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The Rent A Womb Industry: Flourishing At What Cost?

Posted: July 30, 2015

The Assisted Reproductive Technology Bill meant to protect the rights of surrogate mothers, has no priority in Parliament. This reflects the general apathy to the rights of such women.

The commercial surrogacy industry, informally known as the rent-a-womb industry, is big in India. Estimated at $2.3 billion, India is one of the world’s largest surrogacy markets with approximately 3,000 fertility clinics in India. Lower costs, a lack of regulation as well as access to a large pool of poor women have made the business of womb-renting lucrative for fertility clinics and people looking for surrogates alike. Demand is driven by both domestic and international clients from countries such as United States, Israel and more.

Author Nivedita Menon refers to commercial surrogacy as ‘the separation of key mother functions into three parts: providing genetic material (egg donor); gestating the foetus for nine months (the surrogate or gestational mother); and rearing and bringing up of the child (the social mother)’ in her book, Seeing Like A Feminist.

The industry has grown in leaps and bounds and the laws have not kept up. The surrogacy industry is governed by a set of voluntary guidelines developed by the Indian Council of Medical Research, which are not mandatory and are flouted regularly. The Assisted Reproductive Technology Bill, which outlines provisions for protecting the rights of unborn children as well as the surrogates, is languishing in Parliament since several years.

This lack of regulation has led to all sorts of consequences. Cases include the DNA of the child not matching that of the parents, or where the child has a sexually transmitted disease or parents choosing to take only one child in the case of multiple children. The rights of the children in this industry are often murky and leave them at risk of great harm. This holds true for the surrogates as well, who don’t have much say in the process and are often entirely at the hands of the fertility clinic. Surrogates are typically poor, uneducated and sign contracts that they don’t understand in hopes of making some money. They often live in unsafe and unsanitary living conditions, wait for long hours for routine tests at clinics, and depend on the staff at fertility clinics to help them navigate the process.

…while the surrogacy industry may be touted as a market where willing women can make money based on autonomous decisions about their bodies, this is hardly the case in India.

Clinics routinely implant more embryos in the surrogate’s uterus than is medically safe leading to complications, pay the surrogates less than the amount they charge parents and follow other unscrupulous practices. All of this is to say that while the surrogacy industry may be touted as a market where willing women can make money based on autonomous decisions about their bodies, this is hardly the case in India. Surrogates in India are and will continue to be exploited as the industry grows unregulated.

In 2012, keeping with the trend of homophobia that has reared its ugly head in the law in recent years, the Home Ministry banned the surrogacy for gay couples, leading to a shift of business to other countries. Some clinics started to send their surrogates to Nepal, to avoid losing business. An unfortunate consequence of this was seen in the aftermath of the recent earthquake in Nepal, when babies of Israeli parents were airlifted, while leaving the surrogates behind. This exemplifies how little the lives of surrogates are valued beyond being carriers of babies.

Building and enforcing a robust legal framework will be one step in addressing many of these issues. At the moment though, there is little hope for any movement on the bill driven by a reluctance on the parts of the Indian policymakers.

Medical tourism sign via Shutterstock

I think of myself as a feminist development practitioner with a strong interest in issues

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Vaginal Health & Reproductive Health - योनि का स्वास्थ्य एवं प्रजनन स्वास्थ्य (in Hindi)


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