Back in 2006, American poet Maya Angelou wrote, "It is true I was created in you. It is also true that you were created for me." The poem titled 'Mother, A Cradle to Hold Me' went on to become one of the finest poems that described and celebrated motherhood in simple words.
Motherhood is an undefined and unfathomable ocean of emotions that embraces love, care, anger, attention, anxiety and protection. Being a mother is the most important reproductive choice that a woman makes in her life. But, how far are Indian women permitted to exercise their reproductive rights? Who decides what a woman should choose? What makes a woman sell her child for a living after months of pain? How far is it ethical to sell a child for a living?
These questions, including the ones which revolved around surrogacy, popped into my head while researching about bioethics and law last year. The significance of the issue could be gauged from the move to ban commercial surrogacy in India. The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016 was passed by the Lok Sabha last December.
What is Surrogacy?
Surrogacy generally refers to the agreement whereby a woman, the surrogate, bears and delivers a child for the couple who cannot have children.
The rise in infertility across the world due to change in food patterns and spurt in lifestyle diseases, infections and diseases related to reproductive system in both males and females have opened the way to a highly profitable business: infertility clinics and cheap surrogacy.
Over the past two decades, India has evolved as a major hub of reproductive tourism primarily owing to the cheap availability of surrogate mothers. Foreign couples, be it heterosexual or homosexual, found it affordable to have children through surrogacy in India.
Reproductive tourism in India had boomed despite the lack of proper regulation. The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016 has sparked heated debates.
Many critics opine that surrogacy is ethically wrong. But, I wonder, how many of them have been patient enough to look into the reasons why a woman gets ready to be a surrogate. How many of us really know how surrogate mothers are treated during their pregnancy? My quest to know the truth behind the growth of surrogacy in India led me to conduct several surveys and interviews.
Poverty is the sole reason why surrogate mothers are born. A healthy surrogate mother could earn up to 1 to 1.5 million rupees by giving birth to a child. Women living in extreme poverty find it an easy way to raise money to educate their children, build a house, meet the daily expenses etc. Critics should devote time to learn how a mother is able to give away her child to the intended parents despite the bond that the mother and embryo develops during pregnancy. The answer I found is - "Poverty". Most of the surrogate mothers in India are either poor or illiterate who cannot find jobs that could earn at least an income to buy daily meals for a family. For them, the option of surrogacy is a door to gain a proper standard of living.
In rural India, surrogate mothers are looked upon as unchaste or prostitutes. There have been hundreds of incidents in which such mothers were expelled from their families and communities. Convincing spouse about the scope of surrogacy and the medical interventions behind it is yet another difficult task. There was once a case where a foreign couple opted for surrogacy from a rural Indian woman and while the surrogate mother was pregnant, the couple got divorced and the poor mother was left behind with the baby without knowing how to raise him along with her other children! In another case, a woman opted for becoming a surrogate mother multiple times to repay the debts her deceased husband had piled up and soon she became weaker day by day!
Considering the pitfalls due to the non-regulation of the sector, the Parliament of India decided to bring about a proper law to control and regulate surrogacy. The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill was presented in 2016 and after two years of debates and the bill was passed in 2018. When the legal and medical professionals waited to see a proper law in this regard, they were taken aback with its lacunae.
The bill has banned commercial surrogacy and only allows altruistic surrogacy (that is, no financial rewards can be taken by the surrogate mother except the medical expenses!). The bill holds that surrogate mother and couple should be close relatives. Hitting hard on medical tourism, the bill disallows foreign couple from seeking surrogacy in India.
To everyone's surprise, the bill only allows Indian heterosexual couple to opt for surrogacy in case they are infertile. When the Supreme Court has granted gender status and equal fundamental rights to homosexuals and transgenders, how can the Parliament bring a bill that denies the fundamental right of reproductive choice to them? How many heterosexual childless couples can find surrogate mothers within their families, and that too on an altruistic basis? If one is ready, will the stigma around surrogacy let her go forward with her decision? If you think adoption is the way out, why should couples who have a chance of getting genetically related children leave that option and go for adoption?
Live-in relationships have been conferred the status of marriage by the apex court and barring them from opting for surrogacy reflects another side of moral policing.
When the surrogacy industry has grown so much and Government puts a ban on it now, it won't and can't be stopped and it will run illegally. This will give rise to more complications and challenges. Thus, laws should be made to cover the loopholes and lacunae instead of banning the whole process.
When I asked a surrogate mother who preferred to remain anonymous, during my field research about her view on this new bill (she knew it only when I told her though!), she told me, "If the Government is to take away my last chance to earn some money to look after my family and protect my children from starvation, let them give me a proper means to run my household and eradicate the poverty that is already killing us."
The stigma towards surrogacy can only be removed by imparting proper sex and gender education right from the school level and conducting awareness programs about the procedures and medical interventions involved, especially in rural areas.
(The author had attended the 2nd International Conference on 'Bioethics in the New Age of Science' hosted by the University of Szeged in Hungary.)
(The opinions expressed are personal)