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Cover Story

Science is driven by social needs


BREAKING BARRIERS: Patel with surrogate mothers at her clinic;they are often allowed to breastfeed the baby by couples who opt for surrogacy

As the Indian society undergoes a lifestyle churn, reproductive technology is only doing the job of holding its hand, says Anand-based Dr Nayana Patel, who has more than 1, 000 IVF and 140 surrogate babies to her credit

What kind of emotional challenges do parents who've had a child through a surrogate face? What challenges does the child face when he grows up?

I have observed that couples face emotional upheavals before and during the procedure. They are scared of how society will respond to their decision. Women feel inadequate because they are using another woman's body to raise a family. There is a lot of anxiety about the future. But once they have the baby in their arms, they forget everything else. A lot of mothers keep in touch with the surrogate and often bring their child along to visit 'aunty'. One lady insists that her 3-year-old daughter refers to the surrogate as 'mummy'. There can be a problem for the child only if the couple hides surrogacy and he/she gets to hear of it from elsewhere. ART has actually saved a lot of Indian marriages.

ART challenges the ideal of a socially-acceptable "healthy marriage". How does society view such couples? Can technology leapfrog social conventions?

Couples opt for ART mostly for medical reasons. It fills in gaps left by nature. Technology has the advantage of making people and their lives healthy - both physically and emotionally. Yes, at times it is unconventional, but it is correct.

Do the child and the surrogate tend to form a bond?

The surrogate mother does form a bond with the child she is carrying. Surrogates never say that they don't want to see the baby or hold it. In fact, many couples let the surrogate feed the baby for a duration of six days to a maximum of six weeks. Some couples insist on using a breast pump for feeding and a few of them insist on taking the baby away immediately. In such cases, some female partners have opted for induced lactation.

Do your counsellors advise couples on how to talk to the child about the surrogacy?

Usually, we maintain that 18 is the right age to pass on this information. Until then, the child is still emotionally immature and may not be able to process such information properly. Yet, we have had couples at our clinic who have introduced their children to their surrogate mothers at three to five years of age. Today, up to 75 per cent of couples who come to our clinic are open about surrogacy. Their share has increased over the years.

Do you feel ART, like cryopreservation of eggs, is encouraging women to delay pregnancy?

Society always adapts to changing technology. For instance, who would have foreseen farmers discussing weather forecasts on mobile phones? Technology and cultural/social changes go hand-inhand. Now, women want to wait for the right kind of job or Mr Right before they get married. But this has an impact on her reproductive life. She thinks of preserving her eggs or opting for surrogacy. Technology just offers her safe and healthy lifestyle choices. But ART should be used wisely and ethically and under no circumstances be misused, abused or overused.

Since ART is mostly adopted as a last ditch attempt, such couples have children who are much younger to them. Can a huge age gap between parents and children affect the child's upbringing?

With the help of ART, women can be mothers at 50 - traditionally the age when they should be grandmothers. But people at the age of 50 these days are healthier and feel much younger. While the child may wonder why his/her mother is so old compared to younger mothers of his/her peers, I feel that older women can be better mothers. They are emotionally more mature, and more responsible. A mother in her 20s may at times feel burdened with motherhood because at her age she likes to go out, shop or socialise.

America has seen its family dynamics change radically thanks to ART and same-sex partners. What can India learn from the American experience?

We shouldn't follow everything they do. The strength of India is in its family values, we should never let go of them. Technology should not erode culture but reinforce it. ART should help couples who cannot conceive naturally to become parents. ART should not become a career choice.

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