The Surrogacy Bill (2019) was criticised for many reasons, such as excluding single people, those in non-heterosexual relationships, widowers and divorcees. After recommendations made by a Rajya Sabha Select Committee, widowers and divorcee women were included in the Bill's ambit — a slight improvement in the issue.
However, the Bill will still result in disastrous consequences for those at the giving end. One of the chief criticisms of the Bill was that it would put an end to commercial surrogacy, allowing only the altruistic kind to continue, ignoring the possible outcome that female family members could be coerced into having relatives' children and be exploited in the process. It also took away the protections that surrogates previously enjoyed.
How would commercial surrogates, who put their lives on hold for nearly two years to carry someone else's baby, be compensated now?
It ignored the ground reality that many surrogates are economically underprivileged, and that surrogacy is a means for them to earn money and support their families.
Stories from the Akansha Hospital and Research Institute in Gujarat's Anand, one of the biggest clinics of its kind in Asia (Dr Nayana Patel, the medical director, is credited with having conducted the first surrogacy in the continent) illustrate how surrogacy can shape women's lives.
Surrogate mothers at this hospital live in a hostel-like setup. At the time of documentation, there were approximately 100 women from various parts of Gujarat living here.
Dr Patel says that during the first weeks of the nation-wide lockdown to curb COVID-19, intended parents couldn't come to the hospital in time, especially those who reside outside of India. Straying from protocol, they had to keep a few babies for an extended period of up to 45 days, and extra nursing staff was put in place to take care of them. With subsequent eases in the lockdown, this was no longer a requisite.
Primarily home-makers or migrant workers, they earn nearly Rs 5-6 lakhs per annum for their services — nearly 10 times as much as they would be paid as labourers.
Meena's husband died of a heart attack two years ago. She owns a small piece of land, but it is not enough to afford housing and food for her and her two children, along with their education. After leaving her children in her mother's care, Meena became a surrogate and began living at the clinic, to earn approximately Rs 4.5 lakhs. Apart from this fee, she was paid Rs 4,000 per month to ensue her dependents were taken care of.
Women queue up for evening tea and a snack.
They were provided with lodging and food, and housed in well-equipped rooms. A trust founded by Dr Patel provided them with other health benefits such as free check-ups and discounted treatment, for them and their dependents.
They are given three meals, as well as snacks and fruit to ensure the surrogate and child receive proper nutrition. They are not expected to cook, clean or do their laundry; these chores are undertaken by hospital staff.
Bharthi Suresh is from a village near Anand. She learnt about surrogacy as a profession from her sister-in-law, who has been a surrogate in the past. She has two children of her own, and hopes to use the money earned from the surrogacy to build a house, as well as invest in her children's future. "My husband is an auto-rickshaw driver. We wouldn't have been able to earn this much money in one lifetime," she said.
There are check-ups twice or thrice a day to ensure that the baby and surrogate mother are both healthy. The hospital covers the cost of medicines and the delivery, in addition to paying for the women's health insurance for three years.
Suhaana stayed with her mother Afsaana for a few days.
Children are allowed to visit their mothers at the clinic for a certain period of time. Surrogates are also allowed to visit their families after the fourth month of their pregnancies, for up to 10 days.
Mana Ishup lives in Nadiad and has been a surrogate twice — once for a Canadian couple in 2006, and American NRIs in 2008. She used to live in a thatched-roof house by the roadside and could barely afford to feed her children, which is why she decided to turn to surrogacy.
Now she works in the house keeping department of the clinic. "I see no harm in giving a child to childless parents, and in return, we get to have a life of dignity," she said.
Geeta Himmatwarkar is a second-time surrogate. She first came to the clinic in 2013 and used the fee she was paid to build a two-story house. However, the money fell short and she found herself in debt again. After discussing the matter with her family and husband, she decided to be a surrogate for a second time.
Geeta regularly interacts with the intended parents, who live in Australia and work in the corporate sector. She says they ensure that she is healthy and happy, as well as keep regular checks on the baby's activities and movements.
Some intended parents maintain long-lasting relationships with surrogate mothers, though they aren't obliged to by their contracts.
Afsaana, who is seven-months pregnant, dresses up for her baby shower. Women are usually counselled from the very beginning to not be emotionally attached to the child. Despite this, many of them follow all the rituals an expectant mother would, including having a baby shower.
All photographs by Deepti Asthana