August 15, 2017 12:07:43 am
Nine months after it was introduced in the Lok Sabha, the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016, has come in for criticism from a parliamentary panel which has pulled up the government for a “narrow” understanding of Indian society. The 31-member parliamentary standing committee, constituted in January to consult experts, has recommended a more liberal surrogacy framework. The committee’s report is an indictment of the bill’s original guiding principle: Only altruistic surrogacy for married couples.
The 2016 bill restricted surrogacy to close relatives of the commissioning parents. A woman could act as a surrogate only once, between 25 and 35 years of age. Given the patriarchal character of the Indian family, scholars and activists had feared that this definition of altruism may reinforce the idea that a woman’s body is not her own. The panel’s report shows a healthy openness to take such criticism on board.
The 88-page document shows a nuanced understanding of the ethical and legal concerns that were raised after the surrogacy bill was tabled in Parliament: “In Indian marital homes, the decision-making power rarely rests with women and not so privileged or financially weak relatives who can be coerced into becoming surrogate mothers”. The committee has also taken the government to task for restricting surrogacy to married couples when the Supreme Court has given legal sanctity to live-in relationships. “The decision to keep live-in partners out of the purview of the bill is indicative of the fact that it is not in consonance with the present day social milieu and is too narrow in its understanding,” the document notes.
The panel’s most significant intervention lies in emphasising compensation — and not altruism — as the guiding principle of surrogacy. “In the altruistic arrangement, the commissioning couple gets a child, and doctors, lawyers and hospitals get paid. However, the surrogate mothers are expected to practice altruism without a single penny,” it has observed. By stressing on altruism, the 2016 bill had used the language of the organ transplant law whose pitfalls have been exposed by the frequent scandals.
Just as there are people who require organs, there are those who desire babies and are willing to pay for surrogates. While the 2016 bill is alive to the need to regulate the surrogacy market, it does not have anything to protect the rights of the surrogate mothers. The parliamentary standing committee report tries to fill in this breach. The government would do well to accept its recommendations.
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