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Two men and a baby


The cost of hiring a surrogate mother in India is one-third of the US.

With India's booming surrogacy market favouring rich clients from abroad, local gay couples struggle to afford the steep costs of parenthood.

Over the last few years, India has emerged as a commercial surrogacy hub. Unofficial estimates peg India's surrogacy market at $499 mn and a large part of the business is driven by foreign gay couples, like Micha and Ofer Amir Cohen from Israel, who seek a low-cost but safe way to parenthood. Together for the past 19 years, the Amir-Cohens recently came to Mumbai to get a child through an Indian surrogate mother. They were lucky to have twins. "We had two options for surrogacy - the US or India, " says Micha in an email interview. "Since the procedure in the US is three times more expensive, we chose India. "

The 'rent-a-womb' route to parenthood is very popular among same-sex couples - mostly foreigners from the US, Australia and parts of Europe. There are firms and agencies catering to the needs of such couples. They help them find appropriate IVF clinics and surrogate mothers. Surrogacy India is one such firm based in Mumbai, which recently celebrated the 100th delivery from its pool of surrogate moms. "Forty to 50 per cent of our clients are gay men, " says Dr Sudhir Ajja, who along with Dr Yashodhara Mhatre set up Surrogacy India in 2007.

Around the same time Dr Gautam Allahabadia set up Rotunda IVF Clinic in Mumbai, one of the first in the country to cater to the LGBT community. The idea of surrogacy among gay couples in India was so novel back then that Allahabadia presented a paper at the prestigious World Congress Association of Reproductive Medicine, held in Mexico in September 2008, about his experience with 12 same-sex couples.

The field has grown much bigger since then and many agencies now have sprung up to liaise between gay couples and the Indian surrogacy experience. "We cannot quantify the growth of such agencies but it can safely be said that every IVF clinic in India possibly has one organisation that helps it track surrogate mothers, " says a doctor from Delhi who doesn't want to be named.
The lack of well-defined laws to monitor surrogacy market is another major factor driving the traffic of foreigners to India. "It's out of the ambit of any discussion on medical ethics, " says Dr Sohani Verma of Apollo Hospital, Delhi.

But many agencies are cagey about doing business with same-sex couples. For instance, it is widely believed that the woman who put India on the surrogacy map - Dr Nayna Patel from the milk cooperative town of Anand in Gujarat - doesn't encourage surrogacy for same-sex couples. A doctor from south Delhi says that she, too, is wary of such couples seeking parenthood in India: "How do we conduct background checks on them to establish whether they are steady or if they have had any police record?" Some doctors also believe that for the healthy upbringing of a child the presence of both mother and father is necessary.
Despite such biases, there is a section of doctors who believe offering surrogacy to gay couples makes good business sense. "Every surrogate mother gets a cheque of Rs 3 lakh apart from care and nutrition for nine months, " says Ajja. Every surrogacy deal brings in roughly Rs 15 lakh. The gay surrogacy market, though niche, can be lucrative.

But it's mostly foreign couples who seem to be benefiting from it. Same-sex couples in India find the procedure's costs pretty steep. Sameer and Nilesh (names changed), in their 30s, have been together for five years and now wish to start a family. "We read about surrogacy but the costs are prohibitive for a middle-class family like ours, " he says. While Rs 10 to 15 lakh is "value for money" for those who earn in dollars, for an average middle-class Indian it could be a year's salary.

Adoption, the other alternative for Indian men, has its set of road blocks. "Adoption agencies are cautious of us. Someone told us that it is probably easy to adopt as a single man, but even that is fraught with problems. How are you going to raise a child alone without the support of your family?" asks Nilesh.

Pallav Patankar, director HIV programmes at Humsafar Trust, understands Nilesh's doubts and fears because, according to him, parenthood is still a distant dream for the LGBT community in India. "The ground reality is that gay men face discrimination, police harassment and still have the ghosts of section 377 chasing them. What will be the consequences of bringing up a child in this environment?" He calls for greater sensitisation towards the needs of gay parents and their children. "Social change happens by pushing the envelope and gay and lesbian couples in India will do that inevitably. But in the present situation LGBT rights have to be balanced with that of the child who may face bullying or discrimination, " he says.

Gay activist Nitin Karani, however, disagrees with Patankar and feels that the LGBT community cannot wait for the society to change before taking the leap to parenthood. "More than the society, it is the laws that need to be changed. Once a relationship or an institution is legal, people start respecting it. " But Karani feels that the government, under the garb of regulating the surrogacy market, is trying to frame laws that will ban same-sex couples from adopting or having a child through a surrogate mother. "This will only lead to abuse of the rights of the gay community and spread social inequality. "

In support of gay parenting, he cites the findings of a study published last year in American journal Demography, which concluded that children raised by same-sex couples manage to achieve almost the same educational milestones as those bought up by heterosexual ones. "To have an offspring is a natural instinct and desire in all sentient beings. Nature hasn't deprived gay people of this desire, so why should man? And aren't there millions of uncared, unloved, often abused, children waiting for adoption, deserving of finding loving homes, whether straight or gay?" The answer to this question will not be an easy one.

With additional reporting by Malathy Iyer.

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