The gay/single parent fertility business has shifted to Nepal. With no proper legislations in place, being a surrogate is not easy.

“These are the intended parents,” said the doctor. She was an impeccably dressed, youngish woman seated in front of a computer. On the screen was a picture of two men; one balding and slightly paunchy, the other younger and dressed in jeans.

“They are from Israel,” she said. “Their surrogate is a young Nepali girl. She is due next week. We’ll email them the moment the baby is born and they’ll come and collect it. They’ll get the formalities done, pick up their exit visa and leave. And yes, the baby will be an Israeli citizen. There is no problem about that.”

So simple!  Most of the “transaction” had been done over email and Skype. The men had come down just once, carrying the frozen embryo. That’s when they met their surrogate for the first and last time and signed the contract. They had been in constant touch with the clinic, but never interacted with the surrogate again because obviously they could not communicate with her. And maybe they didn’t want to.

This was in 2011 and I was researching for my book Baby Makers: The Story of Indian Surrogacy. I was at this upmarket clinic in Mumbai because I knew it was a preferred destination for gay couples from all over the world who wanted to have babies through surrogacy.

That day I learnt a lot. I learnt for instance that some countries like Israel ban same-sex couples from hiring surrogates in their own country, but recognise children born through surrogacy in other countries. I also learnt that the sperm could come from one country, the eggs from another, the IVF could be done elsewhere and the frozen embryo could be shifted across continents to be implanted in surrogates in India.

And why India? Because India was cheap, the medical facilities were very good and clinics like the one I was sitting in had a large supply of young, healthy surrogates on call. More importantly, in India, there was no law and the entire fertility business was only regulated by the guidelines passed by the Medical Council. And these guidelines had nothing to say about same-sex parents.

But that was 2011. Everything changed after 2012 when the Indian government issued a notification disallowing single/same-sex parents from using surrogates. Hari G. Subramanian, Chief Consultant at the Indian Surrogacy Law Centre, Chennai, says, “Prior to 2012, a majority of the foreign nationals who came to hire a surrogate in India were either gay or single parents.” Though there are no proper statistics, he said that this category of intending parents from abroad formed a sizable part of the clientele for Indian clinics. Many clinics, in fact, serviced only gay or single intended parents.

Post-2012, these parents started looking for other options. Thailand, the other cheap destination, closed up after the Baby Gammy episode. The U.S. was very expensive. Then suddenly Nepal popped into the picture. Overnight, the gay/single parent fertility business shifted to Nepal. How did this happen?

Nepal allowed surrogacy for foreign nationals, but not for Nepalese.  This meant that neither the intended parents nor the surrogate mothers could be Nepali. Ironically there were quite a few Nepali surrogates carrying babies in India!  Nepal had no specific law or regulation. But, neither was it equipped for fertility tourism like India was. This was when our porous borders helped. Indian surrogates could be brought to Nepal, most probably after the embryo implantation was done. Since the whole business is shrouded in secrecy, the nitty-gritty of the transaction is known only to the Indian fertility clinics who probably masterminded the shift. The crucial exit document for the infant, which was no longer available in India, was now issued by Nepal. The child got the nationality of the commissioning parents. Simple!

Flash forward. April 2015. Nepal has been devastated by an earthquake. The media is full of pictures of rubble, of survivors sleeping on roads, of doctors bending over patients in makeshift clinics. And, in the midst of all this, emerge some startling pictures.

The international media zeroes in on the story of the week. Pictures of Air Force officers’ carrying pink-faced newborns aboard a rescue mission flight to Israel make front-page headlines and are flashed across TV screens. The babies being evacuated, we learn, belong to gay Israeli couples who had commissioned their birth through surrogates in Nepal. There are indignant murmurs, as we learn that the surrogates are left behind in their weak condition to fend for themselves amid the devastation. And then worse… that there are more pregnant surrogates left in Nepal carrying Israeli babies and no one knows what their future will be. Israel can legally evacuate and repatriate only its own citizens. Therefore the babies can be evacuated, but the mothers who bore them cannot.  And no one quite knew what would be the fate of the tiny Israeli “citizens’ still stuck inside their surrogate mothers’ wombs.

Israel recognises gay civil unions as well as surrogacy. But an Israeli surrogate can only be contracted by an Israeli heterosexual couple. However, babies born to gay couples through surrogacy outside the country are given Israeli citizenship. Many, even in Israel, have protested against this law and want it changed.

Perhaps Israel will address the issue and change the law.  But, even if that happens, it will be too late for the heavily pregnant women who are stuck in devastated Nepal with Israeli babies in their wombs. All the surrogate mothers are probably Indian.

What is striking about this whole issue is the layers of hypocrisy involved. Israel allows gay unions and children born to them through surrogates… but not on its own soil. India derecognises gay partnerships and bans surrogacy for such couples but turns a blind eye to surrogates who cross the border and deliver babies in another country, which is willing to give exit permits. Nepal doesn’t allow its women to become surrogates in their own land but looks the other way when they cross over to India to do so.

Sadly, the women who rent out their wombs in such situations are poor and ignorant and often have no idea of what they are getting themselves into. They are totally dependent upon the fertility clinics and the agents who often abandon them once the job is done.

This latest episode once more highlights the need of the hour. Fertility clinics and surrogacy arrangements are here to stay. The fertility business is booming and will continue to do so.  We need to recognise this reality and introduce proper legislation before disaster strikes.