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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Outsourcing mummydom

While Shah Rukh Khan and Gauri's decision to have a third child will invariably boost surrogacy among Indian couples, it will, hopefully, also draw attention to the need for stricter legislation to prevent the exploitation of poor women in the rent-a-womb industry 


Our enduring interest in Shah Rukh Khan has to do with the idea that he is Every Indian Man: he’s been married to the same woman for decades, is passionate about cricket, is borderline religious, is obsessed with his children, and isn’t averse to swearing when he loses his temper. So when he and his wife, Gauri, decide to have a third biological child through a surrogate mother, it inevitably attracts attention. BMC health department troopers stormed his Bandra home after NGOs condemned him for engineering the creation of a male foetus – an unfounded rumour it turns out; obscure religious bodies issued fatwas and fertility clinics reported a spike in calls asking about the procedure. All jolly good.

Surrogacy is a miraculous way for those who cannot conceive to have a biological child. Widespread poverty, the near non-existent surrogacy laws (The Assisted Reproductive Technology (2010) Bill that aims to regulate the fertility industry has not yet been approved by parliament), high success rates achieved by implanting surrogate mothers with as many as five embryos at a time, and the relatively low costs of the procedure here compared to the West (where it could cost about $50,000) has made India the Mecca of the infertile medical tourist. Reports suggest the Indian rent-a-womb industry is now worth more than Rs 25,000 crore.

What of Indian couples who are infertile? The WHO estimates the overall prevalence of primary infertility in India is between 3.9 and 16.8 percent. Within our (selectively) pronatal culture, infertile couples have to deal with feelings of social inadequacy and deep unhappiness. Indeed, if the procedure was cheaper, more economically disadvantaged couples, both rural and urban, might opt for it.

Given all this, the sight of two individuals in early middle age who have ‘had their quota’ opting for another baby without the attendant discomfort of actually going through the pregnancy themselves seems to reduce the seriousness of the whole process of procreation to that of a fashion choice. Still, this could be the beginning of a trend. It's quite likely that every other sufficiently moneyed Indian couple - you don't have to earn like SRK to afford a surrogate, though you should definitely make your millions by the time the newest addition gets to college - will now seek to banish their midlife crisis by opting for yet another baby, neatly outsourced this time. Procreation is addictive and the success of the national family planning programme has meant that fewer people (except for desperately poor families where working children are contributing members) have more than two children. In such a scenario, baby hunger often does strike around the time the younger child enters middle school. Until now, most of us dealt with it by adopting a pet or enrolling for, say, pottery lessons. Then, along come Shahrukh and Gauri to show us we can relive the magic of the early days. Bye, bye, rediscovery of the 40+ self. Hello, era of soiled nappies... Act 2.

And what about the surrogate mother? In SRK’s case, reports suggest she is a close relative and therefore, not someone who is in it for monetary reasons. But this is unusual. Most Indian surrogate mothers rent out their wombs often at risk to themselves for as little as Rs 4 lakh because they want to ensure a better future for their own kids. Let’s be honest: Indian society is extremely unequal and commercial surrogacy -- legal in India since 2002 – is a new, quite ghastly way of exploiting the bodies of poor women.

“There are so many women who don’t want to see their own child dying... out of ... bad health, or not getting educated, not getting two meals a day. So that’s why so many women are available,” said Ranjana Kumari of the Centre for Social Research on the American channel CBS News in April this year. 

Ranjana Kumari is right. In the absence of strict legislation, all sorts of complications and attendant ethical dilemmas look set to emerge: What of abusive families that might force a woman to repeatedly offer her womb for hire? What about the Home Ministry circular that seeks to prevent non-Indian gay couples and unmarried heterosexuals from opting for surrogates? What of cases like the convicted Isreali paedophile who acquired a 4-year-old child from her surrogate mother?

But why pick on foreigners? Indeed, within the Indian context, the dystopian future looks increasingly like the feudal past when the women of wealthy families, handed over their babies at birth to wet nurses who breastfed them alongside their own. But while wet nurses often had a close bond with the children they fed, a commercial surrogate mother is merely a temporary carrier, useful luggage on a conveyor belt, and therefore apt to be treated as almost subhuman, an object.

 A Birkin bag. And not even as expensive.

Shah Rukh Khan and Gauri's decision to have a third child will boost surrogacy among well-to-do Indian couples and perhaps lead to something of a baby boom among the generation that had their first kids back in the late 1990s. It will, hopefully, also draw attention to the need for stricter pro-surrogate mother legislation to prevent the exploitation of impoverished women in India's increasingly profitable rent-a-womb industry. 

Pic courtesy