NEW DELHI // It was not the most traditional of birth announcements. But then, it was not the most traditional of conceptions. Sitting in his home in east London, Bobby Bains scanned the e-mail addressed to him and his wife, Nikki, about the imminent birth of their biological child - 7,000km away in Mumbai. Further e-mails gave him regular updates on the progress of the baby that had been growing in the womb of an Indian housewife for the past eight months.
Fourteen hours later, and a month premature, the woman, whose name the Bainses will never know, gave birth to their daughter, Daisy, and Nikki scrambled to get on a flight to Mumbai. The Bainses, a British couple of Indian origin, are among a growing number of childless or gay couples turning to Indian fertility clinics to find surrogate mothers - a phenomenon dubbed by critics as "reproductive outsourcing".
Commercial surrogacy, which is banned in some countries, such as Britain, is booming in India, thanks to a combination of affordable medical care, a ready supply of willing women and the absence of any binding legal controls. Now, however, the Indian government is proposing a new law to regulate the industry amid fears the rapidly expanding business is out of control. "It's a free for all. We have no figures. What happens if a surrogate mother dies during childbirth? What if she has multiple births?" Renuka Chowdhury, India's minister for women and child development, said last month after a meeting to discuss the new legislation.
"We do not want surrogacy to become unfettered like the organ trade. India has become a cheap deal hub which is very worrying. We need to put a regulatory authority in place." While countries such as the United States and Britain have strict laws governing fertility treatment and surrogacy, India has a set of non-binding guidelines. As a result, there are no official statistics for the number of women who have acted as surrogates. But anecdotal evidence suggests there were about 400 surrogate births last year, and clinics are reporting a four-fold rise in the number of foreigners seeking their services this year.
Foreign clients are mostly from Britain and other European countries where offering money to someone to carry a child is illegal, or from the United States where the cost of hiring a surrogate is typically about US$80,000 (Dh293,000). In India, a surrogate is paid about $6,500, and with the IVF and delivery costs added in, the whole process costs about $12,000. Since last year, when a male Israeli couple had a child in Mumbai through a surrogate mother and an egg from a second woman, India has also become a destination for gay Israelis who are ineligible to hire a surrogate at home. Rotunda - The Center for Human Reproduction, the clinic that arranged the Bainses' surrogacy, now carries information on the practice in Hebrew on its website.
"Westerners are fed up with draconian western rules and fed up with having to build relationships with half-hearted surrogates only for it all to fall apart," Mr Bains said at his home in London. "India is a delight and so are the doctors and the hard-working surrogates." Critics, however, said the potential for exploitation is high in a country where an estimated 900 million people live on less than $2 a day and many women are illiterate and unaware of their legal rights.
Some non-governmental organisations involved in drafting the new law have even called for a ban on surrogacy for non-Indian couples, and said there have already been examples of couples refusing the child because it was the wrong sex, or skipping town without paying the surrogate's medical bills. For people like the Bainses, who underwent five unsuccessful and expensive attempts at in-vitro fertilisation in the United Kingdom, such a change would stop them having the second child they dream of.
Nayna Patel, who runs a fertility clinic and a hostel for surrogate mothers in Anand, a city in the western state of Gujarat, defends her work as beneficial for everyone involved. "There is a woman who desperately wants a baby of her own and another who can help her and her own family by carrying that child for her - why not allow that?" Dr Patel said. One such woman is Rubina, who did not wish to give her surname, an accountant from the southern state of Maharashtra who gave birth to a boy for a Californian couple of Korean origin at Dr Patel's clinic last year.
"I did it to pay for my children's education," said Rubina, 33, a mother of two boys aged three and eight. Rubina and her husband's combined monthly salary is 9,000 rupees (Dh720). "I was happy to help them. They still send me photos," said Rubina, who told her friends she had a job in Gujarat, and studied English while she stayed at Dr Patel's. Most officials and doctors involved say a ban is unnecessary, and a law that protects the surrogate and commissioning couple is what is needed.
The draft law makes the contract between the surrogate and the couple legally binding and stipulates that the commissioning parents' name should be written on the birth certificate - a grey area until now. The law also requires foreign parents to appoint a representative in India if they will be out of the country during the pregnancy and to provide legal and medical insurance for the surrogates. Both Dr Patel and Gautam Allahbadia, the head doctor at Rotunda, already follow these practices, but they agree that a law is needed.
Mr and Mrs Bains, who have now collected Daisy, agree. "Better guidelines will only encourage more people to head east." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org