It began with a news program on BBC about surrogacy. A British couple was using an Indian surrogate in the state of Gujarat. I had heard about surrogacy before. I knew the basics. But I didn’t know how big a business it is and how prevalent the practice.
Every writer has a different process for writing a book, choosing a subject, a character. I usually start with a question. And as I, a mother of two, watched this news program, I asked myself, “How does a woman go through a whole pregnancy, knowing she has to give that baby up when it’s born? And how does a woman deal with a long-distance pregnancy?”
For me, conception is abstract – whether it’s having sex or going to a clinic to have an embryo implanted – the process is abstract. But pregnancy, that feeling of a baby inside of you, that’s not abstract. That’s real. Tangible. The baby kicks and you hold it close to you – there is love, immediate, instant, all-consuming. So, what does a surrogate do when the baby kicks? Do her hormones know the baby is not hers? How does this fact impact her emotions? And what about the biological mother? How does she deal with becoming a mother without becoming pregnant but knowing another woman is pregnant with her child?
I had a lot of questions. So I started to research.
The business end of things
Many countries around the world, Denmark included, have banned paid surrogacy. In the United States, paid surrogacy is legal and expensive. India is a popular option because surrogacy there costs about $12,000, including all medical expenses and the surrogate’s fee, while in the U.S., the same procedure costs around $70,000. Right there it’s clear why India has become a hub for surrogacy. In addition to the low cost, the advantage of having high-quality assisted reproductive technology before conception and during the pregnancy makes India attractive.
Statistics for surrogacy in India are hard to come by, but according one estimate the surrogacy business brings $2.3bn to India (Reuters, Mar 2, 2015), with nearly 5,000 surrogate babies born every year. However, this does not mean that the surrogate gets wealthy, as surrogates are paid somewhere between $2,000 and $8,000, depending upon the report you read.
In the past, India has not had stringent laws governing surrogacy – which means the surrogate has very few rights. In addition, many of these women are not literate and sign legal contracts they don’t understand. This has changed somewhat.
In India where homosexuality is illegal as Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code makes sex with persons of the same gender punishable by law – the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2012 established new visa rules that specified a number of conditions, including a bar on single people, unmarried couples, or gay couples from receiving a medical visa for commissioning surrogacies in India. This rule stipulates that a visa will be issued subject to the condition that “[t]he foreign man and woman are duly married and the marriage should have [been] sustained at least for two years.” (Library of Congress website: loc.gov)
In September 2015, India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare through its Department of Health Research published for public and stakeholder comments draft legislation regulating assisted reproductive technology (ART).
According to the Director of the Department of Health Research, “[t]the proposed legislation aims at proper regulation and supervision of … (ART) clinics and banks in the country, and for prevention of misuse of this technology, including surrogacy, and for safe and ethical practice of ART services. This bill has not passed the parliament yet. (www.loc.gov)
According to the draft, any couple commissioning surrogacy must enter an agreement with the surrogate where the surrogate must relinquish all parental rights over the child or children; and that the commissioning couple is “legally bound to accept the custody of the child or children irrespective of any abnormality that the child or children may have.” This is because of instances as the one from 2012 where an Australian couple abandoned one of their twins born to a surrogate because they couldn’t support two children (Guardian.com). In another case in Thailand, an Australian couple abandoned one of their twins who had Down syndrome (CNN.com). The surrogate is required to be a married Indian woman over the age of twenty three and under the age thirty five. The draft also disallows surrogacy for foreigners but allows surrogacy in India for Overseas Citizens of India, People of Indian Origin, Non Resident Indians and a foreigner who is married to an Indian citizen. And these couples must be married for at least two years and show proof that the woman is unable to conceive a child.
With nearly 1.1 billion people, India is one of the most populous countries in the world. India’s IT and service sector has helped the economy and the population living under the poverty line has fallen to 25% (CIA World Factbook, 2007). Cities such as Hyderabad, Bangalore and Mumbai are becoming wealthy – and urban centers for commerce and trade; and the standard of living is therefore higher here. But the majority of rural villages in India lack critical public services such as education and adequate healthcare. The laborers struggle in their everyday life and earn the equivalent of $1-2 per day. Under these circumstances, surrogacy becomes a viable option for women as they can literally change their life with the money they earn. In addition, they get house and board, medical attention and computer classes or other education in some clinics during their nine-month term. Surrogacy becomes an opportunity for survival and for a better life for these women and their families. It would take decades for them to make the money they earn in just nine months.
