India Looks to New Laws to Regulate 'Rent-a-Womb' Baby Trade

India is set to draft new laws to police surrogate pregnancies amid fears that the country’s booming "rent-a-womb" industry is running out of control.

Cheap medical care, a supply of equally cheap surrogate mothers and the absence of legal controls have made India the world leader in commercial surrogacy, attracting foreigners, many of them British.

Employing a surrogate, plus medical fees, costs as little as 500,000 rupees, or approximately $12,350, in India compared to about $70,000 in the United States. In the U.K., offering money to a surrogate or even advertising for one is illegal.

As more Westerners opt to outsource pregnancies to the subcontinent, some Indian clinics are reporting a four-fold rise in the number of foreign clients on their books in the past year. As demand increases, newspaper advertisements for surrogates are becoming more common. "British couple seeks surrogate to carry child. Great pay!! A $1,000 bonus!!! Please," reads one.

Official estimates suggest that India’s "reproductive sector" — which includes regular IVF as well as surrogancy — will be worth as much as $12 billion this year.

As the industry flourishes, however, concerns are mounting for the welfare of the poor women who typically answer the ads — and for the children they bear. Western couples, meanwhile, are falling victim to con-men and blackmailers as they embark on a process where even the most scrupulous of clinics can offer, at best, a 50-50 chance of success.

Bobby and Nikki Bains, 43 and 42, from London, have endured seven unsuccessful surrogacy attempts in a Bombay clinic since 2005, after embryos conceived through IVF treatments failed to develop in their surrogates’ wombs. Despite being "robbed, extorted and conned" in the process, they are now waiting to hear if their eighth attempt has been successful.

"We’ve seen the demand for surrogates rise around us," Bobby Bains said. "The good ones don’t hang around any more."

Dr. Alga Gupta, one of a growing number of freelance surrogacy advisors, gave a glimpse of the ordeals brokering a surrogacy deal involves. "You only make a payment once they are pregnant," she advised. "And you make sure you don’t hand over the major money until they hand over the child."

Voicing concerns that the surrogacy surge is built on the "economic exploitation" of Indian women, officials at India’s Women and Child Development Ministry said that political pressure is building to curb the "rent-a-womb culture". The young women who typically bear foreign babies often "sign" their contract with a thumbprint, they said, and have little grasp of the commitment they are making.

New laws to "protect the rights of children and the emotional rights of mothers" will be discussed in coming weeks. Issues include whether homosexuals and single women should be allowed to use surrogates and whether age limits should be imposed on clients and those who bear their children.

Other gray areas include the nationalities and parenthood of babies conceived using eggs and sperm from Western couples but carried by Indian women.

These difficulties were brought to light four years ago when an Indian grandmother gave birth to test-tube twins on behalf of her infertile British daughter. Aakash and Lata Nagla, who live in Essex, had to fight for seven months to get a temporary visa to come to the UK with their twins and were told passports for them were out of the question. The law has now changed so it is now possible to apply for a British passport for the child if both genetic parents are British.