HIRE A WOMB: At Shrushti, in Rajarajeshwari Nagar, surrogates lead a confined existence during their pregnancy. They receive good care and nutrition, and get to rest for the first time in many years.
Garment workers trying to overcome financial difficulties are a majority among surrogate mothers. Talk meets pregnant women who display an unsentimental acceptance of their job: delivering children for others
When we set out to visit the centre housing surrogate mothers in Rajarajeshwari Nagar, off Mysore Road, we only had a vague address. Every time we asked for the phone number of the centre, the coordinator of Shrushti Global Medicare and Research Foundation turned us down. That was to maintain confidentiality, and we were soon to understand the importance of confidentiality in the business of surrogacy.
What we knew: we had to get to a bluecoloured house with a glass front. When we finally located the place, we realised it wasn't exactly a house; it resembled a corporate office with a glass façade. The guard wouldn’t let us in before we had spoken to his boss over the phone.
Once we got in, it was clear it was no ‘home’. For all practical purposes, it was a professionally run office, with beds in place of cubicles. The women were there simply to do a job: deliver babies.
The three-storey building holds about 30 women who have rented out their wombs. The surrogate mothers are housed on all three floors. The ground floor has a living room, and a kitchen that doubles up as a recreation room. Each floor has about 20 beds in two rows, and looks like a dormitory. Every bed has the same hospital-style blue sheet and blanket. Two narrow, long tables, arranged in an L-shape, are used for dining, and playing carroms. A water dispenser and a wooden cabinet with steel plates and tumblers stand in a corner. Pictures of nursing mothers are hung on every wall.
Life at a surrogate motherhood centre is insulated from the rough and burly of the outside world. The women step out only for periodic tests and scans. Their families can visit them, but only at the clinic, and not at Shrushti.
When the guard announced that someone from a newspaper had come for a story, a surrogate mother called out to the rest. The women whispered among themselves that the boss might scold them if they didn’t talk to the reporter. It was a school scene where students are scared of the principal, and do whatever he orders.
But then, their ‘boss’ was not so bad after all. When a surrogate mother called out to him, he told her she was under no compulsion to talk or get herself photographed. The women could speak only if they wished to, and refuse the photography request.
The women are clear why they are there: to earn money and get out of a financial crunch. “Our womb is for hire,” said Sunita (29), in a matter-of-fact tone. Before coming here, she used to work in a garment factory where she was paid Rs 3,000 a month. Interestingly, a majority of surrogate mothers here are garment factory workers. Tired of poor working conditions, they find a new opportunity in surrogacy. After a woman gives birth, she gets Rs 2 lakh, and a gift worth Rs 30,000.
Since conception, Sunita has received a month salary of Rs 3,000, and the parents she is helping pay for her stay and food. “With the money I will pay off my debts, and try to secure the future of my sons,” said the mother of two.
While she is here, her husband and mother look after her children. Sunita sounds pragmatic when she says, “I know the child in my womb is not mine. I am just helping a couple who are in turn helping me financially.”
The counselling sessions provided by the centre seem to have worked. I expected at least Madhu to have some emotional attachment to the child she was carrying, but she bluntly says she feels no such bonding.
Madhu (24) was married when she was fifteen and bore two sons. Four years ago, one of her sons died. The seven-yearold banged his head into Madhu’s sewing machine, and died of a blood clot in the brain. “We tried to save him, for which we took a loan of Rs 2 lakh,” she said. Madhu borrowed from a pawn broker who charged her 10 per cent interest every month. Her husband works as a security guard and earns Rs 5,000 a month. Madhu is a tailor who used to earn about Rs 3,000 a month.
“Our earnings are spent on running the house, and part of it goes towards the interest. With our income, we will never be able to pay off the principal, and so I chose to be a surrogate mother. I know the child is not mine, and don’t want to keep it,” she says.
Many surrogate mothers here say they feel distanced from the children they are going to deliver. “We have opted for this pregnancy to better the lives of our own children. Why would we want to keep this child with us?” asks Sunita, pointing to her bulge.
Within these walls, there are no apprehensions of caste and creed. Nagaratna (30) is a Brahmin priest’s wife, and doesn’t care what caste the child in her womb comes from. “I have spoken to the parents over the phone. I don’t know much about them,” she says. Her husband works in a temple, and she used to work as a sales assistant in a pharmacy. She hopes to save the money for her 13-year-old daughter.
While the commercialisation of surrogacy stares us in the face, we cannot deny it is helping childless couples on the one hand, and poor women in need of money on the other. But, despite their clinical acceptance, ethical and emotional dilemmas arise.
Surrogate mothers come from social backgrounds where awareness about what they are going through is low. Many in their family circles have never heard of medically assisted reproduction. Sometimes, people suspect the surrogate mother has had sex with the recipient father. A pregnant woman raises many eyebrows, especially if she is a widow, or abandoned by her husband.
“After my husband's death, I have been struggling to make ends meet by working in a garment factory. When a colleague told me about surrogacy, I took it up. I could certainly not live in my locality with this bulge. People would have talked ill about me,” says Kaveri.
She has not even told her brothers. “I had to tell my mother because I wanted her to stay with my two children. My brothers will not understand,” she says, but without any visible despair.
The mothers want to keep surrogacy hidden from their biological children. “When they see us, they understand there is a baby in my womb. They expect it to be a sibling. My children are told I have gone out to work and am living in a hostel. That is not a lie, in any case,” says Kaveri.
In the case of Nagaratna, whose daughter is 13, dressing up the truth is not so easy. “We haven’t told her anything. But she has somehow figured it out. I will someday talk to her about it,” says the priest’s wife. The mothers are satisfied with the conditions of the place they are housed in, which they find more comfortable than their own homes. Pramila, who came here as a surrogate mother, gave birth to twins two months ago, and has stayed back to work as the warden of the centre. “I like it here,” she says, beaming. She has her weekends off, when she goes home to visit her husband and son.
Many hope not to go back to their previous lives. “Life is tough in a garment factory,” says Kaveri. She wants to start a small business of her own. “While we are here, we do a beautician’s course. I hope I can put those skills to good use,” she says.
The centre follows a strict diet for the mothers, with fruits and milk. Both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food is served. The food is nutritious, and usually better than what they could afford during their own pregnancies. The freedom from toil is valued, too. It is for the first time in many years that the women are given care, and allowed to relax.