Cradle of the world

Published on Dec 24, 2006 01:40 AM IST

Childless couples around the world make their way to Anand in search of the woman who will bear the babies they cannot, reports Aditya Ghosh.

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None | ByAditya Ghosh, Anand

Chaitan Hatti from Norway is sitting in a small clinic in the village of Anand in Gujarat, interviewing a stranger to decide whether she is the woman who would carry his baby. Hatti cut short his stay in his hometown of Bangalore when a friend told him about Anand’s pool of professional surrogate mothers. A quick Internet search later, he and his wife hot-footed it here in search of the ideal woman to bear the child they could not.

The Hattis spent half a day interviewing a line-up of surrogate mothers at a clinic. They finally selected one — the wife of a sweeper in a local school who worked as a domestic help. A stamp agreement was signed and a financial deal was struck. At the end of nine months, both parties would rejoice in their respective bundles of joy—a baby for the Hattis, a fat bank deposit for the surrogate mother.

The story is oft repeated in Anand. To begin with, women donate their eggs —usually for Rs 5000—and then go on to to renting their wombs. A successful surrogacy could mean anything from Rs 1.5 lakh  to Rs 3 lakhs—many times more than their annual household income. The entire method process is well established by now: the surrogate mother and the couple sign an agreement on stamp paper, whereby the former relinquishes all rights to the child and fixes her remuneration. A bank account is opened in her name in which funds are deposited every quarter for her upkeep and diet. If there is a miscarriage after three months, the cost of treatment is borne by the genetic parents.

Their not-so-little secret

Expectedly, most of these women are unwilling to be named or photographed. Many of them hide the fact from their relatives and relocate, often with their husband and children, to Anand, when the pregnancy begins to show.

The women come from the many villages that fringe Anand, but quite a few land up from other states. Like Pinky Mondol (name changed) who came all the way from Howrah district in West Bengal. She is carrying a baby for a South Korean couple and her delivery is due in February next year. “I need the money because my son has to undergo a heart surgery,” she explained. Her client has generously promised to bear the cost of the surgery, she said.

Pinky lives in Anand in a rented house with her younger son (her elder son who needs the surgery is back home). She came to know about surrogate motherhood from a woman in her neighbourhood in Howrah, who relocated to Anand.

Manjula Chakrangya and her husband Munna cannot even afford a rented house and  have been staying in the hospital for over two months now.  “My husband was an alcoholic and we barely ate two meals a day. Now with this assured income, my husband has quit drinking and is concentrating on his work,” she said. Munna, a carpenter, said that he would now start a business.

Others, like 28-year-old Pushpa Pandya, are not driven by desperation but a desire to improve the family’s quality of life. With her husband Jagdish supporting her—“It was a joint decision”—Pushpa brushed aside her in-laws’ objections and went ahead with surrogate motherhood.

Padma Srimani 35, Jagdish’s sister, also relocated to Anand for want of a better economic status. She hails from Dakor village which is 35 kilometres east of Anand. Now she is in her third month of surrogate pregnancy. “We told our parents we were coming here for better job opportunities,”she confessed. Her husband, a salesman at a local shop, earns only Rs 1,500 a month. “Giving my son a good education was just a dream. Now I will be able to afford it,” she said. Srimani will deliver twins sometime between March and April next year.

Supervision is essential

What women like Pushpa and Padma are gaining is some amount of economic independence. The childless couples paying them are gaining a lot more — a child at a fraction of the cost of renting a womb in developed countries.

A surrogate mother could charge between $10,000 and $20,000 in the US, and the entire procedure, including the lawyer’s fees, could go up to $50,000 or more. Naturally, Anand gets a stream of visitors from the US and Europe, the latest being a West Indian couple based in Europe.

Being close to Mumbai also makes it easier for couples from the city to keep their secret. “We could have done it in Mumbai but we decided to come here to avoid unnecessary gossip,” say Lalit and Anupama Jain (name changed), from suburban Vile Parle in Mumbai. A surrogate mother delivered the couple’s child in Anand last week.

Most of the surrogate pregnancies take place in Dr Nayana Patel’s  Kaival Hospital in Anand. There are so many of them that she says, “I’m now trying to form a housing society for the surrogate mothers under my supervision.”

What impact do these pregnancies, which involve hormone treatments, have on the women’s health? “Every medical procedure has some effect on the body and one must not overdo it. Regular medical supervision and proper follow-up are extremely important,” observed IVF specialist Baidyanath Chakrabarty.

However, IVF specialist Dr Anjali Malpani asserted that the surrogate mother or egg donor will suffer no damage if the procedures are carried out under proper medical supervision.  Doctors also point out that surrogate motherhood should be considered as an option only if a the couple’s medical history necessitates it. Some like IVF specialist Dr Aniruddha Malpani attribute the boom in surrogate motherhood to a legal vacuum as well, with the draft bill on surrogate motherhood scheduled to be tabled before Parliament next year.

Citizenship is also an area of concern for babies born in India to genetic parents who are not Indians. While US laws are easier, UK and some other countries have more stringent regulations about offering citizenship to a newborn. But the women of Anand—and the couples who need them—are clearly not held back by such issues. The queues on both sides are only getting longer.

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