For thousands of childless couples the world over, India has been the go-to destination to fulfill their dreams of becoming parents, thanks to its well-trained doctors, well-appointed fertility clinics and vast numbers of poor women willing to serve as surrogate mothers.
The Indian government recently banned surrogate services for foreigners and ordered fertility clinics to stop the practice of hiring Indian women to bear children for them. It’s said to be intended to protect the women from exploitation, though some who have worked as surrogates say the ban actually hurts them.
“Becoming a surrogate mother is our one chance to build a house, or get a new roof. We earn more from one surrogacy than from 10 years of working as domestic help,” said Tina Rajesh Chavan, speaking by telephone from Anand, a major hub of fertility clinics, in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
India was among the few countries in the world that allowed surrogacy — where a woman could be hired to carry the child of a couple through a process of in-vitro fertilization and embryo transfer.
India’s home ministry has ordered Indian embassies abroad not to grant visas to couples visiting the country for surrogacy, or “reproductive tourism,” as the practice has come to be known.
Though laws governing surrogacy have yet to be passed, the government outlined its position in an affidavit placed before the Supreme Court on Oct. 28. It said India “does not support commercial surrogacy and the scope of surrogacy is limited to Indian married infertile couples only, and not to foreigners.”
A government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the tightening of rules concerning surrogacy was to protect poor women from being exploited in the absence of legal safeguards.
Chavan, who served as a surrogate mother for two foreign couples, said her earnings through the two surrogate pregnancies ensured that her three children were able to complete their high school educations. “Were it not for the surrogacy money, I would have had to pull them out of school,” the 35-year-old mother said.
She currently works as a nanny helping parents look after their newborn surrogate babies during the time they are waiting to obtain visas for the infants.
“This ban does not help anyone. It has closed the door for poor people like us to earn a little money,” Chavan said.
She said she made 500,000 rupees ($7,700) for each surrogacy. That’s typical for Gujarat, where the industry is most organized, but women in other states may be paid as little as 150,000 rupees ($2,300).
Some women’s rights activists say India’s burgeoning surrogacy business should be regulated, not outlawed. Banning it, they say, will only drive it underground.
“In the last decade, fertility clinics that carry out surrogacy have come up everywhere — in the major metros, as well as in small towns. And with it, there is a growing tribe of agents — men who procure poor women to serve as surrogates,” said Manasi Mishra, a New Delhi-based researcher and author of two government-funded reports on surrogacy in India.
“These men are not going to give up their professional business. The whole practice will go underground, and it will be very hard to check the exploitation of the women hired as surrogates,” Mishra said.
Since India legalized commercial surrogacy in 2001, thousands of clinics have opened across the country, making it a $1 billion to $2.3 billion business annually.
The clinics have attracted couples from Britain, the United States, Australia, South Africa and Japan. A surrogate pregnancy costs around $20,000 to $35,000 in India, compared to around $150,000 in the United States.
Activists in India say while the industry has proliferated, a lack of safeguards has led to rampant exploitation of thousands of poor, illiterate women by touts, agents, unscrupulous doctors and the owners of fertility clinics.
“Most often, the woman doesn’t even know what she is signing, except that her womb will be used to carry a baby,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research.