Surrogacy has given a ray of hope to many, bringing the patter of tiny feet to childless couples well past the expiry date of their hopes. Same-sex couples and singles have access to a tool that allows them to realise an unfulfilled dream. With this view of surrogacy, I heard a friend recount how often during the procedure, two or more embryos are planted in two women and if the pregnancy occurs in more than one, the other is made to abort. The physical pain is treatable, the psychological turmoil perhaps not as easily. A newborn in the arms of ecstatic parents often blurs the memory of the path taken. The ends justify the means. Or do they?
The proposed bill to regulate commercial surrogacy has raked up sentiment. Surrogacy is a complex issue. Let’s explore it from different vantage points. One, of the person desperate to have a child. The yearning could be biological, from social pressures of kul/vansh to the need to see one’s own flesh and blood. The inability to produce a child is indeed devastating. The other, from that of the surrogate. Their motives range from being part of a noble cause to financial empowerment. There are also tales of coercion and exploitation.
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Let’s reflect on the situation from a few decades ago when surrogacy was largely absent. What kind of a society was this absence nudging us towards? Many would recount stories of couples being under tremendous pressure — divorces, remarriages and other desperate measures — to have a child. But a silver lining was emerging. The boundaries of norms were being pushed. It compelled people to accept and overcome certain situations, to open their hearts, to rise above circumstances.
Statistically, these cases may have been small, but a change was brewing and slowly trickling down to society. It was asking questions of narrow-minded people — why can’t you love your wife, your daughter-in-law, even if she can’t bear a child? Why is it the only factor that defines them? The definition of a woman was being broadened to a person with various dimensions and not just a child-producing vansh vriddhi machine.
It encouraged couples — heterosexual and homosexual — to view their relationships as living up to the vow of being together through thick and thin, finding completeness in one another, not divorcing or remarrying but staying together despite the pressure nature or society placed on them to procreate. It awakened a better belief — adopting was an option. Every couple that chose adoption was signalling that a woman is more than a child-bearer and in cases of male infertility, that he was a man irrespective of his sperm count. That irrespective of genetic background — with nurturing, embedding values and kindling love — one could create a beautiful bond for life, a bond that endures beyond the biological. It was challenging caste, creed and religion, and breaking barriers, one adoptive family at a time. The absence of surrogacy was propelling society in a more humane and constructive direction.
Surrogacy, in many ways, underscores the belief that only biological offspring are worthy of complete parental commitment and love. Paid surrogacy takes a society backwards. Now, one doesn’t have to change a narrow mindset or overcome base instincts or expand one’s thinking because science and commerce can change individual reality. It also, in many cases, gives leeway to conformist patriarchal setups — that were slowly accepting girls as inheritors — an easy way to have male heirs.
Irrespective of this, and respecting individual choice, surrogacy can be an option when done with genuine empathy and responsibility; where a woman informed of all aspects — physical, mental, emotional — of being a surrogate takes a considered, personal decision; when there is no coercion or ulterior motive. If it is about two people who can look each other in the eye and say this is the truth we share, I am all for it. If it’s about money and power, about being able to exploit and use the weak, if it’s about genetic greed getting the better of human emotions, if it’s about short cuts, it needs to be examined.
Something is not right with the current reality, when an overwhelming majority of surrogates are from the vulnerable sections of society. Something is not right when it’s a “third party contract”, from which the intermediaries profit. Something is amiss when, in most cases, the surrogate and the intended parents don’t even know each other. Something is amiss when it’s a class divide — you rarely see a more privileged woman as a surrogate for a less economically privileged woman. Something is not right when human life is reduced to a financial transaction.
Families today are created in many different ways but we still need to find answers to certain issues. For example, many women undergoing IVF are distressed about it being a degrading process — to have their body prodded and pumped with hormonal cocktails that can be life threatening — but they go through it to have their own genetic child. How, then, must it be for a commercial surrogate — a woman and a human being — to undergo a similar procedure, not for emotional or genetic fulfilment, but for money? Is justifying “financial gains for the family of the surrogate and her children” a sound argument or should there be better ways to economically empower women?
What about the rights of the child? There’s more than enough evidence to show how harrowing it is for a new born to be separated from its birth mother. This occurrence in cases of accidents or abandonment is bad enough, but how right is it when done deliberately, for the child has not entered into any “contract” that the genetic parent and the surrogate have?
What happens in cases like that of Baby G, where a child was abandoned by the genetic father as he had Down Syndrome or the twin born to an Indian surrogate, who was left behind by the Australian couple who flew back with his sibling citing they could afford only one child? Can we turn a blind eye and sweep things under the carpet by claiming that the ends justify the means?
The answers to some of these questions can, at times, be offered by a legal framework. Sometimes, only our conscience has the answers. Thinking responsibly for all concerned and taking action to plug the loopholes in the system is progressive, not regressive. Any practice or proposed law should be examined from the lens of intent, efficacy and its purview of having taken into account the issues of all sections of society. Every voice needs to be heard and if legitimate, catered to. It’s time we look at surrogacy from many vantage points. Think, feel, debate and introspect. Then make informed, sensitive choices.