Where there is smoke, there is fire. At some point in time, as these nightmarish stories continue to reach the light of day, Indian authorities are going to have to do something to regulate this out of control industry (and hint, hint prohibiting access to singles, LGBT and unmarried couples isn’t the answer):
When Sam Everingham employed an Indian surrogate to carry a child for him in 2009, he never imagined losing two baby boys in a Delhi hospital – nor terminating multiple pregnancies in women he did not know. Yet these are some of the painful memories he and his partner Phil Copeland carry after spending four years navigating India’s unregulated surrogacy system.
While the couple now have two healthy daughters, Ruby and Zoe, they say Australians should know about the moral, legal and financial risks in the booming global market. Commercial surrogacy is illegal in Australia, leading hundreds of people each year to pay women overseas – mainly in India, the US and Thailand – to carry their children.
Mr Everingham, who runs a support group for Australians wanting to enter surrogacy arrangements, said while 95 per cent of people were happy with their experience, reports of abortions, questionable medical bills and baby mix-ups were increasingly emerging from overseas destinations where commercial surrogacy is legal.
One of the biggest problems was Indian doctors pushing people to transfer large numbers of embryos at once to increase their chances of a successful pregnancy. This was resulting in some Australians bringing home four babies when they wanted only one or two. This also caused others, including Mr Everingham and his partner, to make difficult decisions about terminating pregnancies in surrogates.
Mr Everingham said he also knew of mix-ups where babies born to surrogates were someone else’s or the surrogate’s own. A Melbourne woman, who does not want to be named, said her husband had to find their surrogate in Mumbai in 2011 after realising the baby girl they picked up from a hospital was not theirs. When DNA tests required for Australian citizenship showed the five-week-old was someone else’s, they contacted their surrogacy clinic. A staff member denied there had been an error and accused the couple of not wanting a girl, but later agreed to DNA tests on the surrogate. ”They just expected us to go away and forget it all,” the woman said.
While the tests were being done, her husband cared for the infant in a hotel room in Mumbai for six weeks. When the clinic confirmed the newborn was the surrogate’s, he took the baby back to her with a bag of supplies to help the family care for the child. ”All she could say was ‘sorry’,” the Melbourne woman said. She said the surrogate, who had signed the contract with a fingerprint, was obviously poor, but happy to take her baby.
The error cost the couple about $90,000 in medical and legal fees, as well as travel costs. They appointed an Indian solicitor to recover their financial losses, but after giving him power of attorney they never heard from him again. The woman said that although the clinic had been difficult to deal with, it was now offering another surrogate free of charge. They are considering taking up the offer.
While many Indian doctors insist surrogates are well treated, critics say the women, usually young and poor, are subjected to unethical treatment in “baby factories” where they often stay for nine months.
Mr Everingham said Australians had also faced problems in the US, where surrogacy typically costs between $150,000 and $250,000 compared with an average of $50,000 in India without travel costs. He said some couples had faced enormous hospital bills after their babies were born prematurely with inadequate health insurance to cover the unexpected medical costs. ”We’ve had reports of families being faced with a half-a-million-dollar bill from a hospital.”
Mr Everingham said after he and his partner first created embryos with his sperm and a donor’s eggs in 2009, their Indian surrogate fell pregnant with twins. When she gave birth prematurely at 26 weeks, he received a phone call to say one of the twins was stillborn. The other had been transferred to a specialist intensive care hospital in Delhi. After travelling there to meet their seriously ill son, Ben, the couple spent several weeks nursing him until his death at about seven weeks.
Their second attempt led to more trauma. After a doctor transferred multiple embryos to two separate surrogates, the couple were faced with news of more viable foetuses than they could cope with. Mr Everingham said although this forced them to make incredibly difficult decisions about ”reduction”, the two surrogates went on to deliver one healthy girl each in 2011 – Ruby and Zoe, now 21 months old. While Mr Everingham and his partner waited for DNA testing to prove paternity for Australian citizenship, they took their daughters to the foothills of the Himalayas for a naming ceremony in the Ganges river.
Mr Everingham has told his story ahead of the annual Surrogacy Australia conference in Melbourne next month to highlight the problems some people face in their quest to have children. He said the Australian government should legalise commercial surrogacy. At the moment, only altruistic surrogacy is allowed in Australia under strict conditions involving many legal, psychological and often criminal checks.
”It would mean people wouldn’t be exposed to the risks of dealing with foreign hospital systems, things going wrong on the other side of the world or poor women they have never met being mistreated,” he said. ”There are many, many reasons why a commercial model here is so preferable to what we put up with now.”
Fairfax approached four popular Indian surrogacy clinics about the complaints emerging in Australia. Two clinics, Surrogacy India and Corion Fertility Clinic, responded to questions via email, saying they protected surrogates from exploitation, were transparent with hospital costs, and tried to limit multiple pregnancies and terminations.
For what it is worth, a number of these problems originate out of Delhi. So please do your due diligence if you elect to proceed with a surrogacy arrangement in India.