Shuma Raha: Surrogacy rising

This week actor Tusshar Kapoor announced that he had become father to a baby boy born through surrogacy. Kapoor, who is the son of yesteryear star Jeetendra, and brother of the more famous Ekta Kapoor - she of the formidable K-serials - is not the first Indian celebrity to take the surrogacy route. Bollywood biggies Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan and their wives used surrogates to have a child in 2011 and 2013 respectively. But Kapoor has boldly gone where no Indian celeb has been before. He is single and yet he got himself a baby through a surrogate mother.

Kapoor exercised the surrogacy option almost in the nick of time. Last October the government introduced a revised Assisted Reproductive Technology (Regulation) Bill or ART Bill which, if passed, will allow only heterosexual married couples to have a child through commercial surrogacy. In other words, gays and singles won't be eligible for it. The Bill also bans foreigners from coming to India to rent a womb, effectively knocking a big hole into the country's $2.3-billion surrogacy industry.

But no matter what law the government brings vis-a-vis surrogacy, Kapoor's decision is a reminder that it is now very much a part of our cultural and behavioural landscape. The paradigms of family are being redefined and traditional notions of reproduction are being stood on their heads. A woman may carry her daughter's child in her womb; infertile couples, singles and gays may have a baby through a paid surrogate; a woman may freeze her eggs and have a child years later…. procreation is being reinvented, put into a time capsule or, as in the case of surrogacy, neatly outsourced. If you have the money, almost nothing stops you from having a child with your own genetic imprint - neither lack of partner, nor fertility, nor time.

At one level, all this is breathtakingly enabling. And as always, super-rich celebs, the irresistible drivers of popular culture, have been quick to grab the tech and show the way. Singer Elton John and his partner David Furnish have two boys via surrogacy. Ditto, gay Latino singer Ricky Martin. Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker, actress Nicole Kidman and the late Michael Jackson also chose surrogacy to add to their families. Our very own Shah Rukh Khan and his wife Gauri, both in their late 40s at the time, had a baby boy through a surrogate mom - not because they were childless, but because they felt like it. Surrogacy today can often feel like a lifestyle statement.

Surprisingly, though Bollywood's denizens have taken to surrogacy like ducks to water, the Hindi film industry hasn't come up with too many surrogacy-themed movies. Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (2001) dealt with the issue in inimitable Bollywood style: unable to have a child, Salman Khan and Rani Mukerji hire a prostitute to act as a surrogate. But she is impregnated - not artificially - but by the hero himself in the natural way! Filhaal... (2002), handled the issue with more maturity, but dissolved similarly in a burst of melodrama and a flood of tears.

But surrogacy has a seamy underbelly that's a world away from a Bollywood tear-jerker. And it's a world away from sunny, funny Friends episodes where Phoebe becomes surrogate mom to her half-brother's child. Surrogacy is really built upon a vast underclass of women (India is among the few countries in the world where commercial surrogacy is legal) whose wombs are hired by rich folk to manufacture their babies. It is deeply exploitative of an impoverished woman's body and fraught with a range of ethical, legal, cultural and social complexities. At its worst, it portends nightmarish visions of a future where a substrata of women exists only to churn out babies for the elite.

That's what Margaret Atwood envisioned in her dystopian tour de force, The Handmaid's Tale (1985), where legions of women are turned into fertility slaves, fed, clothed and kept alive for reproduction. Indeed, whether it is surrogacy or genetic tinkering or designer babies - clones and avatars are only a short step from there - many writers and filmmakers have expressed their revulsion at "marvels" of science that allow man to play god. From Aldous Huxley's almost prophetic sci-fi classic Brave New World (1932) to movies like Gattaca (1997) or The Island (2005) and many others, they all evoke a terrifying future where humans are made to order, classified, and, essentially, dehumanised.

Surrogacy seems anodyne compared to such dystopic sci-fi fantasies. And, of course, very often it is the only hope for infertile couples, gays and singles to have a child. Even so, most countries in the developed world have outlawed commercial surrogacy - and why not, since the Third World continues to provide a rich harvest of surrogate mothers. India could go their way now, or, at least, pass the ART Bill to restrict paid surrogacy.

But maybe that will just drive the industry underground. The genie has been let out of the bottle. The technology exists, and as Jeff Goldblum puts it in the film Jurassic Park, "Life finds a way."

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