The book: A tale of two women
My book A House for Happy Mothers is the story of two women, the biological mother Priya, a well-off woman from Silicon Valley and the surrogate Asha, who is from a poor background. Asha’s husband is a painter hardly able to make enough money to make ends meet. This is their only chance to educate their children and live a life that is not at the bottom of the socioeconomic barrel.
I understood Asha’s motivations and felt her helplessness as I got to know her better. My heart broke for her. A lot of pregnant women have this nightmare where someone takes their baby away, I certainly did. Imagine knowing that the nightmare was an upcoming reality? There is an added burden for women as surrogacy is not accepted in society, so they also have to hide that they’re surrogates or lose face. I learnt more about Asha’s emotional turmoil as I wrote her story.
Priya, I knew well even before I started to write the book.
When I was twenty-five years old I was diagnosed with endometriosis and my left fallopian tube and ovary were removed. My doctor told me I probably couldn’t have children without help. Here I was, twenty-five years old, and I had thought about having children after I turned thirty and got my career in order – but as soon as the doctor said I couldn’t have children, all I wanted was a baby.
My husband and I had many conversations about what this meant for us. Would this change our marriage? Would we start living through a high during ovulation and expectation of pregnancy and a low when my period came? I was terrified that our lives would revolve around my ovulation cycle, especially with only that one ovary left.
Luckily, we got pregnant quickly and without help. But I remember that feeling of helplessness, this feeling that I was getting cheated. There is a promise made when you’re younger, “You’re going to grow up, get married and have children” – and I felt that life was letting me down. I feared that I wouldn’t become a mother. It wasn’t rational, but then again, we’re wired for it not to be.
So I knew how Priya felt and I knew the conversations she would have with her husband. I could relate to the baby madness even though I didn’t go through what so many do with miscarriages and the emotional scars they leave. There is a sense of personal failure for women who can’t get pregnant feel, even though there should not be (we are, after all, more than our wombs). And then to use a surrogate and see another woman do what you can’t, can be an extra blow to the already precarious emotional balance of a woman struggling to become pregnant.
A House for Happy Mothers is the story of two women from two very different worlds – two women who have their own struggles and their own hopes – two women who I fell in love with as I went on this journey with them.
The title of a book and the names of its main characters are important to me before I start a story. They’re my guiding stars. They tell me who these people are and what their story is.
I named the biological mother in A House for Happy Mothers Priyasha (long for Priya), which means “a dear hope” – and the surrogate, Asha, which means “hope.” In my mind the title of the book was The Melancholy of Hope (a title everyone hated) because it was hope that brought these women together, hope that bound them together and hope that equalized them in spite of the difference in their lives.
The final title of the book, A House for Happy Mothers came from my agent. In the book, Happy Mothers is the name of the surrogacy clinic in India that houses Asha the surrogate and many others like her during their pregnancy. And it is the right title for this story – it’s the story’s guiding star.
In A House for Happy Mothers, Asha’s rights are not violated as sometimes they are in real life – which I hope the new Assisted Reproductive Technology bill in India will prevent or at least mitigate in the future. But beyond the rights that are sealed in a legal contract is the emotional and moral issue of surrogacy. I have read many articles and watched documentaries where surrogates tell us how this is a win-win in their book. And it certainly is from a financial perspective. I have heard from parents who use surrogates that they feel uncompromised morally because they feel they helped a woman lead a better life and they got a gift of a lifetime. But ultimately, society has to decide how we want to treat those who are less fortunate – will they have to serve those who are financially better off to secure a half-decent life? Are there enough legal contracts and penal codes in place to protect those who are desperate? For me, the moral issue of surrogacy did raise its righteous head as I wrote the book. But as a friend who was going through IVF treatment told me when I tried to console her by saying that there was more to her life than having children, “How would you know, Amulya? You have two children. You don’t know how I feel.”
So, I don’t want to pass judgment because I don’t know how it feels – I simply want to tell the story of two women who come together to help each other as they struggle with their own morals and values.