Above a cheap mobile phone shop in a chaotic street in north Delhi, there is a grimy apartment whose peeling walls are decorated with photographs of adoring mothers nursing their babies.
The woman cooing at her child in the biggest portrait is beautiful, white and affluent-looking—in stark contrast to the flat’s five residents, four of whom are pregnant, while the other is being pumped full of hormones in the hope she will soon conceive.
They are all uneducated, bare-footed, dirt-poor Indian women from outlying villages—and given the emotional turmoil that awaits them, one would have thought the very last thing they would wish to do is spend their enforced nine months of confinement here gazing upon images of maternal bliss.
Nominally, this forlorn place is a care home for surrogate mothers—at least that is how it is described by the company that runs it, Wyzax Surrogacy Consultancy, which is cashing in on India’s booming new babies-for-sale business.
It boasts of being the country’s first ‘one-stop shop for outsourced pregnancy’. In truth, though, it is nothing less than a baby factory; the end of a grim production line on which children are being designed to order for wealthy couples, mainly from Western countries including Britain, as if they were custom-built cars.
Indeed, as I have discovered during an eye-opening three-week investigation into India’s burgeoning, billion-dollar surrogacy industry, the motor-manufacturing analogy is all too apt.
For under an astonishing—and many will think nightmarishly futuristic—programme devised to make the most efficient use of resources, or ‘optimise’ their baby producing system, as they put it, Wyzax and their partner agencies now source and assemble the ‘components’ of some babies in a variety of different countries before flying the resulting embryo to India to be implanted in the surrogate.
According to the Delhi-based agency’s whizz-kid young bosses, Vivek Kohli and Jagatjeet Singh, they do this for a small but growing number of clients—about 15 per cent—who, for various reasons, don’t wish to use Indian eggs or an Indian fertility clinic, or even set foot in India until they take delivery of the baby they have ordered.
For all their apparent desperation to start families, these so called ‘IPs’, or intended parents, have also become ever-more demanding in their specifications; many want babies who emanate from a gene pool which maximises the possibility that they will not only resemble them but have, say, blond hair and blue eyes (and hopefully be attractive, sporty and intelligent into the bargain).
Kohli and Singh have therefore devised a ‘protocol’ that works roughly like this: after careful screening for genetic illnesses and an IQ test, attractive young female egg donors from countries such as Ukraine, Lithuania, Georgia, Armenia and Belarus are advertised in an online catalogue for prospective parents to browse.
In Eastern Europe, there are all too many hard-up women willing to endure fertility treatment, a long flight to California or Boston, and an uncomfortable operation under anaesthetic to sell their eggs for up to £750 a batch.
And as human eggs cannot be frozen and transported, and there are few surrogacy clinics or wombs available for rent in Eastern Europe, these donors travel, at the height of their monthly cycle, to the United States, where the eggs are extracted and fertilised with the father’s sperm (which can be transported, frozen, from his country of residence, and stored indefinitely).
Lesbian couples or couples where the male partner is infertile can use donor sperm, which is widely available in America and some European countries.
Another advantage of creating babies in a U.S. laboratory is that many couples have a preference for gender, and the ‘sexing’ of test-tube babies is permitted in some states there. It is banned in India, where the preference for sons drives many to female infanticide.
Few American women are willing to act as surrogates—at least not cheaply—but impoverished Indian women are literally queuing up outside surrogacy clinics these days. It is cheaper to hire a womb here than anywhere else in the world, hence its dubious place at the centre of the sci-fi-style ‘global baby’ boom.
Once created, the embryos are frozen to minus 196c, placed in liquid nitrogen canisters resembling small milk-churns, then flown 8,000 miles from the U.S. to cities such as Delhi and Bombay, where they are implanted.
Here, though, the comparison to a car production line ends. As I saw when visiting the ‘baby factory’, the women who incubate and hatch these identikit children would be better compared to brood mares.
They are so desperate to feed, clothe and educate their own families that they are prepared to risk being shunned by their husbands and communities for a fee of up to £4,000; an amount they wouldn’t earn in ten years working in their traditional jobs as domestic servants. All they need do to reap this vast sum—or so these often illiterate souls are told when they make agreements often put together by shady fixers—is to lie around watching TV all day, eating nutritious food they would never ordinarily be able to afford, and be dosed with vitamins and hormones.
Oh, yes, and they must hand over their white, blue-eyed babies (often delivered prematurely by Caesarean section to minimise the risk of perinatal complications) without so much as one, brief parting cuddle—to ensure there is no danger of them bonding.
How does it feel to be carrying a child destined to be removed from her and handed to a foreign couple she will never meet, I ask 25-year-old surrogate Pakhi, whose much older husband recently died of a heart attack, leaving her to care for their five-year-old daughter in penury.
‘I haven’t told my neighbours in the village, only my close family know,’ she says, grinning with embarrassment. ‘I try not to think about whose baby I’m having. If I see the baby I think I’ll be sad, but if I don’t see it, I think I won’t.’
Uneasy with her answer, one of the agency staff interjects snappily. ‘I’m telling you—they are not very much emotionally attached with the babies. They are mentally prepared and they’ll get their money, and that’s it.’
Like all the major players in the lucrative surrogacy industry—the fertility gurus, recruitment agents, and egg donor companies—Wyzax is flourishing for a variety of reasons that make India the destination of choice for many desperate western couples.
Whereas commercial surrogacy is illegal in most European countries, including Britain, in India it is not only permitted but tacitly encouraged and regulated only by an ill-enforced code of practice, not by law. A new surrogacy bill is being discussed, but is years away from the statute books.
Starting at just £15,000, package prices for a baby here are also up to five times cheaper than in the United States.
