A few years ago, I had read something about the burgeoning surrogacy industry in India. I read that there were clinics that catered to Western families hoping to overcome fertility issues by undergoing IVF and having an Indian woman carry the baby for them. The women were paid well for their services and provided with residential care during entire pregnancy and afterwards. The entire process would cost a family tens of thousands of dollars but would likely still be less costly than pursuing surrogacy in the US.
I remember the article leaving me with a slightly uneasy feeling about the process. On the surface, it sounded ok – the surrogates were all mothers already, they were there of their own volition, they earned more by providing this service than they could earn in five years in another job, and they received top medical care during the pregnancy. But…but the fear of exploitation ran through me whenever I thought about the process. Are the women really there of their own volition? Were they coerced by the clinics, the Westerners, their own families? Was the residential care actually care or was it a form of imprisonment? What are the ethics of international surrogacy? What are the legalities? It’s a new frontier, a no-man’s land of regulation. Who makes the rules? Who will step in if someone breaks them?
The Sacred Thread: A True Story of Becoming a Mother and Finding a Family – Half a World Away by Adrienne Arieff doesn’t answer the complicated questions of ethics and laws but it does give a first-hand account of the process of a US/Indian surrogacy arrangement. I found her story fascinating even if it didn’t entirely erase my misgivings about this process.
Arieff was married and in her 30s when she began trying to have a child. Conception was not a problem for her and her husband but she found herself miscarrying repeatedly, once after 20 weeks, due to complications caused by uterine fibroids. The toll it took on her emotionally and physically led her to seek out other options for becoming a mother. She read about Indian surrogacy clinics and began doing meticulous research to determine if this was the right course for her.
She had initial misgivings about the ethics of using a surrogate in these conditions but, in her research, found a clinic that met her standards: they only accepted families with documented fertility issues, the surrogates were all married and already had children of their own, the surrogates were given top level medical care and were paid well. In fact, the portion of the fees for the surrogates was placed in a bank account set up in the woman’s own name to protect it from family members who might be anxious to get their hands on it. The clinic had protocols in place for IVF, prenatal care for the surrogates, education programs for the surrogates while hey were in residence, delivery and post partum care, and a system for allowing the babies to be breastfed after birth using different women than the gestational surrogate.
Arieff describes in detail the process of going through IVF in India and returning to the States to await news of a pregnancy. She and her husband were delighted – and stunned – to learn that they had been successful on the first try and were expecting twin girls. But the hurry-up-and-wait aspect of gestating children thousands of miles away proved too much for Arieff and she returned to India to spend the bulk of the pregnancy there. She forged a friendship with her surrogate, learning to communicate despite the language barrier, and was able to be there when the babies were born, despite them coming several weeks early.
After navigating a frustrating process of securing exit visas for the babies (successfully in her case, though she shared the story of a German couple who spent over a year trying to obtain such a visa for their son, who was not recognized as their under German law, apparently), they returned home, parents at last, for their happily ever after.
This book and the story it tells is truly lovely, if a bit overly-romantic. It was comforting to read a first-hand account of this process and confirmed that it is possible to do international surrogacy in a non-exploitive way, though this was only the story of one family, one surrogate and one clinic. Other stories might vary widely. And, naturally, Arieff’s perspective on her surrogate’s feelings was at a remove. I would love to someday read an account by a woman who had performed a surrogate pregnancy under similar conditions to get an idea of what the their side of the equation is like.
All in all, I would strongly recommend this book. At its heart, it’s a story about friendships between women as they all work together to convey the mantle of motherhood onto one woman.
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