Birth of a booming baby industry

THOUSANDS of foreigners are travelling to India in an attempt to conceive a child.

By Amanda Hodge

June 26, 2010 / The Australian

AFTER six miscarriages, years of failed in-vitro fertilisation treatments and endless queues at Australian and international adoption agencies, Megan Sorensen is finally expecting a baby this week, at age 43.

Like an anxious father-to-be, Sorensen (not her real name) will pace the corridors of New Delhi's Phoenix Hospital while a woman she met six days ago and knows only as Rani goes through childbirth for her.

Once delivered, the baby will almost immediately be handed over to Sorensen. And Rani, when she has recovered from her labour, will return to her own flat, her husband and two children.

In New Delhi the same process will be repeated several dozen times over for Australian couples before the year is out. Childless Australian couples -- heterosexual and gay -- are looking to Indian women who are prepared to rent out their wombs for the chance to improve the lives and fortunes of their own families.

Since the first Australian couple walked through the door of her low-key clinic last year, she now sees at least 10 new Australians every month who have travelled to India -- many of them for the first time -- in a last-ditch effort to conceive a child.

"Of 100 surrogates on my books, 55 are pregnant and more than 50 per cent of those children will be born Australian babies," Gour says. "Most of the [commissioning parents] have done IVF in Australia and been advised by their specialists that surrogacy is their best option."

Her first successful Australian birth came just three weeks ago, to a single man who came to India for two days of treatment, gave a sperm sample on the day the donor eggs were collected, and nine months later collected his baby.

Unlike some Indian fertility specialists, Gour says helping aspiring single or gay parents conceive a child poses no ethical dilemmas for her. She's vehement when confronted with the criticism that using a poor, often ill-educated woman to incubate a wealthy woman's child amounts to exploitation. "Just because the [surrogate] is poor it doesn't mean she's not allowed to make her own decisions," she says. "The Supreme Court of India says surrogacy is an industry."

Indeed it is. More than 100 operators turned over an estimated $US445 million ($514m) last year.

But, for some, India's reputation as the world's baby factory for foreign women unable, or unwilling, to pay Western surrogate fees is a grotesque commercialisation of the reproductive system.

Sorensen has heard all the arguments before. "People say really nasty things, that we're selfish for wanting our own child," she says. "What really gets me is when they accuse us of going to India to buy a baby like it's an easy process. It's not." She calculates the whole process -- including one failed effort and one miscarriage -- will have cost more than $90,000 by the time their baby is delivered. Of that, Rani will receive $5000.

While thousands of foreign children have been delivered by Indians without incident, several cases -- including the death of a surrogate during childbirth last year -- have scarred the industry. The woman, a second wife, was pressured by her husband to become a surrogate to earn more money for the family. And in 2008 the industry faced a scandal when a Japanese couple broke up before their child was born, leaving the baby in danger of becoming India's first surrogate orphan.

India's minister for women and child development Renuka Chowdhury warned two years ago: "We do not want surrogacy to become unfettered like the organ trade. We need to put a regulatory authority in place."

Draft legislation governing the entire assisted reproductive industry -- IVF, sperm and egg donations and surrogacy -- is to be debated in parliament within months. If passed, it will legalise surrogacy services for couples and single people and provide a loophole for gay couples by allowing one partner to register as a single parent on the birth certificate.

Surrogacy clinics will be forbidden from recruiting and acting for surrogate mothers, who will instead be represented by a third party. The law also will forbid a commercial surrogate from carrying more than five babies in her lifetime, including her own.

Australian law further stipulates that a child born overseas of a surrogate mother must have a DNA link to at least one of the commissioning parents.

Gautam Allahbadia, who helped draft the bill, says he expects it to pass with little trouble after five years of debate and amendments.

The Mumbai-based fertility specialist says India is an ideal surrogacy destination; Indian women rarely drink or smoke and the country offers "First World medical services at Third World prices".

But National Federation of Indian Women president Annie Raja fears the new law will lead to the exploitation of more poor and lower caste women. "This country has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates. Nobody is thinking about the mental or physical health of these women. It's all about money," she says.

At Gour's clinic money seems the furthest thing from Sorensen's mind as she clucks over her young surrogate. Sorensen is ebullient and awestruck. Rani seems overwhelmed. Both women are close to tears. Through a translator Rani says she is "a little nervous" about the labour and concedes giving up the baby she has carried for 37 weeks, but has no biological link to, will probably be painful.

But she says: "It's a few hours of sadness for me and a lifetime of happiness for Sorensen."

Asked if she would do it again she doesn't hesitate; "One hundred per cent."

But she looks uncomfortable when asked to explain how being a surrogate will improve her family's fortunes. For 10 months Rani has had a driver, maid and food delivery service, her rent and all family medical bills paid. When the baby is delivered she will receive 200,000 rupees ($4981), one-tenth the price of the most cut-rate US surrogate. For many Indian surrogate mothers all the attention that comes with carrying a wealthy woman's baby ends soon after the child is delivered. But Sorensen says she is determined to make a difference to Rani's life by helping her buy a home and paying for her children's education. "I feel very maternal towards Rani," she says. "She's part of our baby-making team."


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