What Indian Couples Want
These are the characteristics couples coming to fertility clinics ask for, fuelling the trend for foreign sperm:
- Fair skin
- Lighter hair
- Blue/green or light eyes
- High IQ levels
- In China, the rich and the famous, the brainy and the beautiful are being called upon to contribute to the nation’s development by donating their sperm
- A Californian millionaire set up 'The Genius Bank' or 'The Nobel Prize Sperm Bank' in 1980 which had Nobel laureates as donors
- Sperm banks in the US regularly provide sperm of star athletes, musicians, rock stars and students from the country’s best colleges
***The Indian obsession with 'white skin' begins early these days. Now, childless Indian couples aspiring for offspring have a large roster of demands: fairer skin, light hair and blue/green eyes. And they're thronging sperm banks and fertility centres across the country looking for "firangi" donors to ensure they get it. So, foreigners visiting India or residing here are being tapped for gametes—to beget, by proxy, children with lighter skin pigment and eye tone. "We get about 10-15 requests every day for fair babies," says Dr Anoop Gupta of the Delhi In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) Fertility Research Centre. "They include almost all couples from South India and a large number of nris ."
The sperm bank at Gupta's centre too has a large number of foreign donors. "We encourage foreign donors," he says. "Most of them are exchange students studying medicine and engineering who are commercial donors back in their countries and donate here regularly." Male donors get anywhere up to Rs 2,000; women who donate their eggs get between Rs 30,000 and Rs 45,000.
Surrogate mothers at a clinic in Anand, Gujarat
With 40 million infertile couples in India, the market is, by any reckoning, huge. And the number of those who want their progeny to have characteristics different from their own physical profile is also growing. Says an IVF specialist in Jaipur: "Many couples ask for prettier, better-looking children and are not afraid of saying so. To fulfil this demand, we are reaching out to tourists, as it is good money for them. We do all the necessary medical checks as we are aware that they could be potential drug users and may have multiple partners."
Delhi couple Umesh and Mukesh Kumar Pal have no complaints. After trying to have a baby for 14 years, they decided to go in for IVF two years ago. While opting for an egg donor, they specified they wanted a fair, good-looking child. "I was being pressurised to remarry because my wife could not have children. Now we have the most beautiful daughter in the world," says the proud father of one-and-a-half-year-old Bhoomi.
However, not all fertility clinics and doctors are willing to meet the demand of couples for a fair-skinned foreign donor. Dr Naina Patel of the Akanksha IVF centre in Anand, Gujarat, points to an instance where a Christian couple from Rajasthan came to her asking for a fair baby with blue eyes. "The religion of the donor did not matter to them—they just wanted a foreign donor." Naina turned down the request as she felt it was unethical. "I told them we'd do the procedure if they went online, found such a donor and brought the sperm here. But I was not willing to find them a donor."
Most clinics maintain a record of the donors' age, height, build, hair and eye colour, religion and medical history. What they do not record is their name or address, to ensure anonymity. A few clinics also keep a picture for their records, but are not allowed to show it to the donor-seeking couple.
And though India might have a ban against the export of human gametes as per the Indian Council of Medical Research guidelines, no such regulation governs sperm import. "In India, the government sees sperm as a commodity," says Dilip Patil of Cryos International, a Denmark-based sperm bank which opened up a branch in Mumbai last month. "Last year, we imported sperm from Denmark and paid custom duty on it." But while the head office in Denmark and its US branches can supply sperm to over 60 countries, the Indian arm can supply only within India. It can also receive donors from abroad, but not export.
Cryos, however, deals only with clinics and hospitals, not with patients. "The clinics send us the profile they are looking for, which includes skin, eye and hair colour, religion and profession. We match it and send it to them." Others are not so discerning. "The grey market is huge," says Patil. "It has about 10 sperm banks, catering to these new demands and luring foreigners. They do very limited tests and make a lot of money."
As things stand, there is no system of checks and balances. Most semen banks are extensions of IVF clinics, and there is no official count on the number of such banks and clinics. Doctors freely make tall promises to childless couples even if they are unable to deliver the product. But, as Dr P.M. Bhargav, founder-director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, "there is no guarantee that a child can be customised. It is illegal for a doctor to guarantee certain characteristics. It is exploiting the ignorance of genetics."
It is these issues that the draft Assisted Reproductive Technology Bill, of which Bhargav is one of the authors, seeks to address. For one, it says semen banks must be run independent of IVF clinics. It also specifies that donors must not be friends and relatives of the recipient.
It is precisely here, however, that Patil sees the problem. Once the bill becomes law, he says, the professional donor will become that much more sought-after. "There will be further commercialisation and experimentation," he says. Dr Pramod Bajaj, MD of Sperm Processor in Aurangabad, the only officially recognised sperm bank in India, thinks it is just "a money-making racket which will lead to the mutation of genes. In India, the genetic origin is the same for 80 per cent of the people, and matching profiles has never been a problem."
"It will also pose a problem for couples who do not want to tell their child that he or she was born out of this procedure but whose appearance is going to be a sure giveaway," says Patil. The Pals are facing that problem already. Every time they're questioned about the distinct difference in the colour of their skin and that of their daughter, they're quick to reply that their ancestors were very fair.