Everyone forgets the surrogate

Government must bring the assisted reproductive technologies bill to Parliament. More stringent regulation could have saved lives

Sushma Pandey, just 17 years old, reportedly died due to procedures related to egg harvesting conducted on her by a fertility clinic in Mumbai. Two years after her death, the Bombay high court did well to criticise the police for not prosecuting the hospital for its flagrant violation of the age requirement for women donors set out by the rules of the Indian Council of Medical Research. (Indian Express, July 12) Sushma is not here to tell us the circumstances that drove a minor to subject herself to highly invasive procedures of egg harvesting not once, but three times in a short span, on payment, reportedly, of Rs 25,000 each time. But her case does raise a range of issues, such as the use and misuse of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) in India by the fertility industry, a major part of which caters to a foreign clientele.

The protest of women's organisations against the current practices of the fertility industry have nothing in common with the opposition of orthodox groups who are against the use of technology per se as it "interferes in God's work and will." The ethical, legal and social questions are related to the commodification and commercialisation of not only a woman's reproductive tissues but also her womb, in what is referred to as "rent-a-womb" in surrogacy commercial ventures. There are also questions of whether this high-profile industry is strengthening stereotypical notions of the importance of "making my own baby", as opposed to adoption as an alternative for couples wanting to have children.

For a woman to become an egg donor is not without risks. She is given hormonal drugs to stimulate her ovaries, daily injections for 10 days or more. An advertisement by a well-known fertility clinic that they can produce "an egg donor being super ovulated just for you" illustrates that the crass driving factor is not the health of the egg donor, but to convince the commissioning couple that their interests are being protected. Super ovulated egg donors can be expected to produce a larger number of eggs on the demand of the expectant couple. There are other conditions too. Indian newspapers and websites carry ads much like the matrimonial ones. Don't be surprised by ads like the one in a women's magazine that said, "Wanted: a fair, good-looking, educated, healthy lady, preferably a Brahmin of 20-30 years of age in Chennai with good background for egg donation." Critics have referred to this as the designer-baby syndrome, but a more serious question is the kind of genetic-supremacist values that get promoted. Isn't it true that there is only a thin dividing line between the use of ART to "choose" to produce only fair, light-haired babies through the "right" egg or sperm donor and the ideologies of racist supremacy that the world is all too familiar with?

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