Why you should care

Because parenthood and childbirth might stand to be redefined.

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It was a nasty situation: An Australian couple abandoned a baby they had ordered up. They’d sponsored an Indian surrogate, who delivered twins. But they took only the girl, ditching the boy. It’s still being sorted out in the Australian courts. But in India, the worry is more immediate: Could it happen again … and again, and again?

That’s what surrogates do: If you choose that career, you make some money to incubate a kid who you’ll pass off while the placenta is still sticky. But now, the whole shebang, which adds up to a $2 billion motherhood economy, might be teetering at the edge of a cliff. At least in India — the nation that sprouts many of the world’s surrogates — where parliamentarians are drafting laws to keep it all in check. Experts reckon a current bill might change everything from better pay for surrogate mothers to banning folks over the age of 50 from adopting. The effort could be a big deal for a sector that sets many pulses racing: it’s India’s first attempt at regulating the controversial purchased pregnancy market.

Not all the bill’s details have been released, for now. But if it works out, it has “the potential to change the global scenario” for all surrogacy law, says Hari Ramasubramanian, chief consultant at the Indian Surrogacy Law Centre in Chennai. As it now stands, surrogacy is banned wholesale in Quebec, Finland, Portugal and Hong Kong, to name a few. On the flip side, many countries make it very easy: in Australia, buyers don’t even have to legally adopt the kid — parents have been listed on the birth certificate in the past; New Zealand, Russia and South Africa, to name a few allow it. In the U.S., it varies: California allows it. Michigan bans it.

Surrogate mothers aren’t really moms past the nine months of gestation.

But big questions on whether India’s plans will succeed remain: Based on what Ramasubramanian knows so far, he says the law seems to focus mostly on avoiding legal disputes instead of taking a moral stance on surrogacy. Anurag Chawla, senior partner at Surrogacy Laws India in New Delhi, who knows only part of the contents of the bill, says it seems to have too many holes and “hence has no value.”

Opponents of the industry have a laundry list of qualms, says Dr. Suneeta Mittal, director of obstetrics and gynecology at Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurgaon, outside New Delhi. Her concerns: The surrogacy industry enjoys tax breaks. You can also classify trips for surrogacy “medical tourism,” which means potential parents arrive with a package deal that includes flights, hotels, treatment and, often, a post-operative vacation. On top of it, adoptive parents can get medical benefits in their home countries. The surrogate mothers, on the other hand, aren’t really moms past the nine months of gestation — they legally sign away rights, like a closed adoption. And in India, the already-poor girls who take on the task rake in a paltry $3,000 to $6,000. Plus, activists worry that no judges exist to determine whether adopting parents are suitable to have a child.

On top of that, the industry is only beginning its boom; around 180 million Indian females are in the reproductive age group, and India also has the world’s largest young population. Meaning the surrogacy market is on a near-inevitable boom upward, says Manish Banker, president of the Indian Society for Assisted Reproduction.

To be sure, there are plenty of surrogacy advocates. Take Dr. Nayana Patel, one of India’s most famous in vitro fertilization experts, who opines that, if done within the legal framework, surrogacy is a win-win deal for everybody. An infertile couple gets a “much-desired child, while a poor woman gets money to better her and her family’s life.” She praises the low costs in India; while most clinics are wary of giving figures, experts suggest that surrogacy arrangements set a couple back by a minimum of $20,000-25,000 in the West. In India, it’s $10,000-12,000 a pop; the women who get pregnant for the parents make what’s probably good money for them. And still others claim the industry is plenty regulated, like Dr. Parikshit Tank, an OB/GYN at Ashwini Maternity & Surgical Hospital in Mumbai.

The future of the fight, in India anyway, is to turn to international models: For instance, in most European countries, says Mittal, fertility clinics are allowed to implant only one embryo. In India clinics often shove multiple embryos into the surrogate’s womb — which ratchets up chances of medical complications for the mother as well as the newborn. And there’s no clear model; some nations ban it as a commercial enterprise, but others leave it entirely unregulated, says Hank Greely, a professor of law and biomedical ethics at Stanford Law School. But in most countries, surrogacy is synonymous with notoriety, not successful regulation. Earlier this summer, a controversy over a rejected baby in Thailand and southeast Asia’s lack of regulation over the baby industry caught global attention.

But the punchline, for Tank and other advocates? New laws probably only amount to “more forms, paperwork and additional bureaucratic process.”

Leslie Nguyen-Okwu contributed reporting.

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