In October, India issued a ban on foreign couples seeking surrogacy there. Now, a proposed law wants to make the entire industry illegal, even for Indian couples. Surrogates and their advocates say it would be a dangerous mistake.
NEW DELHI —India is one of the few countries where surrogacy is allowed, and in recent years the country has become a popular destination for what some describe as "made-to-order babies."
For foreigners such as Brit David Alice, who is gay, the country represented a chance to fulfill their wish for children. He opted for surrogacy after repeated adoption attempts failed.
"Obviously being in a same-sex relationship, it's incredibly difficult to adopt," he says. "I think if I had been a U.S. citizen, it would have been a lot easier. Surrogacy ended up being the only route I could take."
India has become known as the surrogacy capital of the world, with nearly 3,000 surrogacy homes across the country.
But not anymore.
In late October, the government imposed a ban on foreigners hiring surrogate mothers here. And now a proposed law is seeking to extend the ban to the entire $2 billion annual commercial surrogacy industry, even for infertile Indian couples.
The proposal, whose proponents say that poor and illiterate surrogates are being exploited, has come as a major disappointment for many. For 28-year old Shabnam, who is pregnant with her second surrogate child, it will mean a total loss of livelihood if it passes.
"I came into it because my husband is handicapped and can't work," she says. "I thought I would help others and solve my problems as well. The ban is totally unjustified. After all, we're not doing anything wrong. We are doing a service, and this is now our need. They should not ban it. They should not deprive us of this support."
Bajrang Singh opened a surrogacy home in suburban Delhi just a few years ago. "Our job is to search for surrogates and counsel them," Bajrang explains. "We carry out all the investigations to ensure that they are fit to carry out a pregnancy. The idea basically was to give the surrogates proper nursing care and treatment during the course of pregnancy."
Just who are the victims?
Singh says that as a new entrant into the industry, he will fare alright, but the surrogate mothers will be the worst hit if the outright ban goes through.
"I am more worried about the surrogates because most of them are poor and come from slum areas," he says. "With just one surrogacy, they earn more than what they can earn otherwise in a decade."
Outlawing commercial surrogacy has long been a demand of many women's groups, including the National Commission for Women, whose chair Lalita Kumara Mangalam says surrogacy exploits poverty and violates the dignity of women. Ironically, surrogates say the opposite. Dependent on surrogacy for a living, Shabnam and Singh are against the ban.
"There's no informed consent," sant Mangalam. The only reason they come into it is out of their poverty, so that is the only choice they have if you look at it as the right to choice. As soon as the word commercial comes into the picture, the exploitation of the poor women begins."
Surrogacy clinics or homes are often accused of underpaying the women and treating them as hostages during the nine months of their pregnancy.
In some cases, the commissioning parents have also abandoned babies born with birth defects.
Experts say there are various ethical, social and legal issues involved in surrogacy, but that an outright ban will only exacerbate the problem.
Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, says strict regulations and effective implementation would be a better solution.
"A law that would regulate the whole process, bring about transparency and ensure protection of the rights of everyone involved has been pending for so many years," she says. "The government didn't move on that and now has come up with this ban that's just a knee-jerk reaction. Banning is the worst thing we can do. It has never solved any problem."
She and others in India fear it will only push couples into a surrogacy black market.