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India’s ‘rent-a-womb’ industry could close doors to foreigners

An Indian surrogate mother sits at the Surrogacy Center India clinic in New Delhi on Feb. 5, 2013. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images)
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Soon foreign couples won’t be able to pay surrogate mothers in India to have babies for them — if the Indian government has its way.

India is one of the top countries in the world for couples searching for surrogacy that can be done far more cheaply than in the United States and elsewhere. It is a booming — and largely unregulated — business in India, with thousands of clinics forming the backbone of an estimated $400 million-a-year industry, according to a study by Sama, a New Delhi-based advocacy group for women and children.

Critics have long said that fertility clinics and their clients exploit surrogate mothers — often poor and illiterate women from rural areas who are paid little. A surrogate mother profiled in The Washington Post was paid $8,000: an amount 12 times what she made as a garment worker.

Abuses abound, however, and the practice has been derided as “rent-a-womb.” India’s Supreme Court recently labeled it “surrogacy tourism” and called for a ban.

[Scandal in Thailand ends surrogacy]

The government submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court on Wednesday saying that it “does not support commercial surrogacy” and that “no foreigners can avail surrogacy services in India,” although the service would still be available to Indian couples.

India has been trying to pass an Assisted Reproductive Technology (Regulation) bill since 2010, and a draft of the legislation up for public comment through Nov. 15 does not specify the ban on foreign couples. But it suggests stricter regulations on the practice, such as limiting the number of surrogate births from a mother to one.

However, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare is pushing for an outright ban on allowing foreign couples to hire Indian surrogates, activists say. In 2012, the government banned single and gay people from abroad from coming to India to use surrogates.

“In meetings, officials have said foreign nationals are exploiting our women,” said Manasi Mishra, who did a survey on surrogacy for the Center for Social Research in New Delhi and has been involved in discussions on the new legislation.

“We don’t agree there should be a ban on foreign nationals coming here for surrogate babies. We have been asking for regulating the industry. The industry has grown so much. If you ban it, everything will go underground and illegal.”

[Babies as business]

India and the United States are among a handful of countries where the practice of in-vitro fertilization and embryo transfer is allowed. Thailand banned it recently. More than 6,000 surrogate babies are born in India per year, about half of them to foreign couples, according to one industry estimate.

“We are taken aback by the government’s stand against foreign nationals,” said Jagatjeet Singh, a surrogacy consultant in New Delhi. “On one hand, the government is promoting foreign investment and the medical tourism industry. And on the other, they are talking of banning foreign nationals from coming to India for surrogate babies. There are dual standards."