Ill-conceived Surrogacy Bill throws the baby out with the bathwater

The rush to ban commercial surrogacy contrasts with the failure to pass the ART Bill

It has been about 15 years since the members of the National Advisory Committee for framing guidelines on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) came up with guidelines for the ART Bill. A good amount of work has gone into the details of this Bill, and it is unfortunate that these guidelines have not managed to garner much attention. In the middle of all this, along comes the Surrogacy Bill.

The Surrogacy Bill prohibits commercial surrogacy in all its forms. It is disappointing to see that whereas the ART Bill has not yet seen the light of day, an ancillary bill on surrogacy has been expeditiously passed.

The move comes without considering the suggestions from the expert committee nominated by the Indian government to formulate the ART Bill. The initial proposition of the ART Bill dealt with matters like tightening ART clinics in the country, IVF practices, gamete donation, sperm donation, and so on. But it has all been narrowed down to one supplementary topic: surrogacy.

Even there, a key reason cited for banning commercial surrogacy is the financial transactions and undue exploitation of impoverished women, who are paid to rent their womb. But in simple terms, the money paid to a surrogate is a mere compensation for the loss of wages for nine months when she can’t engage in any strenuous occupation.

The monetary compensation should not be considered the price for the womb, but as a measure that advances the health of the mother and the baby. Gynaecologists do not get into any form of exploitative practice when they attend to a surrogate pregnancy. A doctor gives treatment to a pregnant body, irrespective of the method of conception.

Of course, women should not be coerced into surrogacy nor should they resort to surrogacy as a profession. However, if a woman volunteers to share the joy of parenthood with someone who is denied this, the government should not stop her. If many impoverished women are able to carve out a better livelihood by resorting to surrogacy, to ensure quality living for their own children and to provide them with education, it is grossly unfair to take away this choice from such women.

Besides, the Surrogacy Bill is a violation of the right to reproductive autonomy for the benefactors.

In case a woman is born without a uterus or has healthy ovaries but possesses a dysfunctional uterus, how can the government take away her rights to reproduce her own genetic offspring by availing of a proven medical intervention like surrogacy?

The clause in the Surrogacy Bill which states that only relatives can become surrogates is yet another fallacy, and ought to be deleted. In a nuclear family, how many may have a willing sister-in-law, for example? And why would she generously rent out her womb for free? If money is not the motive, relatives could look at other kinds of material gains. So how is that “altruistic surrogacy”? Commercial surrogacy has to be regulated and not banned.

The government needs to first pass the ART Bill; that, in itself, should cover all matters on surrogacy. And with a full-fledged medical body to monitor the system, supported by the legislative body to look into the loopholes, the benefits of ART, including surrogacy, can emerge as a boon to infertile and gay couples, and to single parents.

The writer is a leading fertility expert and member of the National Advisory Council for drafting the ART Bill.