|Surrogate mothers in a dormitory above a clinic in Anand, Gujarat, in 2009. AFP file picture
New Delhi, Jan. 20: Discrepancies between guidelines from two Union government agencies have left India’s doctors confused about who can be assisted to rent wombs and have babies through surrogacy services.
New rules circulated by the home ministry require foreign couples seeking surrogacy services in India to have been married for at least two years and debar foreign gay and lesbian couples from renting Indian wombs.
Doctors say these rules are inconsistent with guidelines from a health ministry arm, the Indian Council of Medical Research, that do not impose the two-year-marriage condition and allow even individuals — and not just couples — to seek surrogacy services.
Both sets of guidelines emerged amid concerns that clinics offering assisted reproduction technology services have mushroomed over the past two decades, turning India into a reproductive tourism destination.
A law commission report had four years ago observed that wombs on rent in India were translating into “babies for foreigners and dollars for Indian surrogate mothers”.
“The discrepancies have led to confusion; they need to be resolved,” said Manish Banker, a gynaecologist and in-vitro fertilisation specialist in Ahmedabad and the president of the Indian Society for Assisted Reproduction.
“The government also needs to clarify the date when these new rules will apply,” said Banker, who was part of a health ministry committee that helped draft a bill to regulate assisted reproduction services in India.
“We have some patients who have already signed (surrogacy) agreements; we have surrogate mothers who are already pregnant; but we don’t know what is the cut-off date for the rules.”
Home ministry sources say the rules imposing conditions on foreigners seeking visas to make use of surrogacy services in India are also intended to protect the children born through surrogacy.
Under the rules, couples who seek surrogacy in India must submit letters from their embassies in India or from their foreign ministries that the child born through surrogacy would be allowed to enter their country as their biological child.
“The ICMR guidelines allow a couple in a relationship that is recognised in India to seek assisted reproduction services,” said Pushpa M. Bhargava, senior biologist and member of health ministry committees that drafted the ICMR guidelines and the bill.
“But the (ICMR) guidelines also allow individuals the right to have a child through assisted reproduction services. The (home ministry’s) rules are not in consonance with this point.”
The ICMR guidelines, which the bill seeks to turn into law, are intended to protect the medical, social and legal rights of those involved in surrogacy transactions. They impose certain conditions to protect the health of surrogate mothers.
For example, only women aged between 21 and 35 years can serve as surrogates, and no woman can serve as a surrogate if she has given more than five live births, including her own children.
“But I don’t see any logic in the rule that a couple should have been married for at least two years,” said Nayna Patel, an in-vitro fertilisation specialist in Anand, Gujarat.
“This will make it difficult for newly married couples in their late 30s or early 40s who need surrogacy services. There’s no medical reason why a two-year condition should be imposed.”
In a surrogacy transaction, a woman — the surrogate — agrees to have her uterus implanted with an in-vitro fertilised egg and to carry and deliver the child for someone else who is unable or unwilling to bear a child.
The law commission report on assisted reproduction services had in 2009 noted that the fee for renting wombs in India ranged between $25,000 and $30,000 (Rs 13.5-16 lakh at current exchange rates) — about one-third the price in some developed countries.
Some doctors estimate that several hundred to a few thousand women serve as surrogates in India each year.
Banker said the Indian Society for Assisted Reproduction had drafted letters seeking a resolution of the discrepancies in the guidelines and would send them next week to both the health and home ministries.