Does a surrogate mother who is carrying a baby for someone else cease to be a pregnant woman because the baby is not genetically her own?
Do the officials who raid a clinic, which they think has flouted rules, have a right to call her pregnancy “illegal” when there is no law passed which says so?
Does anybody care about what happens to the unborn baby in the surrogate’s womb if she is pushed around, threatened and made to go without food for hours?
Why is maternal health not a concern in such cases? If she aborts because of ill treatment and stress, who is to blame?
All these questions were raised in June 2017 when Health and Income Tax officials in Hyderabad raided a number of upmarket fertility clinics, acting on tip offs that they did not have proper papers. In one clinic in Banjara Hills in Hyderabad, according to media reports, they found 45 surrogates housed in two top floors of the clinic. In another on the outskirts of the city, they found 50 pregnant women. Some reports said they were “holed up”. Others said they were “illegally confined”. Some papers reported that the “rescued” women were being transferred to government hospitals. Others said that the babies would be sent to children’s homes and put up for adoption.
The intending parents whose babies were growing in the stomachs of the surrogates rushed to find out what was happening. The surrogates, many of whom didn’t even know what was going on, were confused and panic stricken. But the most confused of them all were the police and health officials who conducted the raids. They were supposed to be raiding these clinics to find out if they were flouting the law — not to “rescue” surrogates. Now, where were they going to house these “rescued” pregnant women?
Meanwhile, the media having got wind of the raids started making salacious speculations. A doctor connected to one of the clinics speaking on condition of anonymity said, let alone the policemen, even the health officials did not understand what exactly surrogacy was. They were asking him if these women had to sleep with the intending father. Some reports said that the intending parents were all single foreigners and they had fled when they heard of the raids as it was now illegal for foreigners to hire local surrogates. Immediately the intending parents — who were all Indian married couples — showed up and produced their papers.
The surrogates were also treated disrespectfully. Some TV channels barged in, took their pictures and aired them without their consent. Some of the women who had not shared the full details of their occupation with their minor school-going children were put in a terrible situation as their children were harassed in school. The way in which they were grilled was also very stressful.
The surrogates, who came from different parts of the country, said that they were fully aware of what they were doing and had not been coerced. They were getting a sustenance wage of Rs 10,000 a month plus food, lodging and medical care and they would be paid Rs 3.5 lakhs for carrying and delivering the baby. However, the raiding officials kept coming back to grill them further even though they were not guilty of any offence.
This whole episode brought to the forefront once more the urgent need to have a proper regulatory body which will address the issue of surrogacy properly and openly so that the authorities involved can act in an informed manner. The controversial Bill which was scheduled to be tabled before the House only sought to impose a blanket ban on surrogacy without taking into consideration any of the human aspects involved. Most importantly most officials who conduct such raids seem to know nothing about the mechanics of surrogacy or its legal standing. They do not know that there is no law forbidding surrogacy and that the proposed Bill to ban commercial surrogacy is yet to be discussed and tabled.
Of course, everything is not hunky dory. Most of the surrogates may come of their own accord and free will because they desperately need the money. They may also sign the contracts of their own free will, but they may also do so without understanding either the language or implications of the contract. So in such cases, informed consent goes for a toss. In many of the smaller clinics, even the contract is an eye-wash. The brokers who bring the surrogates can pocket chunks of their payment.
According to the existing guidelines, IVF and ART Clinics are not authorised to either recruit or house surrogates. A separate ART Bank is to be set up which will take care of screening and identifying egg donors and surrogates and ensuring they have proper contracts, medical care etc. These ART Banks can also in the process provide housing for the surrogates during the term of their pregnancy.
The lodging takes care of quite a few problems for the surrogates as well as the intending parents. Many of the women welcome the space provided as they cannot function in the cramped circumstances in which they live. Also since becoming a surrogate is not yet socially acceptable, they want to hide their occupation from their other children and nosey neighbours and relatives. Many women tell their extended families and neighbours that they have taken up live-in jobs. As for the intending parents, they feel comfortable that the surrogate is housed in hygienic surroundings and is given nutritious food and medical care. Since the surrogate gets her full payment only after the baby is delivered, there is no question of her running away halfway through.
So, is there be an element of human trafficking in all this? Of course there is. Just like illiterate women from Tamil Nadu can be picked up by agents and sent off to some Gulf country to work as domestic servants, so too can women from impoverished pockets of the Northeast be lured into becoming surrogates. They may not know the language or be familiar with the city to which they have been brought. Often they do not know the terms of the contract or how much money is owed to them. And most importantly, they are unaware or unmindful of the risks involved. They come because the money offered is better than what they can ever hope to get otherwise. And they stay because once they are pregnant they cannot leave till they have delivered the baby or babies as the case may be.
They might have been lured or coerced into this job, but the point here is that once the process has been started, the focus has to be on the lives of the surrogates and the babies they carry. A surrogacy cannot just be terminated by the whims and fancies of a health inspector or any other official. The surrogate has as much right to be treated with care as any other pregnant woman who is carrying a life within her. Just like any other working woman, she too is entitled to a non-hostile working environment and the right to get redressal if she is cheated, harassed or subjected to violence in any form. As for the babies…they have every right to be protected by the society to which they belong.
The Surrogacy Bill can play an important part by ensuring there is a proper process in place instead of seeking to impose a total ban. Commercial surrogacy will become an underground business if the ban is imposed, further putting at risk the lives of the surrogates and the babies they carry.
The most pragmatic approach would be to treat commercial surrogacy as a job which women are voluntarily taking up. The regulatory authority would have to make sure that there are screening and counselling centers which can explain the health implications as well as the terms of the contract to the surrogates in a language which they understand. Standard enforceable contracts have to be made mandatory. Surrogate homes have to be registered and open to health inspections. The women should have proper papers registering them as surrogates.
The saddest part of the story is that raiding officials harassed pregnant women who were not guilty of breaking any law. If they lost the babies, not only would they have lost the lives which they had harboured so carefully for so many months, they would also have lost the money they desperately needed.
Updated Date: Jul 16, 2017 12:29 PM