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Those Human Incubators

The trauma and tragedy in commercial surrogacy

Those Human Incubators
Bonding Within
Two surrogate mothers at a surrogacy clinic in Anand, Gujarat
Photograph by AP
Those Human Incubators
Politics Of The Womb The Perils of IVF, Surrogacy & Modified Babies
By Pinki Virani
Penguin/Viking | Pages: 365 | Price: 599

The woman is crying. Not sobbing, not hiccupping, just crying. Her shoulders do not move, her expression does not change, her eyes run freely. “Nothing, nothing,” says the husband to television correspondent Ravinder Bawa. “Don’t pay attention to her. She feels she is going to get attached to the child. We [names another man, presumably the agent] have told her it is not like that.” The husband takes the camera home, to those parts where his wife’s advance payment has already been put to use, a part of a re-done kitchen, the cementing of a deity-plinth. “It is all for her good only. Even when the rest of the money comes it will only go for the boy’s education.”

Camera back to where the woman is, sitting on the floor, eating from a stainless steel tiffin-box. Mercifully for her, the husband does not direct the camera to a close-up of the box and proclaim, “See, all her favourite foods!” Perhaps the only thing preventing him is that he has nothing to do with either procuring or paying for his wife’s food. Squatting a little away from the woman is the boy, their son, face as expressionless as his mother’s when she was crying.

What is he thinking, this boy? Several like him, what are they telling their friends in school, how will this shape their attitude towards women, including their own wives and daughters when they are themselves adults. What is a little girl absorbing, several like her, when she visits her mother at an infant-farm, those barracks where they eat, sleep, as their paid-for pregnancies grow within, day in, day out. The only other daily change is that of their maxis, the kaftan-like home wear that freed many an Indian woman from sleeping in nothing other than their voluminous saris and its  ancillary yardage.

And yet here they are. Stoic. They might want to enjoy their pregnancies but cannot. They know it is not a healthy time for them but they try to make it a happy one; they know they are different, so there can be no unrealistic expectation of how happy they can be, or how much they can allow themselves to feel. They cannot put their hands upon their growing tummies to seek any special moments as their secret bond with the babies they are carrying. They have to just appear emotionally stable. They do.

This disconnect, what is it communicating to that foetus bound to such women from deep within?

They are already cut-down, these women. They could not have been recruited unless they prove past fertility. For their paid-for pregnancy they are cut-up, their uterus is part of the IVF package. They are given the remaining rental money and sent off; before which the milk filling their post-pregnancy breasts is halted with drugs. Some are also told to bind their breasts.

“That’s because they cannot express the milk,” says lactation consultant Amrita Desai. “The more a woman expresses, the more milk she has, to give. Dosage to stop the milk will depend upon each doctor, the tablets have to be taken till it stops. But I do wish their doctors at least request them for the colostrum. It may not come in a breast-pump but it does in hand-expression. These ladies too must be spending around 48 to 72 hours in the same hospital as the baby. A care-giver can take the colostrum to the baby.”

Surrogate mothers are not allowed to breast-feed the child they bear. This is cruel. Often, surrogates ooze milk all of a sudden or when they hear a child cry.

A surrogate recalls how she oozed through her extra­-tight bra, which hurt her breasts and cut into her back. “I cook food in people’s houses,” she says. “In this one house where the memsahib had also delivered, when I would be making the lunch and her newly born infant would cry, the milk would just spring out of me.” Striking a warning note is Gillian Weaver, international lactation expert, “Not breastfeeding is associated with a range of health-related problems for mothers, including higher rates of post-natal depression. Later in life there is an increased likelihood of osteoporosis, as well as a greater chance of developing breast and ovarian cancer.”

Another surrogate says she was paid extra, by the doctor, to breastfeed the commercially produced child while its commissioners went through the immigration procedures to carry the newborn to their own country. “I have comfortably breastfed my own two children. In the first surrogacy, I had milk, the medicine stopped it. Second time I didn’t have much milk, but my husband said to accept the offer as it was extra money, plus the baksheesh (tip) would be better. The doctor gave me injections, the milk came.”

Did she feel any bonding? “I have a daughter," she says. “She will never be allowed to become a surrogate.”

If her husband pushes her? “If the government does not allow, it means no money, why will anyone push?”

And if government allows?

The surrogate’s face tightens. Fate, she says, grinding-unto-dust fate. “Naseeb.”

Mexico also closed its doors in 2015 to surrogacy for foreigners, outraging many in their neighbourhood. Geographical convenience and bargaining power have played a role in surrogacy-tourism choices. Thailand, like India, had also been a favourite among those who need a woman only for her egg and her uterus—for Australians. Reacting to the decision of both countries to shut their doors to foreigners, the manager of an agency organising ‘family completion’ surrogacy overseas for homosexuals said, “This is so stressful for those  wanting to be a family. There is a huge, un-met need out there for surrogates. All of Australia should have this facility within the country for gay couples so that we don’t have to rely so much on third world countries to help out Australians.” The man wondered aloud if he should shift his operations to Cambodia. His has been a well-established surrogate network through certain fertility clinics in India, Nepal and Thailand.

