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46Saina Baby boon: Saina was born with the help of a surrogate mother in Anand, Gujarat | Janak Patel

Surrogates and parents want the government to rethink the surrogacy bill

Little Saina tosses her legs and hands in a cradle at a hospital in Anand, Gujarat. The infant, less than a month old, is just like any other baby. To her parents, however, she is more than a bundle of joy. She was born through a surrogate mother. Bharti and Satyajit Dali, rom Alibaug, Maharashtra lost their only daughter, 18-yr-old Saina, in a hit and run case in Pune in April 2015.

The devastated couple went into depression. A meeting with Dr Nayana Patel of Akanksha Hospital and Research Institute in Anand, a veteran of surrogacy cases, changed their lives. She helped them find a surrogate and they welcomed the baby into their loves.“We have got back our daughter,” Bharti says, as she gets emotional.

In Ahmedabad, Sharad Bhatt and his wife Sheetal are enjoying the joys of parenthood after 19 years of marriage. Now parents of twins, they had approached Dr Himanshu and Dr Falguni Bavishi of Ahmedabad to find a surrogate. In Anand, 27-year-old Yasmin Sheikh is seven-months pregnant and though it is not her child, her happiness speaks volumes.

If the law makers of the country have their way, commercial surrogacy in India will be a thing of the past and such happy stories could soon be lost. The Union cabinet has cleared a bill to ban commercial surrogacy in India. Even for married Indian couples, it allows altruistic surrogacy with several conditions attached. The bill is likely to be presented in the next session of the Parliament.

Union Minister Sushma Swaraj, who headed the group of ministers who deliberated on the issue, said what was once a need is now a fashion. Celebrities with two children have a third through surrogacy. Wives don’t want to go through childbirth, so they rent wombs, she added.

Sources said that the government seems to have heavily relied on some reports indicating exploitation of surrogates.

The experience of doctors, biological parents and surrogates, however, seem to tell a different story. “Had I been exploited, do you think I would have come second time?” asks Sheikh. Three years ago when Sheikh and her husband were struggling to make ends meet, she became a surrogate for the first time. She earned Rs 4.34 lakh. Of this she used Rs 3 lakh to clear debts. “I delivered twins and the biological mother cried on my shoulders. She was fed up of being labeled as banjh (infertile),” says Sheikh. For her second surrogacy, she will get Rs 4 lakh. This is in addition to Rs 4,000 she gets monthly from the biological parents during her pregnancy term. She plans to use the money to buy a house.

The bill in the present form, according to Patel, is bizarre. “India is a free democratic country. Who are we to say what to do and what not to do,” Patel asks. Anand, the milk capital of India, is also the surrogacy capital of India thanks to people like Patel, who has handled about 1,400 surrogacy cases in the last 11 years. The Union cabinet's move to clear the bill has come as a shock. Says Tina Patel, a surrogate in staying in eastern Ahmedabad: “Commercial surrogacy should continue. What is wrong in it? There are couples who long for children and the ones who need money become surrogates”.

Tina had become a surrogate mother about six years ago so that she could get her daughters married and educate her son. Now she refers potential egg donors and surrogates to a couple of clinics and hospitals in Ahmedabad.

Tina claims she gets Rs 30,000 when she refers a woman for surrogacy and around Rs 3,000 for referring an egg donor. She has set up an agency of sorts, though it is unregistered. In fact, such agencies have started mushrooming across the country in tune with the increasing demand of surrogacy.

Though the bill keeps open the option of altruistic surrogacy where the surrogate does not get any financial gain, experts said it is not a popular option in India. According to Dr Himanshu, altruistic surrogacy is impossible in the country and would lead to underground trade. The bill, he says, is regressive and taken us 100 years behind.

Dr Priya Selvaraj of GG Hospitals in Chennai opines that the bill has two sides to it. Her mother Dr Kamla had coordinated the first case of reported altruistic surrogacy in the country in Chennai in 1994. There should be strict rules and regulations for monitoring both public and private sectors, says Priya. Why you want an umbrella ban, she asks, adding that experts from the medical field should be involved during framing laws.

Though there are no records, the numbers of altruistic surrogacy cases are lesser than commercial surrogacy. When Smitha S., a software engineer in Bengaluru, had a miscarriage and her marriage was on the rocks, no family member volunteered to be a surrogate for her. Now, she is searching for a surrogate at Patel's hospital. Smitha says banning commercial surrogacy would be a loss to infertile couples. “This is not human trafficking.”

Ahmedabad-based gynecologist Dr Darshna Thakker said: “By banning commercial surrogacy, the society would be at loss. Doctors will also lose but it would be a small thing. The families will have to deal the bigger loss of not having a child.”

About the larger issue, Dr. Thakker says there is a need for change in mindsets to understand the urge of a single woman to rear a child and also look into the conflicts which might probably arise when the child grows up.

Says Meenakshi Joshi, an Ahmedabad-based women’s rights activist, “The bill should not be passed in the present form. There should have been deliberations and public hearings. Seeking objections by putting details on the website does not work. This issue is sensitive and complex.”

Priya fears that bringing in an umbrella ban could lead to open illegal channels and rackets in the fertility industry. “To put an end to this, you need rules and regulations, you need state and national chapters,” she says. Surrogacy, according to her, is a larger issue involving unemployment, illiteracy and gender issue. Trupti Rajput, who work’s as administrator for surrogates at Dr. Patel’s Hospital, strongly feels that it is wrong to ban commercial surrogacy. Herself a surrogate mother, Rajput feels that in the times altruistic surrogacy is almost next to impossible. She doubts as to in Indian traditions, how many would be comfortable with altruistic surrogacy and intra-personal relations resulting out of it.

Dr Aniruddha Malpani, a leading fertility expert from Mumbai, has blogged that the actions of few bad doctors has attracted so much bad press that the good work done by doctors gets completely overshadowed.

He points out that the draft bill, which was on the ICMR website for 10 years, was crafted and fine-tuned after inviting public debate and inputs. This draft clearly allows commercial surrogacy. Malpani asks as to why the government has taken a complete u-turn in the last few months and adds that there is a complete lack of transparency that upsets everyone.

At Patel’s hospital, there are currently 50 pregnant surrogates, who if the bill is passed in Parliament, could be the last batch of women renting out their wombs. Names of some biological parents and surrogates have been changed to protect their identity.

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