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If you were struggling to conceive, would you ever consider this?

surrogates
Dr Nayna Patel and the women who are being paid to carry children. Image from BBC.

By MELISSA WELLHAM

You can rent or hire almost anything in life. Cars. Houses. Cleaners. Dates.

And you can also rent wombs.

BBC ran a documentary last week, in which they investigated a ‘house of surrogates’ in India: a venture where poverty-stricken women are paid to carry babies for the wealthy foreigners.

So-called ‘commercial surrogacy’ is an industry worth over 1 billion pounds each year in India alone. But the practice isn’t popular with everyone, and these set-ups have been condemned as ‘baby-making factories’ by those who oppose them.

Vasanti is one of the women in India who has agreed to become a surrogate. She is 28-years-old, and has two children of her own, aged five and seven. Vasanti is receiving her payment in installments, and it exceeds her husband’s income by about $40 a month.

This makes a huge difference for the family. They are planning to build a new house, and send their kids to an expensive, English-speaking school.

“In India families are close. You are ready to do anything for your children,” Vasanti says. “To see my children get everything I ever dreamt of, that’s why I have become a surrogate … I’m happy from the bottom of my heart.”

Surrogate mothers spend the whole 9 months of the pregnancy inside a type of commune after they have been impregnated with the embryo made from the sperm and egg from the genetic parents. There are approximately 10 surrogate mothers in each room, and women have meals and vitamins delivered to them daily.

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While inside, they receive medical treatment and check-ups, and have the opportunity to learn skills which they can use in the outside world to make a living – such as beauticians training, or learning embroidery.

surrogates
28-year-old Vasanti with her daughter. Image from the BBC.

After the babies are born, the biological parents come to collect their children. Sometimes the pick-up happens immediately – and sometimes it occurs weeks later. In the meantime, the surrogates keep looking after the children they have given birth to, and acting as their wet-nurse.

The BBC documentary follows the compelling character of Dr Nayna Patel – a fertility specialist who owns one of the clinics. She knows that she has been accused of exploiting poor local women and running a ‘baby-making factory’.

Dr Patel doesn’t see her work as damaging to the impoverished women who are hired as surrogates. “I’m a very strong feminist,” Dr Patel says. “It is all about one woman helping another.”

She further defends her business, saying that, “I have faced criticism and I will in the future… According to many, I am controversial. There have been allegations of baby selling, baby making factory.”

Women are paid $8000 – money they cannot say no to – but the clinic takes up to $28,000 from clients.

Dr Patel explains her business by saying, “People have two basic instincts, to survive and to procreate … I am helping with both: the surrogates survive with the money I pay them, and the childless couples procreate.”

Patel has further plans for expansion – and at the same time, wants to further help the women she employs. Currently, she is building a clinic worth $6 million. This is where the surrogates will live and be given training – and Dr Patel later plans to employ former surrogates within the clinic.

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She explains that, “I want them to become self-sufficient. That is what I want to see in my surrogates.”

But there are other downsides to life as a surrogate – and this is beyond how little they are paid, compared to the total cost for the clients.

surrogates in India
Two women who are surrogates for Dr Patel’s clinic. Image from the BBC.

For any of these women, it may be incredibly difficult to hand over the baby they have carried inside their body for the past nine months – who they have held and fed. Particularly in the cases where the newborns are not collected from the clinic for a number of weeks, this gives the surrogates plenty of time to bond with the child, as they act as wet-nurse and carer.

The documentary shows heartbreaking scenes of surrogate mothers saying goodbye to the children they have given birth to – and cared for, for weeks. And this is the darker side of commercial surrogacy: where vulnerable women, who cannot say ‘no’ to the financial help that become a surrogate provides, end up experiencing significant emotional distress.

Dr Patel, however, sees surrogacy as a job. “These surrogates are doing the physical work, agreed, and they are being compensated for that,” she says. “They know that there is no gain without pain.”

What do you think of commercial surrogacy? Would you ever consider it as an option? Do you know anyone who has?

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