With the Union Cabinet clearing the decks for banning commercial surrogacy, many from the industry call it a regressive and insensitive move while some welcome it, saying a complete ban is better than mere regulation.
The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016, was cleared by the Union Cabinet last month. It prohibits commercial surrogacy in India with the only exception for Indian infertile couples married for five years, provided they bring a close relative to be the surrogate mother strictly on an altruistic basis.
The bill also proposes to regulate surrogacy by establishing a National Surrogacy Board at the central level and simlar authorities in states and Union territories.
Surrogacy involves renting a womb and getting pregnant through assisted reproduction technology in which neither of the gametes (egg or sperm) belongs to the woman or her husband. In India, nearly 10,000 surrogacy cycles are done annually and the proposed bill is likely to narrow options for those wanting children. It also shuts out an income-generating opportunity for women who act as surrogate mothers.
There have been incidents of unethical practices, exploitation of surrogate mothers, abandonment of children born and rackets of intermediaries importing human embryos and gametes.
Bijayalaxmi Nanda, who teaches political science and gender in Delhi University's Miranda House, said the issue was very complex and, as a concept, there was no problem with commercial surrogacy, if regulated strictly.
"It's just another kind of bodily work like kidney, blood donation. However, the rules are heavily inclined towards the rich clients and lead to exploitation of the poor surrogate."
Nanda, the author of "Sex-Selective Abortion and the State", told IANS that commercial surrogacy was okay if equality between the clients and the surrogate mothers is guaranteed, ensuring fair conditions and taking care of the short- and long-term health hazards of the surrogates.
But the problem in India is that "the marginalised have no voice even if there are laws to protect their interests".
Nanda said gender equality was also an issue.
"In fact, adoption should be the first choice, overcoming the desire for a child with genetic relationship. This again promotes the patriarchal mindset in society, which the government with surrogacy gives its stamp of approval."
But Rita Bakshi, who runs a fertility centre in Delhi, felt that the amendments to the surrogacy bill were "retrograde and orthodox... completely neglecting and overlooking single parents and married people who suffer from medical problems".
She said the government had "disregarded physically unfit people with severe and chronic illnesses like thalassemia, anemia, tuberculosis" that make unborn babies prone to these diseases.
Sweta Gupta, a senior consultant on fertility solutions, said gestational surrogacy was supported in India where pregnancy results from the transfer of an embryo created by IVF, in a manner so that the resulting child is genetically unrelated to the surrogate but related to intended parents.
Archana Bajaj Dhawan, Gynaecologist and IVF Expert, said the proposed legislation "is expected to ensure effective regulation of surrogacy.
"But prohibiting commercial surrogacy will not be wise as identifying altruistic surrogacy for the needy couples would indeed prove a tough task. Sometimes even close relatives do not come forward as surrogates."
Advocating strong regulation to check unethical practices, she said the "regressive move" of prohibition would restrict the scope and benefits of surrogacy.
Among the most vocal opponents of commercial surrogacy is author, journalist and human rights activist Pinki Virani, whose "Politics of the Womb" details how a section of the medical lobby was involved in making men feel ashamed of their infertility equating it with their virility.
"As a consequence, the largest exploitation that is happening in its name is that of human eggs," she said, adding women produce only one viable egg a month but they are being injected with hormones.
"Girls are being harvested 40 eggs, 50 eggs, and these eggs are being removed and we have no idea where they are going. They are not all going towards baby-making. So, there is egg trafficking.
"There is human trafficking in the form of commercial surrogates, who are also being injected over and over and over again... Is that what anybody in this world wants? Because this is what is being done to women and young girls the world over in the name of an innocent unborn," said Virani.
(Manish Gupta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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