The Indian government’s draft law to ban commercial surrogacy in the country could result in the end of a booming medical industry.
Commercial surrogacy involves a woman being paid to carry and give birth to a child for someone else.
In India, it is largely impoverished women who act as surrogates. The industry has grown rapidly since it was legalised in 2002, with Indians and foreign couples employing the services offered at Indian clinics.
A number of couples from the Arabian Gulf region have opted for surrogacy treatment in India, with the practice being illegal in Gulf countries, along with other nations such as the United Kingdom and Australia. Costs are also far lower compared to other countries that offer commercial surrogacy, such as the United States.
But last week, the cabinet cleared a draft bill that seeks to ban commercial surrogacy for both Indians and foreigners. It proposes that only couples who use a relative to carry a child for them and have been married for at least five years can opt for surrogacy treatment.
Jatin Shah, who runs the Mumbai Infertility Clinic and IVF Center, which oversaw the surrogate birth of the Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan’s son in 2013, says that the move could be “doomsday” for India’s commercial surrogacy industry.
“I think a ban is too harsh,” Dr Shah said. “There should be regulation and licensing of all the clinics, regulations of how much the surrogate should be paid so there is no exploitation.”
The controversial sector, which is unregulated, has been described as “rent-a-womb” and has been criticised for offering “baby farms”, as well as being likened to India’s outsourcing industry. It has an annual value of about US$2.3 billion, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry.
Until the end of last year, foreign couples had been flocking to India to take advantage of the practice. But the industry was plunged into uncertainty when the Indian government in October revealed plans to ban commercial surrogacy for foreign couples. This was followed by notices being sent out to clinics in November by the Indian Council of Medical Research, a government body, ordering them to stop receiving new cases of foreigners for commercial surrogacy with immediate effect.
India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, when announcing the ban said that having a child through surrogacy had become a “fashion” among celebrities rather than a necessity.
The bill will have to be approved by the upper and lower houses of parliament before it can become a law and come into effect.
Rita Bakshi, a surrogacy specialist in New Delhi, said that she was “numbed and shocked” when she heard about the draft law.
“We were expecting our government to put good regulations in place but we were not expecting them to find an easy way out – because banning is the easiest way out,” Dr Bakshi said. “[Surrogacy] is a need.”
She said she would certainly see a huge drop in business if the ban was passed and that she would have to focus on other areas of fertility treatment instead. Until the end of last year, up to about 60 per cent of the couples she was receiving for surrogacy were foreigners, but that flow of business completely stopped following the government notices.
There are also concerns that banning commercial surrogacy could prompt it to become a backstreet industry.
Dr Shah said that commercial surrogacy helped infertile couples and provided a livelihood to poor families in India, as well as having wider benefits for the economy. The thousands of dollars that a surrogate receives are life-changing, allowing them to start a business or build a house and educate their children, he said.
“It was bringing a lot of revenue for India – medical tourism.”
He said that he was planning to get together with other members of the industry to challenge the move.
Follow The National's Business section on Twitter