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Womb for Rent: Surrogate Mothers in India

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The temperature at 9 a.m. the following morning is pushing a brain-melting 107 degrees. Najima Vohra, immaculately dressed in an electric-blue tunic-and-pants set, arrives at the clinic an hour early for her meeting with Ordenes so they can bond a bit more before the procedure begins. It's not the most intimate venue, but Vohra is uncomfortable being seen anywhere else — like most women here, she plans to keep her surrogacy a secret. Vohra is slim, and her long hair is tied back with a plain rubber band. "I couldn't wait to get here," she says through a translator, sitting in a plastic chair in the lobby. "I've been so excited since Dr. Patel chose me to be a surrogate that I haven't been able to sleep."

Vohra says she's not ashamed of being a surrogate, but most locals are very traditional and don't understand. "They think it's dirty — that immoral acts take place to get pregnant," she whispers, explaining their disbelief that she could conceive a child without having sex. "They'd shun my family if they knew." Vohra comes from a village 20 miles outside Anand, but she has temporarily moved to the town with her husband and two children, a 12-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son, to hide what she is doing. "We told our neighbors we were coming here for work, which is not strictly a lie."

Vohra has no job but helps her husband in his scrap-metal business, for which they earn 50 to 60 rupees ($1.20 to $1.45) a day. If her pregnancy is successful, the $5,500 she receives will, as she puts it, "give my children a future."

Growing up, Vohra worked in the wheat fields; she had little education. After her parents married her off at 16, she moved with her husband into a one-room mud house that erodes every year during the monsoon season. She plans to divide her surrogacy windfall three ways: buying a brick house, investing in her husband's business, and paying for her children's education. "My daughter wants to be a teacher," she says. "I'll do anything to give her that opportunity.

"I'm fit and strong, and I've already given birth twice," she continues, scoffing at the idea of being nervous. And yes, she's mentally prepared to hand over the baby. "It won't even have the same skin color as me, so it won't be hard to think of it as Jessica's." The clinic stipulates that all surrogates must already be mothers so they understand what's involved physically and will be less likely to become emotionally attached to the babies they bear.

Of course, it's impossible for Vohra to know how she will feel after she gives birth — this is the wild card, the reason custody battles sometimes ensue in the U.S. All surrogates at the clinic sign a contract agreeing to hand over the baby — which reassures prospective parents, but also supports arguments that the women, many of whom are illiterate, are being taken advantage of. (In the U.S., only a handful of states regard presigned contracts as legally binding. In others, a surrogate has a small window of time after birth to stake her claim to parental rights.)

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