India’s growing ‘rent-a-womb’ industry

Lower costs have made the country a top destination for childless couples looking for surrogate mothers.

Mrs Green, a US citizen, rests with her
In recent years, more foreign nationals have hired Indian women to be surrogate mothers [AFP]

Margaret, a social worker from South Australia, discovered in her late 20s that she could not give birth to a child. Given the long waiting list for adoption, she decided at age 39 to use a surrogate mother instead.

Like many Australians, she decided to hire an Indian surrogate mother. Now a mother of twins, Margaret said it was “just miraculous that this was a possibility for us”.

Bobby and Nikki Bains, from Essex in the United Kingdom, had lost all hopes of having a child after five in-vitro fertilisation attempts and spent two years trying to find a suitable surrogate in the UK. Given that advertising for a surrogate is illegal there, they turned towards India and have now had two children with the help of surrogate mothers.

Margaret and the Bains are just some of the many foreign nationals who are increasingly visiting India in search of surrogate wombs. It has become a sunrise industry in India: the country is now home to approximately 1,000 surrogacy centres.

According to a recent article in Mother Jones, surrogacy is now an estimated $2.3bn business. Each year, it is estimated that 25,000 couples visit India for surrogacy services, resulting in more than 2,000 births.

“And the real figures can be much higher,” Eric Blyth, Professor of Social Work, University of Huddersfield, Queensgate, told Al Jazeera, as there can be the bypassing of “official scrutiny… making monitoring and other follow up more difficult”. 

In India, women typically rent their wombs for between $16,000 and $32,000.

In a study recently published in Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, researchers found that there has been “an increasing demand in the number of couples registering children to foreign surrogates” from the UK.

Australia is another major source of demand for Indian surrogate mothers, according to study by Surrogacy Australia. The study found that, in 2012, there were 200 surrogacy births in India to Australian couples, compared with 179 in 2011 and just 86 in 2010.

There have been “different media reports suggesting that around half of overseas commissioning parents using Indian surrogates are from Australia,” according to Dr Marilyn Crawshaw, an independent researcher and practitioner in the UK.

Renting a womb

For Indian surrogate mothers, financial rewards are the biggest draw.

Women typically rent their wombs for between $16,000 and $32,000 – a king’s ransom for the poor. Although India is the world’s ninth-largest economy, poverty remains widespread, with a national annual income averaging $1,527 per person, and 29.8 percent of the population living below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day.

While some surrogate mothers are attracted to the money, others have different motivations, said Dr Shivani Sachdev Gour, the director of Surrogacy Centre India in New Delhi. “Certainly there is a monetary component, but there is also a strong desire to assist another family,” she told Al Jazeera.

Neelima, a 30-year-old mother, decided to rent her womb after her husband’s family took out a 300,000-rupee ($5,450) loan for her sister-in-law’s wedding. Her husband, who works as a security guard, found it difficult to repay with his meagre salary.

“I wanted to help my husband,” said Neelima. After getting her family’s consent, she told Al Jazeera she “gave birth to a baby girl for an Australian couple, and gave happiness to their family and my family”.

Helping one’s own family is a major motivating factor. Anju, 17, is proud of her mother’s decision to become a surrogate. As a result of her mother’s work, Anju now has an opportunity to continue her studies.

“Everybody works for their family and the wellbeing of their children,” she said. “My mother also works, but as a surrogate mother. She not only helps my family, but also helps other families. She brings smiles in the life of others.”

While the idea of lending one’s womb to another woman may be unpalatable to many Indians, times seem to be changing, and more women – both single and married – are choosing to be surrogates. The issue was highlighted recently when Bollywood actor Aamir Khan and his wife Kiran Rao decided to have a child using a surrogate mother. “The majority of clients who come to our service are international, but a proportion is also from India,” Dr Gour said. 

‘Biological exploitation’

But the rising number of foreigners paying Indians to become surrogate mothers has many worried about ethical considerations. Olga van den Akker, a professor of health psychology at Middlesex University’s Hendon campus, is worried about the “increasing exploitation of poor women who undergo pregnancies to earn money”.

And Wesley J Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Centre on Human Exceptionalism, calls surrogacy “biological colonialism”, adding that it was worse than other types of colonialism.

“Earlier, men and women were made bonded labourers but now even wombs are being made to do bonded labour,” said one professor from Chandigarh, who did not want to be named. While surrogacy may help infertile couples to have children, “the way women are dragged into this profession” is exploitative, said the professor.

But Gour disagreed with these views, saying that “contrary to popular belief, poverty is not the most significant factor: those who are most disadvantaged would not pass the screening process for being a surrogate mother”, which requires one to be in good physical and mental health. In addition, women can only be surrogates if they have given birth to fewer than five children, whether their own or someone else’s.

In response to questions about the possible emotionally difficulties that surrogate mothers may have parting with the children they birth, Gour noted that potential surrogate mothers receive counselling that helps them to be mentally prepared. Gour also noted that they must give formal consent that they were not being forced by family members to be surrogates, and that they often meet expectant couples several times.

In Margaret’s case, her children’s surrogate mother, whom she calls “H”, said she was “very happy to see our babies” when she gave birth to twins.

“H” told Margaret that although she knew the babies weren’t hers, they would nevertheless remain in her thoughts. Margaret says she is planning to take her children to visit “H” in India later this year.

“Surrogacy is a wonderful opportunity for families who cannot have children any other way,” Margaret told Al Jazeera. But it is also important to find a service that supports both the surrogate and the potential parents, she said.

“You need to find the right person to be your surrogate. This is not a role for everyone.”

Note: The names of mothers and surrogate mothers in this piece have been changed to protect their identity.

Source: Al Jazeera