Page last updated at 22:33 GMT, Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Regulators eye India's surrogacy sector

By Shilpa Kannan
India Business Report, BBC World

India has established itself as a global surrogacy provider

There is silence in the room as everyone is anxiously looking at a black monitor.

The doctor uses a hand-held ultrasound probe on the baby bump. Soon a fuzzy black and white image comes alive on the screen and there are loud shouts of welcome relief.

The doctor announces that the five month old unborn baby is doing well.

Neerja Chaudhary, 35, (not her real name) who is lying on the clinic bed, is no ordinary mother.

This is her fifth pregnancy, but only two of the previous babies have been her own.

Ms Chaudhary is a professional surrogate, member of a growing group of women who are volunteering to have babies for other people.

Pay for the future

Ms Chaudhary does not want to reveal her identity because she believes there is a stigma attached to surrogacy in India.

Dr Gupta
A bill like this helps us regulate the industry better and will weed out bad practitioners
Dr Anoop Gupta

Faced with financial difficulties, the single mother first agreed to be a surrogate to help pay for the education of her two sons, Pankaj and Shivam.

"I can't earn this much money in a regular job," she says.

"If I was doing a regular job, this is as much money as I could earn in maybe three years. I'm educated and I know what this involves, but I need this money.

"It has helped me build a house and pay for the future of my two sons. I plan to do this again and again in future to earn as much as I can for my family."

Commanding influence

Like most things, the prices in surrogacy have risen with the demand.

Ms Chaudhary charged $2,500 (1,800) for her first pregnancy. The Israeli baby that she is now carrying will earn her $8,000.

But many western couples employing a surrogate also dictate other terms.

Ms Chaudhary's friend, Sangeeta, says her employers told her to eat certain kinds of food only.

She was also ordered not to travel by auto-rickshaws, a common mode of transport in Delhi, as the British couple thought it could be dangerous for the baby.

Industrial proportions

As many critics have raised concerns about what they call "baby outsourcing", the Indian government is now planning a law to regulate the industry.

She is getting the money she wants and we are getting a baby that we are desperate for
Satish Siddhu, a fabric seller from Essex in the UK

While surrogacy is not illegal in India, it does not have a specific law governing it.

Last year, while giving a verdict in case involving a Japanese baby carried in India, the Supreme Court had not only validated "commercial surrogacy", but also termed it a virtual industry.

In that case, Justice Pasayat said that surrogacy is legal in several countries, including India where due to excellent medical infrastructure, high international demand and ready availability of poor surrogates, it is reaching industry proportions.

That is now set to change with the Assisted Reproductive Technology (Regulation) Bill.

This Bill is now open to public debate and is expected to be made into a law in the next parliamentary session.

It is fairly detailed in listing out the rights of Indian women who offer to be surrogate mothers.

Cheaper alternative

But will this Bill be sufficient to protect women and the babies born to them?

It is a question the government will have to consider as surrogacy is all set to get legal sanction in the country.

For some, such as Satish Siddhu, a fabric seller from Essex in the UK, India offers hope.

Mr Siddhu has been trying to have a child for the last 14 years.

Many like him are coming to India to employ a surrogate mother.

The procedure is more economical in India as surrogacy in countries such as the UK can cost 13,000 ($18,000) while here it is half the cost.

Mr Siddhu says even if you include the costs of flight tickets, medical procedures and hotels, it still comes to roughly a third of the price compared with the UK.

Mutually beneficial

More than the money - the process itself is relatively easier here because of the strict regulations surrounding it in many countries.

For years, Mr Siddhu says they tried IVF and surrogacy options in the UK but with no success.

"The queues in the NHS are never ending and it's very difficult for Asian couples like us to find surrogates, whereas in India it is easier," he says.

Responding to criticism that it is exploitation of poor women, Mr Siddhu says that he and his wife met their surrogate before choosing her.

"She is an educated woman from Delhi," he says.

"We made sure she understood the process and knew what she was getting into.

"It is mutually beneficial as well," he adds. "She is getting the money she wants and we are getting a baby that we are desperate for."

Welcome legislation

In the tiny clinic in central Delhi, the waiting room is packed, with many coming from the UK, the US and other Western countries.

Many women here are also carrying babies for wealthy Indian families who cannot have children on their own.

The National Commission for Women says there are about 3,000 clinics offering surrogacy services.

The Assisted reproductive & Technology Bill has been welcomed by many, such as Dr Anoop Gupta, founder of Delhi IVF.

Dr Gupta, who has been responsible for many cases of surrogacy in the capital, says he receives 10 to 15 emails everyday from foreigners who are looking at surrogacy as an option.

"A bill like this helps us regulate the industry better and will weed out bad practitioners," he says.

"Genuine clinics will actually do better business because of this. Couples across the world want to come here for treatment and a law will only strengthen India's position as an outsourcing destination."

The chances of success are higher here because doctors can implant four to five embryos into a surrogate mother, whereas in the UK the maximum is two, while many European countries limit it at a single embryo.

Dr Gupta recently organised a conference in Delhi to discuss the new bill on assisted reproduction where parents turned up in large numbers to support the cause of surrogacy.

The country's booming surrogacy industry is now estimated to be worth more than $500 million a year and a law will only fuel its growth further.

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