By Ian Williams and Rory Kress
Robyn and Jason Wright are learning the dusty streets of their son's birthplace, where spluttering rickshaws weave around abandoned cows with bright painted faces, piles of trash smoldering on the sidewalk.
This is Anand, half a world away from their American home, where amid all the chaos, passersby strain to catch a glimpse of the tiny bundle Robyn is cradling in her arms.
Baby Jake Wright, seven weeks old and weighing just four pounds is the baby they thought they would never have, as Robyn was unable to carry a child after a hysterectomy.
“We’d written it off, thought we’d never have kids,” Robyn told us. “Someone had mentioned doing surrogacy in India. I thought they were crazy.”
Crazy as it seemed, the Wrights flew from their home in Wyoming to the Akanksha Infertility Clinic here in Anand: the reproductive tourist hub for an international baby boom. They supplied the egg and sperm for baby Jake and he was carried in the womb of an Indian surrogate mother called Usha, who gave birth to him in December.
Robyn and Jason Wright with their son Jake, walking through Ananad, India.
“We’ve traveled half way round the world to have him,” Robyn said. “He was very much wanted, very much loved - by Usha too.”
But Robyn and Jason are not such a strange sight in Anand.
Locals spot Americans on the street and know they're here for the Akanksha Clinic. So far, the clinic has produced more than 500 surrogate babies and their biggest overseas market is the United States. Most would-be parents are drawn by the price. In India, a surrogate baby costs around US$25,000. In the US, the cost can exceed US$100,000.
“We knew we couldn’t afford it in the US,” Robyn told us.
“Sixty, sixty-five surrogates are pregnant at any time, carrying babies for couples from all over the world,” says Dr. Nayna Patel, the director of the Akanksha Infertility Clinic.
Dr. Patel showed us around the hostel where the surrogates live for most of their pregnancy. There, the clinic monitors their health and nutrition around the clock.
“So many American citizens growing here,” she said, pointing to a group of heavily pregnant women in saris sitting in the shade, sewing. Ten of the women are carrying babies for American couples, including one set of twins. To Dr. Patel, the ever-expanding business is a win-win for all involved - a childless couple goes home with a baby, an impoverished surrogate earns US$7,000 to build a house and a new life.
“These surrogates are coming to us because they have no other way of earning--apart from labor--so we want to groom them and change their lives,” said Patel.
The Wrights' surrogate, Usha is already mother to three boys of her own. The clinic carefully screens potential surrogates, selecting only women with children of their own. Dr. Patel says it gives the clinic security, choosing a woman she knows can carry to term and one who may be less likely to become emotionally attached to the child that will one day fly thousands of miles away.
Once Usha was pregnant with Jake, the Wrights returned to their home in Hoback Junction, Wyoming, where Jason works as a tour guide and Robyn runs a beauty salon.
Baby Jake with his mom, Robyn Wright (left) and his surrogate mother, Usha.
“You are very removed,” Jason told us. It was a very strange feeling to go through a pregnancy and not be involved in it, so to speak.”
The Wrights quickly learned they had twins, and waited with excitement for the regularly emailed reports and scans from Anand. But on Thanksgiving last year they learned that Usha had gotten sick. One of the twins had died and Jake came early at twenty seven weeks.
In early December they rushed back to Anand.
“He was so small and frail that I was afraid to touch him,” Jason recalls. “I didn’t want to do any damage.”
“He was so tiny,” said Robyn. “He almost didn’t seem real.”
For a while, both Jake and surrogate Usha clung to life--an experience that the Wrights say makes them only more grateful to Usha's sacrifice. For Robyn and Jason, their relationship with their surrogate was vital. Some clinics discourage the biological parents from even meeting the surrogate mother, wanting to keep it all business. To Robyn and Jason, that was inconceivable.
“She’s ultimately his mother too. I truly feel that way: that he has two moms," says Robyn. "My goal is to get him to understand that she cares for him as much as we do.”
While the Akanksha Clinic has pioneered surrogacy in India, the business of babies has exploded across the country. Surrogacy is now estimated to be a $2 billion dollar industry with one thousand clinics across India offering the service.
Type in “surrogacy India” to Google and you’ll face countless ads from clinics offering to “make babies possible” for couples like the Wrights, but also increasingly same sex couples.
The explosive growth in the industry has raised serious concerns about abuse and exploitation of the surrogates, and new legislation is slowly making its way through parliament to register and better regulate the industry.
The new law would give legal muscle to current voluntary regulations limiting such factors as the recruitment and age of surrogates and the number of times they can volunteer.
Among the fiercest critics of the industry is Dr. Ashok Mehta, a family doctor, whom we met in one of Mumbai's biggest slums, where he was doing his rounds.
“The crooks, the middlemen, the brokers, at times they cheat these people and deprive them of money,” he says. The slums are a prime recruiting ground for that city’s surrogacy clinics.
At the Indian Council of Medical Research in New Delhi, medical experts are drawing up the new law.
“There are doctors who are not following the (old) guidelines properly, and that’s where the problem comes,” explains Dr. R.S. Shah who is working on the legislation. “Until there is a law we cannot take any action. That’s why its very important this bill gets passed as early as possible.”
At Akanksha Clinic, Dr. Patel largely welcomes the new law as giving protection to legitimate clinics and clients, but she’s fiercely critical of those who want to curtail the business.
“All they want to do is just criticize and stop this, and let the poor suffer and let the infertile couple suffer,” she says.
After seven weeks in Anand, the Wrights take baby Jake for a final check-up at a crowded public hospital. There, he gets the all clear to fly home. And it can't come soon enough: after so much time and extra care for the premature child, the expense and time away from work has strained their finances. But they don't regret their choices. In the US, Jake's same medical problems would have cost ten times more.
“He’s doing really, really well,” said Robyn, before pointing out the neonatal intensive care unit where Jake spent the first four weeks of his fragile life.
“He was right there,” said Robyn, pointing to the incubators that now contain two tiny new babies - both surrogates.
But before they can leave, there's one thing left that they must do: it's time to say goodbye to Usha. She travelled all morning by train from her village. With her husband by her side, she cradles the baby she'd carried for nine months, and might never see again. The language barrier between the two mothers belies the bond they share, as Robyn watches Usha holding the baby in silence for hours.
When it's time to go, Usha has only one request: that Robyn and Jason should not forget her. The Wrights vow to return with Jake when he's older.
“It makes you appreciate Jake so much more,” says Jason. “It really seems such a miracle. I mean I really appreciate life a whole lot more, just seeing him battling through and making it.” They leave: passing the smoldering rubbish, the foraging cows, and those same curious passersby.
The proud parents firmly grip the final piece of paperwork, a pristine new American passport and exit permit for US Citizen Jake Wright. Born in India.