Rent-a-womb in India fuels surrogate motherhood debate

MUMBAI (Reuters) - Jyoti Dave is pregnant, but when the 30-year-old gives birth in March the baby will not be taken home to bond with her other child, but will instead be handed over to an American couple unable to conceive.

A doctor works inside a laboratory in a fertility clinic in Anand town, south of the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, April 23, 2006. Surrogate motherhood is among the latest in a long list of roles being outsourced to India, where rent-a-womb services can be bought for a fifth of the cost of a similar service in the West. Picture taken April 23, 2006. REUTERS/Amit Dave

For her trouble, the Indian surrogate mother will be paid. She won’t say how much, but she says it’s money she desperately needs to feed her poor family after an industrial accident left the family’s only breadwinner unable to work.

“My husband lost his limbs working in the factory,” Dave told Reuters. “We could not manage even a meal a day. That is when I decided to rent out my womb.”

Surrogate motherhood is among the latest in a long list of roles being outsourced to India, where rent-a-womb services are far cheaper than in the West.

“In the U.S. a childless couple would have to spend anything up to $50,000,” Gautam Allahbadia, a fertility specialist who helped a Singaporean couple obtain a child through an Indian surrogate last year, told Reuters.

“In India, it’s done for $10,000-$12,000.”

Fertility clinics usually charge $2,000-$3,000 for the procedure while a surrogate is paid anything between $3,000 and $6,000, a fortune in a country with an annual per capita income of around $500.

But the practice is not without its critics in India with some calling it the “commoditisation of motherhood” and an exploitation of the poor by the rich.

“It’s true I’m doing this for money, but is it also not true that a childless couple is benefiting?” said Rituja, a surrogate mother in Mumbai, who declined to give her full name.

For the surrogates -- usually lower middleclass housewives -- money is the primary motivator.

For their clients it’s infertility or -- some claim -- educated working women turning to hired wombs to avoid a pregnancy affecting careers.

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But there is also a social dimension to their service, an empathy with the childless in a society that views reproduction as a sacred obligation, and believes good deeds performed in this life are rewarded in the next one, experts say.

“Surrogate mothers are giving their (the eventual parents’) lives a new meaning. For them the money they pay is just a token gesture that by no way substitutes their gratefulness,” said Deepak Kabir, a Mumbai-based gynaecologist.


While there are no official figures it’s estimated between 100-150 surrogate babies are born each year in India, though the number of failed attempts is likely to be far higher.

Yashodhara Mhatre, a fertility consultant at Mumbai’s Center for Human Reproduction, says that while there are no comprehensive figures available perhaps 500-600 surrogate babies are born each year throughout the world.

Interest at the Dr. L.H. Hiranandani Hospital where she works is doubling every year, she says.

Allahbadia is presently handling 14 cases with prospective parents from India, Britain, the U.S., Singapore, France, Portugal and Canada.

India has no laws regulating the fertility industry -- only nonbinding guidelines issued by the country’s medical research council -- but specialists say they have set their own criteria: only childless couples who cannot have a successful pregnancy themselves.

A surrogate must be young, healthy and married with children for physical, and more importantly, psychological support. A mother is less likely to want to keep a surrogate baby if she already has her own children.

In India, the egg is usually from the intended mother or a donor to reduce chances of the surrogate developing an emotional attachment to the baby, doctors say.

Both parties sign a contract under which the couple pays for the surrogate’s services and her medical care and the latter renounces her right to the baby, precluding chances of a possible custody battle later.

Some think the industry must be more tightly controlled.

“Every pregnancy and birth is associated with some health risk,” C.P. Puri, director of National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health, told Reuters.

“We must not promote surrogacy as a trade.”


Media hype surrounding a 47-year-old grandmother who delivered twins for her daughter in 2004 at a clinic in the small town of Anand in western Gujarat state made many Indians aware of surrogacy for the first time.

Since then, Anand, known as the milk capital of India after a hugely successful dairy cooperative, has emerged as the epicenter of the industry with about 20 women signed up as surrogate mothers for couples from abroad.

Some of them are having a second go. At least seven surrogate mothers will deliver later this year.

Surrogacy as a temp job may be a lucrative deal but traditional attitudes to sex and procreation, especially in the countryside, mean Indian surrogate mothers often invent cover stories for their neighbors.

Most say they are carrying their husband’s child, and once the baby is delivered to the intended parents, they say the newborn has died. Some go to other towns and return after delivery, telling neighbors they were visiting relatives.

“It’s a lie we have to tell, otherwise how can we earn this much money?” said a 29-year-old prospective mother at a Mumbai clinic. “A lie told for a good cause is not a sin.”

Additional reporting by Rupam Jain Nair in Ahmedabad