India is planning to ban the use of surrogate mothers for foreign couples. But experts say that implementing the proposed ban would be difficult as the surrogacy business brings in a substantial amount of revenue.
The practice of commercial surrogacy - when women are paid to carry and deliver babies for people who cannot conceive them biologically - is banned in most Western countries. The only European countries where surrogacy is legal are Russia and Ukraine.
However, the situation is different in India. With its cheap medical technology, skilled doctors, and a steady supply of local surrogates, it is one of the few nations in the world where women can be paid to deliver birth for other people.
As a result, thousands of fertility centers have opened up across the country, and consequently, India has become a major surrogacy hub where thousands of foreign couples come in the hope of having a baby.
But now the Indian government plans to present a bill in parliament next month, called the Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) Bill, which effectively stops foreigners from availing surrogacy services in India. Only deserving infertile Indian couples would be exempted from this proposed ban.
"It is a good step. The poor and vulnerable women are being exploited in the name of surrogacy and paid a very small amount for renting out their wombs. A majority of these women don't understand the legal documents being drawn up for their services," Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Director General of the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), told DW.
The ICMR has documented several case studies which found that during the period of pregnancy surrogates are exposed to conditions that put them at grave risk.
A lucrative business
The proposed law gives authorities the power to visit fertility clinics without advanced notice as well as to demand access to hospital records, including confidential information about couples seeking surrogacy services.
But not everyone is convinced that banning commercial surrogacy for foreigners will be effective considering the vast amount of money pumped into the industry, which is estimated to be growing by 20 percent annually.
"It has grown into an industry worth over $2 billion, and according to some estimates, 6,000 surrogate babies are being born in India every year. The industry is largely unregulated and is similar to trafficking," Dr. Puneet Bedi, a Delhi-based obstetrician, told DW.
In countries where surrogacy is allowed, the procedure is extremely expensive. In the United States, it costs around $70,000. In comparison, India offers much cheaper services, at about $12,000.
"There will always be loopholes in the law which will be exploited. For instance, India has banned sex-determination tests but they continue to take place in the country," Dr. Kiran Jadhav, a gynecologist, told DW.
At the same time, Dr. Nayna Patel, a commercial surrogacy specialist, argues that the practice is helping India's poor women.
"These women are doing it willingly. Surrogacy and egg donation are legitimate choices that women make in return for financial compensation," Dr. Patel told DW.
Some criticize the proposed ban and say it is synonymous with curtailing "medical tourism" in the country. Taking all these aspects into consideration, it remains unclear whether the government will be able to get parliament's approval and effectively implement the ban.