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July 29, 2007

Surrogate Mothers: Womb for Rent

picture of baby

Mondal holds a photo of Brady. His American mother, Karen, sends Mondal weekly pictures via e-mail.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Sinclair

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"I'm fit and strong, and I've already given birth twice," she continues, scoffing at the idea of being nervous. And yes, she's mentally prepared to hand over the baby. "It won't even have the same skin color as me, so it won't be hard to think of it as Jessica's." The clinic stipulates that all surrogates must already be mothers so they understand what's involved physically and will be less likely to become emotionally attached to the babies they bear.

Of course, it's impossible for Vohra to know how she will feel after she gives birth — this is the wild card, the reason custody battles sometimes ensue in the U.S. All surrogates at the clinic sign a contract agreeing to hand over the baby — which reassures prospective parents, but also supports arguments that the women, many of whom are illiterate, are being taken advantage of. (In the U.S., only a handful of states regard presigned contracts as legally binding. In others, a surrogate has a small window of time after birth to stake her claim to parental rights.)

Vohra sits in silence for a while and examines her cracked fingernails. "If I do feel sad after the birth, I won't show it," she says eventually. "I can understand how much Jessica wants this baby." In India, she explains, infertility is considered a curse.

Ordenes arrives at exactly 10 a.m., having hired her own car and driver to help navigate the belligerent scrum of auto rickshaws, rusting buses, and camel carts in downtown Anand. She walks over and hugs Vohra, ignoring the custom that discourages lower-caste Indian women from interacting with those outside their group. Vohra smiles.

Ordenes has brought her own interpreter, a female student from the local college recommended by the clinic, since Vohra doesn't speak English. However, when they find an empty ward upstairs and sit on the beds to talk, the women struggle for words. It's as though they both realize the gap between their lives is so vast, there's simply no sensible place to begin.

Ordenes feels her way with some questions about Vohra's kids, then fills her in on her latest ovum count — a topic that consumes foreign patients while they're here, since their sole contribution to the pregnancy is healthy eggs. (Surrogates' own eggs are never used.) Ordenes has produced six eggs so far, but two need extra time to mature. She takes Vohra's hand and squeezes it and promises to look after her during the pregnancy. "You're my angel, you're my angel," she coos and hugs her again. Then Ordenes gets out her camera to take photos to send to her husband.

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