India has been the centre of global attention after a home ministry visa rule prohibiting single and gay foreigners from entering the country to commission surrogate mothers became public. The rule was notified since India does not have any legally-enforceable provision to regulate surrogacy. Dr RS Sharma, deputy director general (senior grade) and member secretary, Drafting Committee, ART (Regulation) Bill, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) spoke with Aloke Tikku on a wide range of issues, including the steps taken by the council to finalise the draft Bill to regulate surrogacy. Excerpts:
The ICMR seems to have been working on the assisted reproductive technologies (regulation) Bill for far too long, some say a decade. Why?
That isn't true. It was in 2000 that the then ICMR director-general decided that we should have a standard for IVF (in-vitro fertilization) clinics in the form of national guidelines. A committee of experts developed the first draft of national guidelines in 2002 which was extensively discussed and debated. This document was published as national guidelines for accreditation, supervision and regulation of ART clinics in India in 2005 and circulated to all the states with a request to follow these guidelines in their respective states.
But the health ministry concluded sometime in 2006 that the implementation feedback from the states was not positive and decided to develop a new law in this area.
Since drafting a law was a new area for this organisation, we constituted a group of experts who prepared the first draft in 2008, another in 2009 and the final draft towards the end of 2010. This draft Bill is under evaluation and examination by the ministry of law and justice currently.
What kind of a timeline do you have for the draft legislation to be introduced in Parliament?
I cannot respond to this question. We are doing our job and we would like this as early as possible.
How would the ART law help improve the situation?
Once the law comes, I believe the quality of services would improve drastically. Whatever we are hearing - that there is some violation of ethical and medical norms - it would stop. Today, there is no provision of penalty or punishment for unethical practices.
Is there an official estimate about the number of ART clinics or the size of the industry?
There are no firm numbers. We are in the process of developing a central database on the directions of the health ministry to determine the number and nature of services that such clinics provide.
We estimated about 200 clinics in 2002. Today, we have identified over 1100 IVF clinics from public sources. Of them, 600 clinics have confirmed they are either working as IVF clinic or as ART bank. This number is increasing every day.
There is a view in, and outside the home ministry that allowing gays and single foreigners to commission surrogacy could transform India into a hub of surrogacy. This section believes this may not be desirable. What is ICMR's perspective?
I don't think we will make India a hub of surrogacy. There is provision for commercial surrogacy in the draft bill but our bill does not permit commercialisation of surrogacy. There is a line. Beyond this, you cannot go.
My view is that people are coming to this country because quality of services provided in the country is quite good and few clinics are very good, it is quite economic as compared to the west. India, after all, is pioneer in IVF but unfortunately, we lost out. The second test-tube baby in the world was born in India, just about 70 days after the first. And the technology used for this by Late Dr Subhas Mukherjee was much more advanced.
We had the technology but because of our social and cultural belief, we could not pursue this science.
But today, we have world class doctors and scientists so foreigners are coming. Services are very good, they are economical. Then how you can stop them. That is our point.