Ever since it was introduced in the Lok Sabha in November last year, the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill has been a contentious matter, due to the number of restrictions it sought to impose. Widely criticized for being too harsh for substantially narrowing down the scope of who could avail surrogacy or be a surrogate mother in India, it was referred to a 31-member Parliamentary Standing Committee on health and family welfare for review by the Rajya Sabha Chairman in January this year.
Yesterday, the standing committee, headed by Samajwadi Party (SP) leader and Rajya Sabha member Ram Gopal Yadav, presented a detailed 88-page report on the proposed bill in the Rajya Sabha, reported Times of India.
Echoing popular sentiment, the standing committee criticized the government for restricting eligibility to heterosexual married couples while completely ignoring changing times and social structures. The committee called the proposed legislation "too narrow" in its approach because it failed to take into consideration the circumstances of couples that were in live-in relationships, single parents, divorced and widowed women, and homosexuals.
"If all these categories are to be banned then why have surrogacy at all?" the committee asked, according to the TOI report.
According to an Indian Express report, the committee also rejected the blanket ban on commercial surrogacy with its proposal to make surrogacy an altruistic undertaking by not allowing women to be compensated for it in any way. It was of the opinion that expecting women to provide reproductive labour for free was "grossly unfair" and exploitative.
"Pregnancy is not a one-minute job but a labour of nine months with far-reaching implications regarding her health, her time and her family. In the altruistic arrangement, the commissioning couple gets a child; and doctors, lawyers, and hospitals get paid. However, the surrogate mothers are expected to practice altruism without a single penny," the committee said in its report.
Commercial surrogacy has been legal in India since 2002, when the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) laid out guidelines for the procedure, which made the practice legal, but did not give it legislative backing, which helped the industry to boom in India, without much legal interference or enforcements.
The committee also criticized the mandatory five-year waiting period for infertile couples before they could opt for surrogacy as unreasonable, reported DNA.
It also suggested that instead of limiting the scope of who can act as a surrogate to close relatives of the couples to prevent unethical practices and the surrogate's exploitation, they should be provided insurance cover that takes care of the surrogate's health in the aftermath of the pregnancy too.
Another important point raised by the committee was for the parliament to first pass the Assisted Reproduction Technologies (ART) Bill, 2014, before turning their attention to a separate bill on surrogacy, which might not even be strictly necessary, reported Hindustan Times. Since surrogacy procedures require assisted reproduction techniques, it was important to first specify the legal framework for those before regulating surrogacy.
The ART Bill was first drafted in 2008. It has been reviewed and re-drafted twice since then, in 2010 and 2014. The Bill aimed to streamline regulations to prevent the misuse of technology used in assisted reproduction. Some of its provisions, such as banning commercial surrogacy, forbidding Indian women from acting as surrogates for foreigners and penalising couples who refused to take custody of surrogate children born with disabilities, are similar to those proposed by the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill.
The one suggestion from the original Bill that the committee was in complete agreement with was that foreigners should not be allowed to commission Indian women as surrogates.
For many years now, India has been a hot destination for foreigners looking for low-cost surrogate mothers, sparking concerns about the exploitation of impoverished Indian women by unscrupulous doctors and middle-men. Commercial surrogacy is estimated to be a $2 billion-a-year industry, despite there being no legal framework to regulate it.
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