India's surrogacy industry facing tougher law

INDIA - Dressed in a green surgical gown and cap, British restaurateur Rekha Patel cradled her newborn daughter at the Akanksha clinic in north-western India as her husband Daniel smiled warmly, peering in through a glass door.

"I can't believe we have our own child at last," said Ms Patel, 42.

It is the perfect promotion for India's booming surrogacy industry, hiring the wombs of local women to carry their embryos through to birth, Reuters reported.

But a debate over whether the unregulated sector exploits poor women prompted the authorities to draft a law that could make it tougher for foreigners seeking babies made in India.

"There is a need to regulate the sector," said Dr Sudhir Ajja of Surrogacy India, a Mumbai-based fertility bank that has produced 295 surrogate babies - 90 per cent for overseas clients and 40 per cent for same-sex couples - since it opened in 2007.

But if the new law tightens rules as suggested by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which disallows surrogacy for same-sex couples and single parents, it will clearly impact the industry and put off overseas clients.

India opened up to commercial surrogacy in 2002. It is among just a handful of countries - including Georgia, Russia, Thailand and Ukraine - and a few US states where women can be paid to carry another's genetic child through a process of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and embryo transfer.

Big business

There are no official figures on how large the fertility industry is in India.

A UN-backed study in July last year estimated the surrogacy business at more than US$400 million (S$500 million) a year, with more than 3,000 fertility clinics across India.

The Akanksha clinic in Anand is the best known at home and abroad, giving the small town in Gujarat state a reputation as India's "surrogacy capital".

Its owner, IVF specialist Nayana Patel, has handled more than 500 surrogate babies - two-thirds of them for foreigners and people of Indian origin living in more than 30 countries.

Charging couples an average of US$25,000 to US$30,000, a fraction of the cost in the US, Dr Patel pays her surrogates about 400,000 rupees (S$8,000).

For 33-year-old Naina Patel, who gave birth to Gabrielle, the compensation outweighs the downside.

The wife of an auto-rickshaw driver with three daughters of her own, she had to live in a hostel for nine months with 60 other surrogates so the clinic could monitor her health.

"I was happy to do it but it was not really out of choice because we needed the money," she said.

India's surrogacy industry is vilified by women's rights groups, which say fertility clinics are "baby factories" for the rich.

They say many poor and uneducated women are lured by agents, hired by clinics, into signing contracts they do not fully understand due to the absence of regulation.

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