Childless couples are turning to India for rent-a-womb services

Krittivas Mukherjee

Krittivas Mukherjee

MUMBAI - Jyoti Dave is pregnant, but when the 30-year-old gives birth next month the baby will not be taken home to bond with Dave's other child. Instead, it will be handed over to a US couple who have been unable to conceive.

For her trouble, the Indian surrogate mother will be paid. She won't say how much, but she says it's money she desperately needs to feed her family after an industrial accident left the family's only breadwinner unable to work.

"My husband lost his limbs working in the factory," Dave says. "We could not manage even one meal a day. That is when I decided to rent out my womb."

Surrogate motherhood is one of the latest in a long list of roles being outsourced to India, where rent-a-womb services are far cheaper than in the West.

"In the US, a childless couple would have to spend anything up to $50000 (about R350000). In India, it's done for between $10000 and $12 000 ," said Gautam Allahbadia, a fertility specialist.

Last year Allahbadia helped a Singaporean couple obtain a child through an Indian surrogate.

Fertility clinics usually charge between R14000 and R21000 for the procedure and the surrogate is paid between R21000 and R43000, a fortune in a country where the yearly per capita income is about R3500.

But the practice is not without its critics in India, with some calling it the "commoditisation of motherhood" and exploitation of the poor by the rich.

Rituja, a surrogate mother in Mumbai who declined to give her full name, said: "It's true: I'm doing this for money. But it's also true that a childless couple is benefiting."

For the surrogates, usually lower-middle-class housewives, money is the primary motivation.

For their clients, it's infertility or, as some claim, educated working women turning to hired wombs to avoid having a pregnancy that could affect their career.

Experts say there is a social dimension to the service offered by surrogate mothers - a pervasive empathy with the childless among the people of a society that views reproduction as a sacred obligation and believes good deeds performed in this life are rewarded in the next.

Deepak Kabir, a Mumbai gynaecologist, said: "Surrogate mothers give their clients' lives new meaning.

"For the clients, the money is just a token gesture that in no way substitutes for their gratitude."

Though there are no official figures, it is estimated that between 100 and 150 babies are born to surrogate mothers every year in India.

The number of failed attempts at surrogate motherhood is likely to be far higher.

Yashodhara Mhatre, a fertility consultant at Mumbai's Centre for Human Reproduction, said that perhaps 500 to 600 surrogate- born babies are born each year throughout the world.

Allahbadia, the fertility specialist, is handling 14 enquiries about surrogate childbirth from prospective parents in India, Britain, the US, Singapore, France, Portugal and Canada.

India has no laws regulating the fertility industry - only nonbinding guidelines issued by the country's medical research council - but specialists say they have set their own criterion: only childless couples who cannot have a successful pregnancy will qualify.

A surrogate must be young, healthy, married and have children of her own for physical and psychological reasons. A mother is less likely to want to keep a surrogate baby if she has her own children.

In India, the egg is usually taken from the client or from a donor to reduce the chances of the surrogate developing an emotional attachment to the baby.

Both parties sign a contract under which the couple pay for the surrogate's services and her medical care, and the surrogate renounces her right to the baby, precluding a custody battle later.

Some think the industry must be more tightly controlled.

CP Puri, the director of the National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health, said: "Every pregnancy and birth is associated with some health risk. We must not promote surrogacy as a trade."

Many Indians became aware of surrogacy in 2004 with the media hype that surrounded a 47-year-old grandmother who delivered twins for her daughter at a clinic in the small town of Anand in western Gujarat state.

Since then Anand, known as the milk capital of India after a hugely successful dairy cooperative there, has emerged as the centre of the surrogate industry.

About 20 women in Anand are signed up as surrogate mothers for couples from abroad.

Some of them are having a second go. At least seven will deliver later this year.

Surrogacy as a temp job might be a lucrative deal, but traditional attitudes to sex and procreation, especially in the countryside, mean that Indian surrogate mothers often feel compelled to invent cover stories.

Most say they are carrying their husband's child and after the baby has been delivered to the intended parents they say the newborn died.

Some mothers go to other towns and return after delivery, telling neighbours they were visiting relatives.

"It's a lie we have to tell, otherwise how can we earn this much money?" said a 29-year-old prospective mother at a Mumbai clinic.

"A lie told for a good cause is not a sin." - Reuters