“Mai ek maali hun. Mere pet me ek chhota sa paudha hai. Use paani aur khaad dungi. Phir wo fal uske maalik ko de dungi. Mera uspe koi haq nahi hai.” (I am a gardener. I have a sapling inside my stomach. I will water it and add manure. Then, I will give the fruit to its owner. I have no right over it.)
Surrogacy led to a boom in the medical tourism, since the Indian Government legalized commercialization of the process in 2002. It has now become a multi-million dollar industry with over 2000 ART (Assisted Reproductive Technology) clinics in the country. The cheap medical facilities coupled with improved knowledge of reproductive technologies along with the flexible legal environment have led India to become a “Hub of Surrogacy” for the infertile couples worldwide.
But, this industry witnessed a black day in August 2016, when India’s Minister of External Affairs, Ms Sushma Swaraj introduced a new bill; putting a complete ban on the commercial surrogacy (i.e. surrogacy done by women for unknown childless couples in exchange of money) and permits only the altruistic surrogacy (i.e. when the surrogate is not paid for her labour, which may be done in case of a relative woman bearing the child). Since then, I have come across numerous viewpoints, appreciating and criticizing the bill.
Nevertheless, I had the opportunity to meet women who were surrogate mothers back in December 2014, when I went to do a research for my masters’ dissertation on “Issues and concerns of surrogate mothers in Anand, Gujarat”. My primary experience of continuously conversing with surrogates, unmasked countless bitter truths that persist in the surrogacy industry. Their narratives still leave me numb and teary-eyed. I still remember those smiling faces, which were full of mixed emotions trying hard to gulp the reality and their status in the society.
Women being surrogate mothers, is a profession which always functioned in plethora of stigma and discrimination. Having spoken to them directly, I witnessed how these surrogates faced the judgmental eyes of people amidst their families, relatives and community members.They confessed how their profession was seen as sex work, as they were carrying someone else’s child, despite of being married to someone else. “Tumhari maa to dhanda karti hai. Aur admi ko bula kar unke saath soti hai.” ( Your mother does business. She calls men and sleeps with them.)
The reality remained untouched. Poor women who rented their wombs in exchange of money were the most marginalized and exploited in the entire surrogacy arrangement. The medical practitioners themselves confessed to the surrogacy arrangement contract being a flimsy one, bestowing least focus on the woman and her reproductive rights who would bear the child. Surrogates had left behind their families, including their own children to bear children of a couple they have no clue about. For nine long months, they are aground, not allowed to go out. Since the conception of the procedure, surrogate mothers were denied of their reproductive rights- how many embryos should be implanted in their uterus? How many children would they be able to bear, in case two or three eggs get fertilized? Will they be able to even see the face of the child they’ll bear in their womb for nine months? All such questions remained unanswered.
The only thing that these women were there for is MONEY! The compensation given in cash and kind lured these women. Understanding their socio-economic profiles gave a clarity to the fact that they did not belong to poorest of the poor families, instead strived for a better standard of living. All those women were literate, most of them had passed secondary education, but were not fetching this kind of money from their trifling professions. They found surrogacy a rewarding job to earn such big amount of money in just a few months. It was magical for them! When asked about what they will do with this money, they contentedly answered that would contribute in their children’s future, buy a new house or buy an auto rickshaw for their drunkard husbands. “Mai bas yahi chahti hu ki mere husband bahot aage jayen. Baccho ko koi bhi problems na aayen. Mujhse jitna ho payega mai support karungi.” (All that I want is that my husband is very successful in life. My children should also not face problems. I will support them to whatever extent I can.)
The affluent childless couples could get a child in as much money as a new car. “Unka kal banaane ke liye maine apna aaj chhor diya.” (To build their future, I compromised on my present.) The overwhelmed parents would give other materialistic gifts to the surrogate who was like a God for them. Captivated by these, they happily exclaimed how they would get gold, mobile phones, clothes for children and other materialistic gifts from the commissioning parents. But, there were those too, who by virtue of time and distance, had not even met the would-be parents of the child they were bearing since months. “Hum apna pet cheer ke apna jism kapaate hain aur wo theek bartaav bhi nahi kar sakte?” (We cut open our bodies for them and they can’t even behave nicely?)
And all this did not happen to them once. The bill permitted a woman to become a surrogate three times in their lifetime, which encouraged women to come up again and again, as they were merely concerned about the monetary compensation at that time. The pain was felt all over again, the stigma was faced all over again, the emotions and health repercussions were felt all over again. Once! Twice! Thrice! For what? 4 lakh rupees!! “Pichli baar bhi bahot takleef hui thi par mai phir se lene ko tayaar hun; apne bacchon ki shanti ke liye.” (Last time also I faced a lot of problems, but I am ready to do it again for the well being of my children.)
The surrogate child too, needs protection from exploitation and secured rights- both as a foetus and an infant. The unpredicted disputes between the parents and between commissioning parents and surrogate mother can in turn affect the child’s well-being.
Now that the new surrogacy bill has come up, there are several modifications in the existing framework. The new bill bans the commercial surrogacy completely, keeping it legit only to altruistic surrogacy. The stakeholders involved in this arrangement have drastically been circumscribed; making it limited to only Indian nationals, thereby forbidding foreign couples, NRI couples, homosexual couples, single parents, and couples in live-in relationship to undergo surrogacy arrangement (it was made legal for NRI couples and foreign couples in 2002 to boost medical tourism). Only a blood related woman would be eligible to be a surrogate mother and a heterosexual couple married for at least 5 years eligible to be commissioning parents.
With this new framework coming up, I am not really convinced with the endless discriminatory behaviour exhibited towards single parents, homosexual couples and partners in live-in relationships. Yes, adoption is any day the most viable alternative for any childless couple, but showing this alternative to a specific group definitely yields discriminatory behaviour towards them. Why aren’t we then forbidding all couples to undergo surrogacy arrangement? But, Ms Sushma Swaraj claimed it to “not go with ethos of our country” and did away with it.
Nevertheless, despite these points, I personally appreciate the commencement of this bill, as women from poor socio-economic backgrounds will not be treated as mere incubators now. The maternal and child rights will secure reasonable protection against exploitation. Putting down their health and keeping their life at stake, for being surrogates thrice and having two biological children of their own- was devastating and threatening. “Agar operation ke samay kuch hota hai to humari guarantee nahi hai” (There is no guarantee if in case something happens to us during the operation.)
Though the text of the bill is yet to be made public and the implementation of the bill might be an issue in itself; I am curious to know what the bill holds for the rights of the surrogate mother and the child, as they’re the only ones who’re vulnerable to exploitation at all walks of the procedure.
This major step of introducing a new bill to regulate this black market addresses a lot of loopholes that the previous bill had. After seeing such a devastating situation from my own eyes, I can never buy people’s comments of their democratic rights being hampered from this bill, or how the rich can no longer seek such service from poor vulnerable women. When I asked each surrogate I talked to, if they would do this had they been rich, not a single woman stood up to be in favour of being at that place. “Majboori na ho to apna jism kaun kaatega?” (If their is no need, why would anyone cut their body?” How many of us actually can empathize with the pain that a woman goes through in this arrangement? Think!