Here is part of a first-person account of an Australian who hired a commercial surrogate in Thailand before the law ended the practice:

“Thailand has clean hospitals. I decided I wanted twins. I chose an egg donor, the agency then matched me with a suitable surrogate. She was paid about five times the average Thai monthly salary. I met my egg donor, who said she was doing this to cover her university fees. We talked like old friends for two hours. While I was there, embryos were implanted in the surrogate. Back in Australia, the agency sent me updates every week.

“I knew my boys would be born at around 35 weeks. The surrogate was admitted to hospital three days before I was due to fly to Thailand, so I booked an earlier flight. I arrived in Bangkok at 2 am, and by 7 am was in a taxi on the way to the hospital. I was in the waiting room when the surrogate came past. She thanked me for the honour of carrying my children.

“Before we left Thailand I had to have the boys’ DNA tested, and ensure the Australian embassy staff did all the thorough paperwork checks so we could leave the country. I met so many Australians at the embassy [who talked] about why they had gone to Thailand. One man was in a wheelchair but had decided he wanted to have children. A 47-year-old woman had frozen her eggs when she was 42 and had used a surrogate to carry her last egg. There’s been a lot of judgement about surrogacy. But what right does anyone have to decide who can or can’t be a parent?

“Everyone I met had genuine intentions. If they didn’t have the steely reserve to get through the process, they wouldn’t have been there.”

Thai police, in 2014, found themselves baffled by what the media there dubbed as “the baby factory case”—a 24-year-old Japanese businessman with 16 surrogate babies. They raided a Bangkok flat and in the few unfurnished rooms found nine babies with nannies. They identified the father of the babies, found out about the other surrogate babies from Thailand alone.

Thailand’s Interpol director said, “We are trying to understand what kind of person makes this many babies.” Regional Interpol offices in Japan, Cambodia, Hong Kong and India were asked to probe the man’s background as he appeared to travel frequently to these countries. It is not known which Indian cities he went to and whether his trips included visits to fertility clinics. Since he was travelling to India when commercial surrogacy was allowed for foreign single persons, he was breaking no laws; he could have used multiple numbers of cities, or even multi-fertility clinics in the same city, and had several embryos implanted in each surrogate. Like Thailand, there was no cap on the number of surrogates or infants from them.

The man’s lawyer denied allegations of human trafficking and said his client was a rich businessman who had three children in Japan. He added that the man would consider approaching Thai courts for his paternal rights and also ask the Thai women to do the same for their maternal rights since social services had taken over some of the children. The clinics he used for surrogates and IVF were legally registered, but not all were certified to perform assisted reproductive techniques. His businesses include a stake in a mobile phone app that allows parents to track their child’s movements.

None of his activities drew attention until the Australian case in the same year, when a couple walked in, abandoned the Down’s syndrome child and took the healthy twin sister away. “The man is a registered sex offender in Australia,” points out Michael Cook, an Australian journalist. “This illustrates the dangers of commodifying human life. I am delighted that India and Thailand have recognised the serious potential for human rights abuse involved in surrogacy.” Thailand banned surrogacy for foreigners in February 2015.


An Eerie Tale Of One That Got Away

Banning commercial surrogacy will check creation of baby flesh for pervs

In 2013, Israeli authorities came to a legal standstill over a four-year-old girl. A man convicted of sex off­ences against children had had the baby through a surrogate in India and took her with him. When  Israel’s National Council for the Child was tipped off, they found that the man was a previously convicted paedophile. He had served one and a half years in jail for repeatedly sexually abusing children while they were under his supervision.

Since he had done nothing to this child till that point, and he had also “legally gained custody of the child” from its surrogate Indian mother, Israeli authorities did not have the legal power to remove her from his presence or his home.

Clearly, the medical-mart catering to this single man did not stop to worry about any kind of child abuse, the global surge of child porn apart—where, especially in the deepest, darkest web, the images range from disturbingly sexual to frighteningly hard-core pornography. The children, boys and girls, tend to be under 12 years of age; it isn’t only photos or videos of their as-yet-unformed body parts but also things being done to them, not necessarily by just one man, not even necessarily by men.

Paedophiles become part of rings to ‘produce’ such material, criminal organisations run the sites. This, in turn, results in more paedophiles visiting such commercial sites and then trawling the internet looking for children, at home, who are surfing sites of their interest. In every country they are present, these paedophiles, pretending to be closer to the interests of children surfing websites, to groom them and either sexually exploit them via online-camera or lure them to meet in person or both.


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