Renting a womb

Foreign couples hire Indian women as surrogate mothers.


Sarah Elizabeth Richards
April 19, 2006 12:56AM (UTC)

It was only a matter of time. We already hire workers in India to answer customer service calls and generate business reports. Now, we're using Indian women to carry our babies. Newsweek's international edition reports on the trend of foreign couples going to India in search of cheaper in vitro fertilization treatments, donor eggs and surrogate mothers.

For about $5,400, a couple can hire and pay for an Indian woman to be implanted with an embryo (some use the surrogate's eggs and some don't) and carry it to term. That's compared with the $18,000 it can cost in Britain. (The figure is an estimate of expenses, since it's illegal to pay surrogates directly.) Since 2003, the number of surrogate births in India has doubled, though it's not clear whether the majority of those are for foreigners.

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Americans have been seeking cheaper healthcare abroad for some time now, for everything from plastic surgery to sexual reassignment operations. After all, it makes sense to pay $7,200 for a round of IVF at an Indian clinic when British clinics charge up to $18,000. (The Indian fee sometimes includes plane tickets and hotel rooms.) Newsweek notes that some foreigners celebrate the lack of regulation, including the absence of weight or age restrictions. (Check out Salon's recent article on the runaway fertility industry in the United States.)

But it's a different story when you're hiring another human to assume a medical risk on your behalf. That's especially true in India, where the country's relaxed laws don't exactly advocate for a surrogate's health. For example, Indian fertility doctors are allowed to implant up to six embryos in a donor's womb -- creating the risk of multiple pregnancies and leading to a baby's premature birth, low birth weight, cerebral palsy, stillbirth or death in infancy. And Indians may suffer a social stigma from carrying another woman's child, reports Newsweek's Silvia Spring.

Surrogate mothers in the United States are protected by carefully drawn contracts that spell out their responsibilities, including how many rounds of IVF they must endure and how a couple will pay for their living expenses. It's not clear whether Indian surrogates enter into similar deals, or whether they may be subject to extortion. At the very least, one wonders what control a surrogate has against an overbearing couple who may want to monitor what she eats or drinks, whether she smokes, or if she attends yoga classes for pregnant women.

Surely, there are ways to hire foreign surrogate mothers respectfully and ethically. But in a country not known for championing women's rights, it's a practice that has a high potential for abuse -- especially when foreigners are offering large chunks of hard currency. Here's to establishing a global healthcare industry that would benefit everyone.


Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at sarah@saraherichards.com.

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