It is natural for every human being to aspire for a progeny. It is equally natural that some of them cannot have a progeny the natural way. Breakthroughs in medical technology have made conception, assisted pregnancy and childbirth possible.
But lost in this celebration over science’s “conquest” of infertility is a grim story of the physical and psychological trauma that women who opt for Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) go through. The ART process is unpredictable and repetitive and it often hurts a woman’s self-esteem.
I will soon be piloting a Bill in Parliament to regulate the rising commercialisation of surrogacy in India. As a doctor, I find it unbelievable that the “boom” in the ART sector has happened without any regulation. And, here too, most of the media attention on the Assisted Reproductive Technologies (Regulation) Bill has been on surrogacy.
The relationship between the ethical questions raised over laissez faire operations that mark the ART sector in general, and, the surrogacy business in India in particular, converges on a single point — the right of a woman over her body.
Some people try to distract attention by pointing out that this form of “outsourcing” helps poor families but they suppress the fact that most of these women are forced into this trade by their families for money.
There is a giant, oppressive, law-defying, loophole-exploiting system working against women from embryo to grave. Some of these have been exposed and subsequently acknowledged by the government thanks to feminists. Others are so neatly buried under layers of unethical medical practices that they are not so easy to expose.
For instance, many presume that artificial insemination is the easiest form of ART.
The truth is quite different. A woman’s body goes hormonal change as she is prepared for intrauterine insemination or intra-cervical insemination or, less commonly, intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection or in-vitro fertilisation. She is also put through many other risks.
For instance, under the jungle raj that prevails in this trade, the testing of the donor for various diseases is mostly absent. Also, there is wide ignorance of the fact that the chances of conception through artificial insemination are at best 35% and that too for women under 30.
I think it is time women were liberated from this pernicious system. Women should understand that “motherhood” is a composite experience and they can mitigate their suffering by opting for adoption. Society should also accept adoption as one of the noble means of achieving motherhood.
I have known many couples who have chosen the adoption route without even bothering to visit an IVF clinic. Whereas the wait for a child through the assisted process is filled with physical and mental trauma, the journey through the adoption process is more pleasurable despite the paperwork. Why can’t we have a compassionate society that unhesitatingly merges two universal entitlements: The entitlement of a woman to motherhood and that of an orphaned child to a mother?
I have also noticed a tendency among adopting couples to be undiscriminating about the gender of the child. Rarely is there a display of bias towards a male child, perhaps because they realise how valuable a child, regardless of its sex, is for filling the vacuum in their lives. But sadly, apart from a progressive minuscule, most Indians think adoption is fraught with social risks and that motherhood gained through adoption is not the “real thing.”
One of the last frontiers in the struggle for gender equality is over the right of every woman over her body. Every girl child should have the right to choose her own option to motherhood. That cannot be brought about by legislation alone. Laws, after all, are meaningless unless a new humanism precedes them.
Harsh Vardhan is Union minister for health and family welfare
The views expressed by the author are personal