Give Surrogate Moms their Due Respect, Says this Film by Doctors
A still from the Bengali film, <i>Shunyo Je Kol</i> (The Empty Lap).
A still from the Bengali film, Shunyo Je Kol (The Empty Lap).

Give Surrogate Moms their Due Respect, Says this Film by Doctors

25-year-old, Sumi, belonging to an underprivileged family, who gives tuitions to eke out a living, wants to raise money for her widowed sister’s six-year-old daughter’s heart surgery. Finding no other way, out of sheer desperation, she responds to an advertisement in a paper where an affluent lawyer is looking for a surrogate mother.

This is the plot of Bhaswati Roy’s film which has turned the spotlight on surrogacy. It was introduced in India about a decade ago. For a decade, 35-year old History professor, Bhaswati Roy had cherished a dream to make a film on a socially relevant issue. She attended a range of workshops on film-making, developed her script, organised funds and finally began shooting a year and a half ago. Her Bengali film, Shunyo Je Kol (The Empty Lap) will be released next month.

A Film on Surrogacy

Not much is still known about surrogacy and neither Sumi nor the lawyer are initially aware that a surrogate mother must be married and have at least one child.

Nevertheless, the protagonist becomes the surrogate mother. She receives Rs 5 lakhs but she pays a heavy price for it. Her boyfriend severs ties, society rejects her and her tuitions are discontinued. Once the baby is born and she has to hand him over to the lawyer and his wife, she feels the heart-wrenching pain of separation.

Dr Rajesh Das, who is Bhaswati’s husband, and four of his friends, from Calcutta Medical College, who have a passionate interest in theatre, agreed to act in her debut film.

Treatment of female infertility through IUI (intra uterine insemination) and IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) have already proven their effectiveness. But when a woman is infertile due to a congenital or acquired defect or her uterus is unable to carry the baby through the full term, then surrogacy is the only answer to get a genetically linked biological baby by hiring a non-defective uterus, the resting and growing place of the embryo.
— Dr Rajesh Das, Actor and husband of Bhaswati Roy

India’s Surrogacy Industry

While the economic scale of surrogacy is unknown, studies backed by the United Nations in July 2012 estimated the business at more than $400 million a year with over 3000 fertility clinics across India. The largest is probably Dr Nayna Patel’s Akanksha Infertility Clinic in Anand in Gujarat.

Infertility is on the rise owing to a host of reasons such as pollution, stress, hectic lifestyles and the use of cell phones. Simultaneously, artificial reproductive techniques have made giant strides. Most fertility centres find that couples who come to them for guidance are in their late thirties and early forties.

(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

Guarding the Interests of Surrogate Mothers

Since the Assisted Reproductive Technology Bill 2013 has not made much headway, the Indian Council for Medical Research has drafted guidelines to protect the interests of surrogate mothers:

1) A surrogate mother should not be over 45 years of age.

2) Surrogacy should normally be considered only for patients for whom it would be physically or medically impossible to carry a baby for the full term

3) No woman may act as a surrogate more than thrice in her lifetime

4) A surrogate mother should be married and have at least one child of her own

In the absence of any law, middle men extract money from families which need a uterus. Gynaecologist Dr Shiuli Mukherjee points out, “I ensure that I never repeat the surrogate mother. It is bad for her health.”

Doctors do realise that they may not use the same surrogate mother again but there is little restraint on stopping any woman from going to another fertility centre and applying again. Sheer financial pressures will prompt them to go through it again. Repeated pregnancies and a series of hormonal injections will adversely affect her health.

Flip Side

Dr Saswata Banerjee, who plays the role of the protagonist’s boyfriend in the film, says, “My role in the film represents society’s attitude towards surrogacy. It is looked down upon. But while I do believe it is a social need, I do feel we have to ensure malpractices do not happen. We definitely need laws. Moreover, surrogacy should not be seen as a profession.”

Without a legal framework and adequate supervision could surrogacy become a business?

Dr Rajeev Agarwal, does not see this as exploitation as women come forward willingly to be surrogate mothers, “They make more money than they would in a lifetime and at the same time help another woman to become a mother. But what I don’t approve of is the unnecessary glamorisation of surrogacy. Medical professionals should not encourage this. It should be done only in cases where it is necessary.”

(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

Some medical practitioners feel the problem lies elsewhere. Dr Rohit Gutgutia, who has been practising surrogacy for the last eight years says, “I am now seeing a rising trend in the requests for surrogacy, many times for frivolous reasons. It takes all our efforts to convince the couple that they do not need surrogacy.”

There is a need for greater awareness about issues. After the film Vicky Donor, which dealt with the subject of sperm donation, was released, we were swamped with calls from those who wanted to be volunteers. They saw this as a way to become millionaires overnight, whereas in reality sperm donors go through a series of checks and neither is the payment as lucrative as it was made out to be in the film.
Representative at a fertility centre

While Bhaswati’s film will introduce the public to the concept of surrogacy, medical practitioners feel that mere guidelines are not enough and there is an urgent need for laws to protect both the surrogate mother and the offspring.

(Payal Mohanka is a Kolkata-based senior journalist.)

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