Anand in Gujarat state is well off the usual tourist track. Known previously only for it’s milk production it now brings foreigners from as far away as Japan, Australia and the UK for a service that has become a billion dollar industry in India – surrogacy. Watching the House of Surrogates on BBC4 was a strange experience. On the one hand I was horrified by the contrast between the wealth of Dr. Nayna Patel, the founder of the clinic, and the poverty of the women who give up nine months of their lives to incubate foetuses for foreign women who are unable to carry a baby for themselves. On the other, I found myself being lulled into thinking that if surrogacy has to exist in this country then it could be worse (and probably is). The women are housed in dormitories with hardly any space between the beds so no privacy at all, but, I tell myself, maybe that is not unusual in an Indian family anyway. They receive a nutritious diet, take vitamins, have full antenatal care but do nothing all day but sleep and chat. Many complain of boredom. Most are married with children of their own but relatives can only visit once a week and ‘marital relations’ are not allowed during a pregnancy.
Almost everything you need to know about Dr. Patel can be summed up by the way she introduced herself at the beginning of the programme as ‘God’s messenger on earth’, it being her mission, as she sees it, to bring the possibility of parenthood to as many people as possible and at the same time provide work and a brighter future to poor women by employing them as host surrogate mothers. There is never a genetic link between the child and the surrogate. If a commissioning mother is not able to provide the egg (and many are too old to do so) then an egg donor is found and embryos created with partner sperm. Presumably the same happens if a sperm donor is needed. A strong criticism of both egg donation and surrogacy in India has been that large numbers of embryos are often replaced thus creating dangerous hugely multiple pregnancies. In this film we see a commissioning mother pleading for more than one blastocyst to be placed in the womb of the surrogate and the commissioning father stating the oft repeated myth that this would of course increase their chances of a pregnancy. Two blastocysts were then chosen and a twin pregnancy resulted. It is a scene that would not be out of place in any clinic in Europe or the States.
The bottom line is of course money. The commissioning couple (and they were all heterosexual couples in the film, gay dads were not mentioned at all) pay $28,000 US and the surrogate mother receives a total of $8000 US paid in instalments during the pregnancy. Most women say that they will use the money to build a house and/or educate their children, thereby improving the lot of the next generation (so that the girls don’t have to become surrogates?). A constant theme was that things will be better for their own children. Dr Patel is seen interrogating some women about what their money is being spent on. She opens bank accounts for those women who do not have them and is shown scolding one woman for allowing her partner to get his hands on the money. She also seems keen that the women should leave the Surrogate House with a skill that will help them earn money and to this end there are classes in sewing, embroidery and handcrafts. There seemed to be well-intentioned motivations behind Dr Patel’s concern for the women that went beyond looking after them as income-generating incubators, but as her manner was both authoritarian and business-like it was hard to see this as anything but patronising and sometimes demeaning.
As the local women’s motivation for becoming a surrogate mother is entirely financial it is not surprising that many of them are ambushed by feelings of attachment to the baby(ies) they have carried for nearly a year. One woman, dripped tears of sadness more potent than words, from eyes that were just visible above the scarf covering her lower face. Another found it enormously hard to say goodbye to the four month old she had breast-fed and cared for whilst the Canadian parents waited for their papers to come through so they could return home. A further woman, who was finding it difficult recovering from a Caesarian section, mused on how the Japanese parents would receive the news that the child who had been delivered was a boy, when they had wanted a girl.
Meanwhile Dr Patel swanned around in her Audi, directing operations for the building of a brand new $6 million dollar clinic “where I can have everyone, surrogates, parents and IVF facilities all under one roof”. I’m sure it will be a wonderful facility but should it be happening at all? I am not against surrogacy per se and am admiring of the way in which organisations like Surrogacy UK change the power dynamic in these arrangements by having the surrogate choose the family she will carry a baby for. It would be easy to be seduced by Dr Patel’s argument that the women who enter the Surrogate House in Anand do so of their own free will and that their children will benefit from the money they earn. You only have to imagine the whole set-up in Birmingham for instance to know how wrong it would be for poor women to be removed from their families and brought together under one roof to incubate babies for rich people. If that feels shocking here why would it be more acceptable in India?