The business of babies is a lucrative one, especially in India, where legalised commercial surrogacy has made the country famous as a "fertility tourism" hotspot. But as the country is making an effort to stop the practice with new, stricter laws that aim to protect women and children, a recent arrest points out to another big problem surrounding surrogacy.
Last week, a Malaysian man was arrested upon his arrival at Mumbai airport from Kuala Lumpur for carrying a human embryo. The embryo was placed inside a special nitrogen packed canister that preserved the quality of the embryo during the flight. The canister and its content were later found by customs officers tucked hidden inside his luggage. This sounds like a rookie mistake, but the man is far from being a rookie smuggler.
Partiban Durai, the accused smuggler, told the Indian police that this was, in fact, his tenth trip smuggling embryos into the country, according to the Indian Express. In his confession, he also revealed to be working on behalf of Indo Nippon IVF, a fertility clinic located in Mumbai and has been making "deliveries" for over 18-months. The clinic in question has denied all claims.
Sujoy Kantwalla, the clinic’s lawyer, told the Indian Express that the man's claim was "a conspiracy hatched by persons which may include competitors."
However, there seem to be incriminating text messages between clinic officials and Heart 2 A.R.T, a surrogacy agency based in Selangor, Malaysia. A.R.T stands for Assisted Reproduction Techniques. While the police are now looking into the man’s claims, they suspect that he could be part of a larger smuggling ring.
Over the years, foreigners have looked to India for fertility treatments. That’s because the treatments tend to be cheaper and less regulated here compared to other countries. Commercial surrogacy in India, which was legalised in 2002, brings about $400 million USD from couples abroad, as the Telegraph reports.
Today, the investigation continues. India’s Directorate of Revenue officials suspect that the smuggled embryos would, later on, be transplanted into the womb of Indian surrogates. However, the embryos could also be for locals who are undergoing IVF treatment. If that were the case, several IVF experts say that a law is required to regulate imports.
“Several Indian couples freeze their egg or embryos abroad," Dr Jaideep Malhotra, president of Indian Society for Assisted Reproduction told Indian Express. "Once they move to India, they wish to continue IVF and bring it back."
But there are also cases where couples request ova and sperm from a particular nationality to get “exotic looks," he said. “In that case, since it is illegal, we counsel the couple. If a clinic bends to such demands I do not know,” Malhotra said.
While embryo imports in India are banned, export of embryos in cases where foreign nationals started their IVF procedure in India but choose to continue the process abroad is permitted.