Sanskari and the Surrogacy Bill

Last Updated: Thu, Sep 01, 2016 13:37 hrs

Image: Dr Nayna Patel with a surrogate mother, the couple for whom the surrogate bore the child and the baby.

Since the Cabinet passed the Surrogacy Bill 2016, with its various contended and controversial provisions, I've been in a dilemma about what troubled me so much about the Bill.

Was it those provisions, which made only heterosexual Indian couples married for at least five years eligible for surrogacy, evidencing discrimination in a country whose Constitution strives against it? Was it the fear that this would engender a racket in which women in need of money would be exploited without legal protection? Was it disappointment that surrogacy has not been banned altogether and only partially?

I went back to an article I had written six years ago, about a centre for surrogacy in Gujarat. I remembered being discomfited as I wrote it, wondering how different renting a womb was from buying a kidney or a lobe of a liver. The women to whom I spoke were guarded at first, but let slip every now and again what an emotional toll surrogacy took. One of them did say she would carry a baby for no fee, because the pleasure the child would give his or her parents would be worth it all. But she had not done it at the time, and probably would not do it in future. I could not know whether she had been coached to say this to the media. I did know that her motivation to first turn to surrogacy had been the pecuniary rewards.

All the women to whom I spoke were from low income groups. The doctor who ran the clinic told me that one of her early surrogates had opted for it to save the business of her husband, who had attempted suicide after suffering a financial loss. With so many couples flying in from abroad to have their children carried in wombs that cost less than those in their own countries, were these women not being exploited? With older couples opting to have children whom they might not live to see graduate, aren't there ethical questions that must be tackled?

I have always wondered at the need to procreate, to ensure that one's DNA lives on in human form after one is dead and gone. What makes us want to have children? At the most elemental level, it may be an instinct for survival, to ensure that our species is propagated. If one were to cast the scientific argument aside, it may be an exercise in vanity. It may be the desire to experience parenthood, which has been the subject of much hype, starting with its place in religious mythology. It may be that having children is our chance to relive our own childhood, rectifying the errors we believe our parents made in raising us, and scarring our children with the errors we make in raising them.

Whatever the reason for most humans wanting children is, the fact is that some people can have them naturally and some cannot; some can afford to have them using other means, and some cannot. And from this emerges a commercial transaction that suits all parties involved, at least superficially. The aftermath of the experience of having to carry a child that one cannot keep cannot be measured quantitatively. The toll multiple pregnancies take on a woman's body varies according to the individual in question.

The Surrogacy Bill has made provisions similar to organ donation - where the surrogate must be a relative and cannot accept money for her 'servic'. And one worries that it could spawn a similar racket.

My problem with the Bill is perhaps that it does not really take into account the experience of the surrogates. Instead, it focuses on 'Indian values'. Surrogacy is sanctioned as long as it follows sanskari. At this point,I'm tempted to bring in The Mahabharata, and the regular solution its leading ladies were given for childlessness. But that discussion is moot for this particular issue.

What troubles me about the Bill is not the cases where surrogacy is not permitted but the cases where it is - what does the fact that a couple whose members are of opposite sexes and have been married for at least five years prove? That they have been trying long enough and hard enough to conceive naturally? That they won't break up? That they hold on to'traditional Indian values' by having got married and not living in sin? That they are better-adjusted by nature than single people, and therefore fitter to be parents? That they are better wired than gay people, and therefore fitter to be parents?

Several of the provisions that may have been drafted taking into consideration the health of the surrogates - such as the one that a woman can only be a surrogate once in her life - are now being reviewed.

Whom, then, does the Bill benefit?

From where I'm standing, it doesn't look like the answer is surrogates.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.