this seems too harsh a sentence on a woman who carried a child for nine months even if it wasn’t genetically hers. There is always the unavoidable post pregnancy risks-post partum depression, physical discomforts or even death at the time of childbirth. After all, though they are being treated under the best possible care, we mustn’t forget that they are mostly women from impoverished backgrounds suffering from malnutrition. By contract, the commissioning couple is to cover the life insurance of the surrogate, but that in no way compensates the loss faced by the surrogate’s family. Again, by terms of contract, the commissioning couple is to also deposit a sum of money in case of death of one or both genetic parent or divorce and subsequent unwillingness to keep the child. But should this happen, the already poverty ridden family will have to take up responsibility of yet another child.
It is impossible therefore to take either condemn or applaud the business of surrogacy in India. On the surface, the genetic parents get a baby, the baby gets a good home and the surrogate mother gets a better life for herself and her family. But there are perhaps deeper layers wherein the genetic parents maybe cheated of money and the surrogates maybe cheated of dignity. It is thus necessary that the law keep up with the times and ensure benefit for all parties involved.