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July 29, 2007

Surrogate Mothers: Womb for Rent

women in india

Surrogate Najima Vohra and Jessica Ordenes spend time together during Ordenes's treatment at the clinic.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Sinclair

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Achieving that financial freedom is hard work. In one of the wards, Sofia Vohra (no relation to Najima), 35, is lying in a room with three beds, an ancient ceiling fan, and wall paint that has bubbled in the heat like a nasty rash. She is about to give birth for the sixth time, to a baby she's carrying for a couple living in the U.S. She has five children of her own, a husband who's a lazy drunk, and a job crushing glass that's used in making (of all things) fortified kite string, for which she earns $25 a month. She became a surrogate for no other reason than to pay for her two daughters' dowries, an illegal — but still widely practiced — Indian marriage ritual.

"I'll be glad when this is over," she says, as Patel places a stethoscope on her ballooning brown stomach. "It's exhausting being pregnant again." Then, in case her complaints are misunderstood, she quickly adds, "This is not exploitation. Crushing glass for 15 hours a day is exploitation. The baby's parents have given me a chance to make good marriages for my daughters. That's a big weight off my mind."

It's lunchtime on Thursday, and the clinic's surrogate mothers crowd into a small room where the staff is throwing a party. Among them is 30-year-old Rubina Mondal, a former bank clerk with long, straight black hair, dressed in a red sari fringed with gold. In February, she gave birth to a healthy boy for a couple from California.

Mondal heard about Patel's clinic on a TV show, and traveled to Anand from her home in the eastern city of Kolkata. Her reason was purely economic: Her 8-year-old son, Raj, has a hole in his heart, and working as a surrogate was the only likely solution to covering his expensive medical care. Patel matched Mondal with Karen, a 33-year-old who works for a mortgage lending company in Los Angeles.

Karen and her husband, Thomas, wanted children, but she had been diagnosed with a uterine tumor at age 16 and knew someone else would eventually have to carry the baby. Mondal conceived on the first try. Over the next eight months, Karen called every week from the States to hear news of her growing child. On top of the surrogacy fee, Karen paid for a spacious two-bedroom apartment in Anand for Mondal's family, hired a cleaner, and sent care packages containing cotton pajamas and panties for Mondal and toys for her two sons.

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