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Womb for Rent: Surrogate Mothers in India

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As a guest speaker at many international infertility conferences, Patel isn't fazed by the foreigners who beat a path to her door — including clients from Taiwan, Japan, the U.S., Europe, and Australia. But she refuses to treat gay couples, revealing her deeply conservative cultural roots. "I get e-mails from gays and lesbians," she says, "some of them very well written — but I don't feel right about helping them."

The people she does feel good about helping are the local women-the surrogates — so long as they're not being coerced by their husbands or in-laws eager for a paycheck. "I must be certain it's a woman's own decision," she explains. "If there's any sign of tension or unwillingness, I spot it straightaway." Patel also helps to ensure each woman keeps control over her fee. "For example, if she wants to buy a house, we'll hold her money for her until she's ready. Or if she wants to put it in an account for her children, we'll go with her to the bank to set up the account in her name." The money gives many women their first taste of empowerment.

Achieving that financial freedom is hard work. In one of the wards, Sofia Vohra (no relation to Najima), 35, is lying in a room with three beds, an ancient ceiling fan, and wall paint that has bubbled in the heat like a nasty rash. She is about to give birth for the sixth time, to a baby she's carrying for a couple living in the U.S. She has five children of her own, a husband who's a lazy drunk, and a job crushing glass that's used in making (of all things) fortified kite string, for which she earns $25 a month. She became a surrogate for no other reason than to pay for her two daughters' dowries, an illegal — but still widely practiced — Indian marriage ritual.

"I'll be glad when this is over," she says, as Patel places a stethoscope on her ballooning brown stomach. "It's exhausting being pregnant again." Then, in case her complaints are misunderstood, she quickly adds, "This is not exploitation. Crushing glass for 15 hours a day is exploitation. The baby's parents have given me a chance to make good marriages for my daughters. That's a big weight off my mind."

Hearst Maireclaire Photo of India Birthday Party

It's lunchtime on Thursday, and the clinic's surrogate mothers crowd into a small room where the staff is throwing a party. Among them is 30-year-old Rubina Mondal, a former bank clerk with long, straight black hair, dressed in a red sari fringed with gold. In February, she gave birth to a healthy boy for a couple from California.

Mondal heard about Patel's clinic on a TV show, and traveled to Anand from her home in the eastern city of Kolkata. Her reason was purely economic: Her 8-year-old son, Raj, has a hole in his heart, and working as a surrogate was the only likely solution to covering his expensive medical care. Patel matched Mondal with Karen, a 33-year-old who works for a mortgage lending company in Los Angeles.

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