India's move to ban commercial surrogacy sends industry into panic

On Aug 5, the Lower House of Parliament passed the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill to ban commercial surrogacy, allowing only altruistic surrogacy and, even then, by only a blood relation. PHOTO: ST FILE

Ms Geeta Parmal built a house with the money she was paid for her first surrogate pregnancy, and the 31-year-old plans to pay off a house loan and move her own two children from a government school to a private one with the money she will be paid for the second surrogate child she is currently carrying.

However, Ms Parmal, who comes from a poor family in the western Indian state of Gujarat, is wondering what will happen to the second surrogate child she is carrying, with the government moving ahead to ban commercial surrogacy.

On Aug 5, the Lower House of Parliament passed the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill to ban commercial surrogacy, allowing only altruistic surrogacy and, even then, by only a blood relation. It now needs to be passed by the Upper House.

Ms Parmal, who is four months pregnant and earns 400,000 rupees (S$7,800) as a surrogate, said: "We are labourers earning 120 rupees per day. I could have never thought of buying a house or putting my children in private school.

"I had problems in the house, that's why I came to do this. Nobody forced me, it's my circumstances... I don't know what will happen now."

According to the draft Bill, only a couple married for at least five years and certified as infertile by a government-appointed medical board will be eligible to have a child through surrogacy. The couple can pay the medical and care bills for the surrogate mother, but nothing more.

Single men and women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples will not be eligible for surrogacy, according to the draft Bill.

It also proposes stringent penalties, including a jail term of up to 10 years and fines of up to 1 million rupees, for violators in an industry estimated to be worth US$2 billion (S$2.8 billion).

  • 2,000

    Government estimate of the number of clinics offering surrogacy services.

The draft Bill reads: "Due to lack of legislation to regulate surrogacy, the practice of surrogacy has been misused by the surrogacy clinics, which leads to rampant commercial surrogacy and unethical practices in the said area of surrogacy... In the light of the above, it had become necessary to enact a legislation to regulate surrogacy services in the country."

This is the government's second attempt to pass this legislation following a failed bid in 2016. But this time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party has a majority in the Lower House and has managed to cobble together a majority in the Upper House.

India has been a hub for surrogacy services due to its low medical costs. Over the years, the government has moved to tighten regulation on the back of incidents of unethical practices, exploitation of surrogate mothers - usually poor women who are unaware of their medical rights - and abandonment of children born out of surrogacy. In 2015, it banned surrogacy for foreigners.

Surrogates in India are paid between 60,000 rupees and 500,000 rupees for each pregnancy, while clinics are paid between 1.2 million rupees and 2 million rupees for surrogacy services.

Critics, including fertility doctors, have called the legislation excessive and discriminatory, even as those who oppose surrogacy maintain it is ethically wrong to exploit poor women.

The surrogacy industry is already in panic mode.

Since the draft Bill was introduced last month, doctors have been getting more inquiries from couples who now want to start the process before the legislation kicks in.

At the Akanksha Hospital and Research Institute in Anand, Gujarat, Dr Nayana Patel said inquiries for surrogacy have risen by 40 per cent amid uncertainty among couples and surrogates. "There is a big jump (in inquiries) because people want to start the process before the ban kicks in. Celebrities and those who have money can go abroad. The worst-affected will be middle-class couples," said Dr Patel, whose clinic performs 20 to 25 surrogacy procedures a month.

Many believe a ban would be difficult to enforce in an industry that includes a network of middlemen who source women from different parts of the country and bring them to medical clinics that match them up with parents.

According to government estimates, there are 2,000 clinics offering surrogacy services.

Of late, surrogacy has found greater acceptance in the country. In 2011, Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan and his director wife Kiran Rao announced that their son was born through surrogacy and in-vitro fertilisation. In 2013, another Bollywood superstar, Shah Rukh Khan, and his wife Gauri had their youngest son Abram through surrogacy. And Bollywood director Karan Johar said in 2017 that he had had twin boys through surrogacy.

Still, India joins a long list of countries that have banned commercial surrogacy. In the 1980s, Britain banned commercial surrogacy to prevent exploitation, and Thailand and Cambodia did the same in 2016.

Industry insiders say couples are already looking abroad.

Mr Gaurav Wankhede, founder and director of the Become Parents surrogacy agency, which he has moved out of India, said: "Indians would be looking at countries such as Ukraine, Kenya and, perhaps, Georgia. People who are rich and famous would go to the US... Those who can will go out of country and there is no way you can stop it."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2019, with the headline India's move to ban commercial surrogacy sends industry into panic. Subscribe