To say that Mother Nature has worked in wondrous and utterly fascinating ways since the advent of human creation and civilization would really be an understatement, wouldn’t it? Which phenomenon can illustrate the marvels of Mother Nature better than the creation of a human child, starting from a minuscule foetus, originating from the sacred union of the female egg and the male sperm? However, it also goes without saying that a lot of women globally haven’t had the luck and privilege to carry the foetus in her womb till the full term (considering the ones eager to produce biological babies). Some have been plagued by early or late miscarriages, some others have issues with conceiving the baby due to physiological issues, leading to a lifetime of anguish and guilt. Desperate to carry the lineage forward with a progeny of their own flesh and blood, they have frantically sought remedies.
With the incredible advancements of modern science, the concept of surrogate motherhood, since its inception in the 1980’s, has been an accepted alternate method of birthing a child, and many countries, including India too have embraced the practice of surrogate motherhood, albeit with slow and steady strides. Though commercial surrogacy has been effective in India since 2002, there have been numerous challenges on the way as the Indian culture has been notably orthodox and restrictive with regard to would-be parents within the familial structure, and for many years, the societal stigma and taboo associated with in-vitro fertilization (a perfectly scientific process) had deemed the topic sensitive and shrouded in controversy.
How it all began:
According to the history of surrogate motherhood, the first successful artificial insemination of a woman was conducted more than a century ago, in 1884, though there were ethical questions back in those days. However, it was not until 1975 that an ethically justified In-vitro fertilization (IVF) was conducted, followed by the first compensated surrogacy agreement signed in 1980, negotiated between a traditional surrogate and the intended parents. The statistics delving into the facts of this process reveal that the journey of surrogate motherhood started with traditional surrogacy, where the surrogate mother has used her own egg in the child she is carrying for intended parents. Under such circumstances, the traditional surrogate happens to be the biological mother of the offspring. Later, as complications arose with surrogate mothers and their basic rights in respect to the babies (as evident in the famous ‘Baby M’ case in the United States), and also as medical science evolved more, gestational surrogacy emerged as a more viable alternative (in 1985).
In the process of gestational surrogacy, the surrogate mother is just a gestational carrier, or a hired womb, as the embryo is created via IVF, using the eggs and sperm of the intended parents or donors, and is then transferred to the surrogate. In such scenario, there isn’t much of a win-win situation for a surrogate mother, whether it is ‘altruistic surrogacy’, where she carries the child in her womb for no compensation beyond her medical bills, or commercial surrogacy, a paid pregnancy which she agrees to, only if she is known to have dire financial needs. Have we ever stopped to think what an excruciating journey the mother with the child in her womb goes through, with a forced finale when she has to give away the labour of her love to rank strangers, never having the right to visit the baby after the delivery is done?
In spite of its complex nuances, and considering the way surrogacy has thrived, enabling thousands of couples to grow their families, we must also take note that this process of birthing babies can be traced long back in Indian history, and the fact that it has also been referred to in religious scriptures, including the Holy Bible (mentioned in the Book of Genesis, in the story of Sara and Abraham and their servant Hagar who became the mother of Abraham’s child). Since those ancient times, surrogacy has been ebbing and flowing in the human world, no matter what its numerous challenges, and its repercussions have been, both on the intended parents and the surrogate mother.
Surrogacy in India: Facts
In spite of the challenges that surrogacy posed for Indian parents due to its orthodox societal norms, the country had for a long time been the mecca for international would-be parents. They kept flocking to the Indian surrogacy agencies operating as “baby factories”, massively exploiting women from the fringes of the society who chose to become surrogate mothers for some amount of money. Coming from a position of abject poverty, these women would be offered a meagre amount, a fraction of the $4,000-5,000 that the would-be-parents paid to the agencies. Yet, many women lapped up the opportunity as they found their wombs can enable them a better life with money.
The option of commercial surrogacy has seen its fair share of controversies over the years, till it has been completely banned today in India and a few other nations. The question of exploitation loomed large as these women were forced to live in those agencies with abominable living conditions, receiving unethical treatment.
The once-booming industry that India was for surrogacy, it went through a considerable setback in the recent times, following the Indian Surrogacy law passed in December 2018, imposing a ‘blanket ban’ and criminalizing commercial surrogacy, which is also a wake-up call for all surrogacy agencies. Under these circumstances, only altruistic surrogacy has been allowed to an infertile couple married for a minimum of five years, with the surrogate mother being only a close relative, already having a biological child. To many activists, the laws seem too obstructive and archaic as it bans live-in couples, homosexuals and single parents from surrogacy.
Notwithstanding the double standards of the Indian ‘sanskari’ culture emphasizing on the need of a woman to get pregnant with her husband’s child as soon as she is married, with the baggage of bearing a male child, notwithstanding the fact that ‘Niyog Pratha’ (a customary tradition followed as a secret ritual to impregnate women) was prevalent in epics and scriptures like The Mahabharata, India had for years served as a ‘rent-a-womb’ capital of the world. The shocking realities of exploitation of surrogate mothers in one of India’s cheap and barely regulated industries have now been exposed by the media as they call it a ‘reproductive trafficking business’, with dangerous repercussions on uninformed, helpless women forced to exploit their bodies.
Madhavi Menon, director, Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University said in response to this Surrogacy (Prevention) Bill: “Women will be cut off from what could be a guaranteed source of income. Motherhood will be mystified as sacred, and women will be punished for being independent.”
As with many other laws, there will be pros and cons to this regulatory act as well, both for intended parents and for surrogate mothers.
However, as informed, democratic netizens of this world with full reliance on the benefits of medical science, we hope and pray the system will be more inclusive and definitive in future, so that would-be-parents (no matter their gender, sexual orientation or caste, creed, status) can see light at the end of the tunnel.