Earlier this month, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) arrested a Malaysian national who was allegedly attempting to import a nitrogen canister containing a frozen human embryo. The arrest, first of its kind in India, led to a search at an fertility clinic in Mumbai.
Why store embryos
In medical terms, the unborn offspring is an embryo from the day of fertilisation until the eighth week of pregnancy; after that, it is a foetus. Following in vitro fertilisation (outside the body), some couples choose to freeze embryos that are left over. This would allow patients to conceive at a later time. Embryos are frozen from the second day of fertilisation, using techniques to halt physiological or biological development. The embryo is stored in liquid nitrogen or nitrogen vapour at a temperature below -190°C. In 2017, a 24-year-old frozen embryo made headlines after it was used to give birth in the US.
Until five years ago, facilities for embryo freezing were limited in India. Several couples stored embryos abroad and imported them when they wanted to conceive. Today, India has many embryo freezing banks at par with those in the West, said Dr Narendra Malhotra, former president of Indian Society for Assisted Reproduction (ISAR).
Why import them
One possible reason for importing embryos could be to meet demands from Indian couples for a baby with “non-Indian looks”. Dr Malhotra said he often gets requests for European gametes from couples.
In the latest case, experts suspect it is also possible that a Malaysian couple had commissioned illegal surrogacy in India. Malaysia does not allow surrogacy. In India, the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016, passed by Lok Sabha in 2018, bans commercial surrogacy but permits altruistic surrogacy. India offers cheaper IVF procedures, at costs one-half to one-third of those in the US.
In 2017, a Thai national was arrested for smuggling six tubes of semen stored in liquid nitrogen to Laos for surrogacy. Embryos or gametes were getting routed to surrogacy clinics, ART clinics and IVF clinics.
The latest case
DRI officials alleged that the arrested Malaysian national, Partheban Durai, had smuggled embryos at least eight times to Mumbai, after declaring these as stem cells. This time, he carried the nitrogen canister- as large as a mini gas cylinder- in his hand luggage and did not put it for X-ray screening, officials said. It was allegedly meant for delivery at Indo-Nippon IVF Fertility Centre.
The DRI said its team conducted a mock delivery through Durai, and that the director of the clinic received the canister. The director, Dr Goral Gandhi, refused to comment. Her lawyer Sujay Kantawala said, “These are false allegations, no delivery was staged.” While Gandhi has moved a petition challenging the DRI action, Durai is out on bail and in custody of Malaysian consulate.
In October 2015, the Director General of Foreign Trade moved the import of human embryos from the ‘restricted’ to the ‘prohibited’ category, except for research purposes. The next month, the Ministry of Home Affairs banned commercial surrogacy for foreign nationals in India. Since then, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has stopped giving no-objection-certificates for import of embryos or gametes. Export is allowed on a case basis for couples who froze their embryos or gametes in India before the surrogacy ban was enforced, and wish to continue IVF in another country.
IVF experts have urged for regulation rather than prohibition. “There are lots of Indian couples who froze their eggs or embryos abroad while living there. Now that they have migrated to India, they wish to continue IVF here,” said Dr Jaideep Malhotra, current ISAR president. Alternatively, those with terminal illness may travel abroad for treatment and preserve their healthy gametes before initiating radiation or chemotherapy. Once treatment is over, they may wish to bring it back to India. “These are genuine problems that Indians face and the government must allow import in such cases,” said IVF expert Dr Duru Shah.
In a draft regulation submitted to Director General of Foreign Trade and Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the ICMR has suggested ways to regulate import of embryos and gametes – matching of DNA of embryo with that of importing couple, justifiable reasons for import, a mandatory check on exporting and importing clinic. “This is to ensure foreign couples do not send their embryo for surrogacy,” said Dr R S Sharma, senior director at ICMR, who was involved in drafting the guidelines.
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