An increasing proportion of clients are gay couples—though as homosexuality was only recently decriminalised in India, and remains widely taboo, I was urged not to tell the surrogates I met that they might be carrying babies for same-sex parents.
During my visit to the ‘factory’, however, the sheer confusion that can occur when babies are created and bought on demand became farcically apparent.
As I spoke to Rahima, who is staying there with her children, aged two and three months, she told me how she was recently introduced to the Israeli father of the twins she is expecting. In fact, I later discovered, this man was a Tel Aviv agency boss visiting the ‘factory’.
Wyzax bosses told me they had discussed a possible partnership deal with Bourn Hall, the world-renowned, Cambridge-based fertility centre where IVF pioneers Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards created the world’s first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, in 1978.
Although the clinic has recently opened two branches in India which offer surrogacy, a spokeswoman categorically denied they had any involvement with this so-called ‘one-stop shop’.
Bourn Hall says its new clinics will serve childless Indians, not foreigners, and doubtless they will be run to its exacting moral and ethical standards; would that the same could be said for all India’s surrogacy practitioners.
During my inquiries among companies who offer such services, I uncovered some deeply disquieting practices, such as the termination of unwanted pregnancies that can occur when clients pay a premium for multiple embryos to be implanted to maximise the chances of conception. If too many embryos develop, some are then selectively terminated.
Euphemistically, the Indians call this ‘reduction’. Many would call it abortion, even though it takes place only a couple of weeks into the pregnancy.
I was also told how imported sperm and embryo canisters are sometimes ‘mistakenly’ opened by customs officers, so that the contents thaw and have to be destroyed. The potential for mistakes is terrifying.
Take the Canadian couple who used one such agency to have a family. They were denied a passport for one of their twins after a DNA test—compulsory under their government’s law—revealed they had been duped and the baby had been fathered by someone else.
Another current example of how wrong these Brave New World baby-making arrangements can go is illustrated by the Kafkaesque legal nightmare that has beset a gay British marketing consultant and his partner. Their case is quietly rumbling on in a British court.
When the two men—one in his 30s, the other in his 40s—decided to start a family, they prepared meticulously, checking many of the country’s 600-plus clinics before choosing the family-run Kiran Infertility Centre, hundreds of miles from Delhi in Hyderabad.
‘Ironically, one of the reasons that attracted us to it was that it seemed more ethical and less hard-sell than the others,’ one of them told me from their West Country home this week.
They used a donor whose eggs were fused with one of the men’s sperm so that he could be the biological father.
Soon afterwards they were told, to their delight, that their 30-year-old surrogate (whom they opted not to meet) was pregnant with twins.
They had agreed to pay the clinic about £20,000—some £4,000 of which was to go to the surrogate—and in June last year, when they were handed two beautiful, healthy sons, it seemed a cheap price to pay for such unbridled joy.
By then the warning bells had already sounded, however. They say their embryologist Dr Sekhar Samit got the date of conception wrong meaning they were not in Hyderabad at the time of the birth as planned, and only discovered that the most momentous event of their lives had taken place when they checked their email.
They flew to India and met their babies, but it was only when they applied for the UK passports they needed to take the boys home, and the British court order that establishes them as legal parents, that their troubles really began.
As Kiran claimed to have handled a good number of British cases, and to know how to circumvent red-tape, the couple had paid an extra £1,500 for their legal services—only to be told by the British High Commission (who were extremely unhelpful, they say) that they had dealt with this clinic just once previously.
They had to wait for three worrying months in India before the passports were finally issued. But worse was in store when they went to court in Britain and applied for the parental order, without which the birth mother remains the babies’ legal guardian in British law.
Before issuing this vital order, the court must be presented with a document signed by the surrogate, saying she relinquishes all rights to the children, and, crucially, her signature must have been obtained at least six weeks after the birth, so she has had time to gather her emotions and consider her wishes.
But according to the babies’ biological father, the only document the clinic has provided was signed by the surrogate just a few days after she bore the twins—and despite repeated requests, and a costly legal wrangle, they still haven’t received the key piece of paper. Bizarrely, in fact, they say the last document they received from Dr Samit—who this week told me he runs the ‘biggest surrogacy practice in the country’ and is helping six British couples—was a stencilled one-finger salute (the Indian equivalent of a V-sign) sent by courier.
As a result, says the babies’ father, the twins are in ‘legal limbo’, and he and his partner have no lawful right to make any major parental decision about their care, such as whether they should have medical treatment or where they should be educated.
On April 23, when the case was last in court, the judge granted them a six-week extension to present the signed document. If they can’t, their only option will be to apply to adopt the twins. It could be a lengthy, costly, and emotionally draining process—but gauging from my inquiries into this extraordinary and unedifying fiasco this week, I fear it will be the couple’s only recourse.
For I discovered the address given for the surrogate was that of Dr Sesha Sai, the ‘caretaker/arranger’ who recruited her, no doubt for a handsome fee; and Dr Samit told me the surrogate had decamped back to her village, and couldn’t be traced.
He also claimed to have forwarded the requisite document months ago and said the British couple were out to smear his reputation because he had rejected their offer to supply him with would-be British parents—an allegation the babies’ father dismisses as ‘totally outrageous’.
If we believe Wyzax boss Jagatjeet Singh, agencies like his will end such wrangles by ‘systemising and optimising’ the surrogacy service in much the same way as Indian call-centres have for insurance and mobile phone providers.
‘Globalisation is here in the surrogacy business!’ he proclaimed, with a zealous look in his eye.
Much as one feels for the desperate couples who beat a path to his Delhi office, it is a deeply depressing thought. And the sale of cheap, designer babies, made from Ukrainian eggs and British sperm, concocted in an American lab, and spawned in a factory in the backstreets of India, should send chills down the spine.