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My womb, your choice?

My womb, your choice?

Aptly called 'baby factory'– India has nurtured a flourishing surrogacy market, veiled behind our closely-held values of a complete, traditional family. The commercial surrogacy market in India, about 15 years in age, makes as much as USD 2-3 billion annually. Though the success of surrogacy in India has been undeniably credited for bringing smiles to many incomplete homes desperate for a child, this market, like most markets in India, is deeply unregulated, fraught with unscrupulous middlemen and subject to exploitation. Surrogacy provides an opportunity for childless couples/individuals to experience the joys of childhood without being restricted by biological impediments. This challenge gave birth to an opportunity – rent a womb, plant an egg and deliver a child. While initially it seemed to satisfy all parties – the surrogate mother consensually carried a child without emotional attachment and childless parent/s were fulfilled with a baby after much hassle – altruism birthed commercialisation, which soon gave way to corruption. As IVF clinics popped up across India's glitzy cities and not-so-impressive towns, poor women, belonging to the lowest castes were exploited with their limited knowledge and greed to overcome perilous destitution. An ordinary woman labourer toiling in India's factories makes about Rs 250 for working 12 hours a day – as a surrogate mother, she makes Rs 4,00,000 for a nine-month spell. Caught in this chase of making quick money, thousands of women across India are choosing to be surrogates; yet, the Lok Sabha has now passed a Bill banning commercial surrogacy – for several good reasons. This attractive business nexus that seems to be benefitting all is actually cocooning dangerous exploitation of human rights. For one, the woman's body is practically reduced to a machine manufacturing offsprings for the fulfilment of vague civilisational values; second, even if the woman consents to her body being used as a machine, which she has every right to do, there is a strange coincidence in the nature of women who have consented – they all belong to the lowest strata of society, with inadequate knowledge and without affirmative control on their decisions. This fact makes one rethink the paradigm of consent – was it deliberated choice or was it circumstantial compulsion? Surely, surrogacy and exploitation of the body cannot be India's answer to overcoming grassroots poverty. Parliament's call to ban commercial surrogacy is significant, yet questionable. Commercial surrogacy today isn't a one-off incident; it is a flourishing industry that has made its home in plush hospitals, decrepit nursing homes, shady clinics – everywhere. The government's call, sadly, will not see the sudden end of this business which also sustains a large section of rural India. There is little doubt that this trade, like most illicit trades of India, will quietly go underground and probably bring even more harm to women, who will now no longer receive the legal comfort guaranteed earlier. The Bill is already punishing the surrogate woman just as much as the agents and clinics involved in the practice with ten years imprisonment. While the aim of the law is to protect the woman's body, her right and her complete decision-making power, it does not have an answer to poverty which looms large in rural India and, in fact, compels Indians to make choices motivated only by desperate need. Many surrogates, who have been unscathed by the backlash of the practice, remain satisfied with renting their womb. For them, money is more lucrative than humanitarian values, and rightfully so. For a mother struggling to feed her five children as her husband comes home inebriated – Rs 4,00,000 in nine-months means more than philosophical moorings or concerns of exploitation. Anyway, for the ones already oppressed, the pimp of surrogacy is just another face of exploitation. Now that we are moving against commercial surrogacy, implementation, our Achilles' heel, will be the key. There is little doubt that demands from childless couples will grow and the absence of a 'close relative', as mandated in the Bill, will prosper the demand for commercial surrogates – who will now function illegally with the sword of law dangling at their throats. Clearly, the Bill requires more deliberation about how the vacuum of a dismantled industry will be replaced by new opportunity so that the impoverished do not feel further oppressed by authorities who, truthfully, are quite away from reality with little experience in lending their womb, or even empathy. Alongside, the growing demand for surrogates and its complementary trade of exploitation demands serious intervention into our ideas of family, kinship and tradition. Perhaps, if as a society we did not pester our neighbour the moment their son was married about when 'good news' is arriving, we would exploit fewer wombs in the quest of living up to others' pointless expectations.

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