Indian Fertility Centers Offer Hope, But at What Price?


The desire to have a baby is something that is ubiquitous to all cultures, although the societal pressures driving it may be different in some regions than in others. 

When it comes to infertility treatments in America, often the controversial issues tend to center around how many embryos should be implanted or encouraged, as was seen during the great Octomom saga of last year.  But occasionally, you will hear discussions of at what age it becomes too difficult or risky for women to try and have babies, as many have discussed in regards to the recent pregnancy announcements of Celine Dion and Kelly Preston.

With the newest developments in science, women can have babies far later than they could a decade ago.  And as fertility treatments continue to advance, that age will advance, too, with the help of donor eggs, donor sperm, surrogates and other support.  But should it?  It appears to be a question everyone has an individual answer, until a specific age is proposed.

And in this case, that age is 66.

Bhateri Devi is by no means the first case of a 66 year old woman giving birth, although she is the first to birth triplets.  One Romanian woman gave birth at 66 in 2005. A British woman in 2008 also gave birth at 66 after going to a clinic in the Ukraine. And in 2006 a 66 year-old Spanish woman gave birth to twins after telling a California fertility clinic that she was only 55 years old, their maximum age for treatment.

The risks are high for both the women and the fetuses, and in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, the costs can be overwhelming.  But as Nicole Broomfield reported earlier this month, India has transformed itself into a haven for reproductive tourism, providing such low cost options for surrogates and egg donors that some are now looking into allegations of human rights violations or, at the very least, a definite taking advantage of financially struggling women.  Services that can cost tens of thousands of dollars locally can be purchased in the country for as little as a few thousand dollars, and with little oversight many boundaries can be pushed – especially those of age.

It’s easy access to lower cost fertility treatments combined with a cultural and religious need to provide offspring, especially sons, that is moving invitro fertilization into dangerous grounds in the country.  Those two conditions together may best explain the fact that many of the most recent extremely advanced maternal-aged mothers in the last few years are coming from India.

First, there is the oldest documented mother, India’s Omkari Panwar.  Reported to have given birth at the age of 70 (although records are unclear), Panwar conceived twins with an IVF procedure that cause her family to spend their entire savings and take out a loan.  One twin was the boy they desperately wanted as an heir, in order to pass on the family name, have someone to perform funeral rites, and inherit the land. 

Now, they have a boy to carry on their legacy.  They also have no money, and a “burden” of a daughter to deal with, as well, according to the Times Online.

Mrs Panwar said: “We paid all this money to the doctors for a son, but now we have the extra burden of another daughter as well.” Mr Singh, meanwhile, is realistic that his son is unlikely to ever be in a position to support his parents – he said he wanted a boy to carry on the family name and to inherit the family plot of land.

Just a few months before Panwar, Rajo Devi Lohan, another Indian woman, also gave birth at the age of 70.  In Lohan’s case, the Telegraph reports, many precautions were taken to reduce the risk, especially to guard against multiples.

[Dr Anurag Bishnoi] said his parents and wife, all doctors, performed the procedure together. “The major concern for us was that in case the woman conceived twins, she may not be able to carry them through the full term of pregnancy. In that case, all over efforts would have failed and the woman’s life would have been in danger,” Bishnoi said.

To avoid multiple pregnancies, the doctors used blastocyst culture, where a single potential embryo is transferred to the uterus instead of the normal two to three embryos. “This embryo is transferred after five days in this technique, while in normal cases it is done in two-three days,” he added.

Although she attended the same clinic and had the same doctor, Tha Indian says that those same safeguards were not in place for Bhateri Devi. 

“Bhateri Devi was coming to us for the last many months for the treatment. She has become mother for the first time and conceived only in our third attempt through IVF technique,” [Anurag Bishnoi] said.

“For the first two attempts, only two embryos were transferred in each cycle. But in third attempt three embryos were transferred in her uterus, resulting in the birth of three children by a caesarean process.”

So what happens to the women who have pushed themselves (or perhaps been pushed) to give birth so late in life?  The Spanish woman who lied about her age died three years later, possibly of a tumor, and left her boys orphaned. Lohan’s family, like Panwar, is destitute, having spent all of their money on treatment.  Also, Lohan is likely dying of complications according to the New York Daily News, allegedly too weak to recover from her daughter’s birth, although her doctor claims there is no relation between the two.

Her doctor, Anurag Bishnoi, denied there was any connection between her pregnancy and her illness and instead emphasized how important Naveen’s birth had been for Lohan. “She does not have to face the stigma of being barren,” he said.

While Lohan may not live to see her daughter’s second birthday, for now she has no regrets.

“I dreamed about having a child all my life,” she told the Daily Mail. “It does not matter to me that I am ill, because at least I lived long enough to become a mother.”

The stigma of being barren.  Not leaving behind an heir.  These are great fears in Indian society, and Bishnoi’s clinic seems to cater to these fears to entice clientele.  “Becoming parents (parenthood) is the greatest pleasure of life and thus procreation is considered as a basic ‘civil right of man’ (U. S. Supreme Court),” his website declares

[U]nfortunately there are millions of infertile couples who fail to procreate and thus cannot have this pleasure. We salute those women who endanger their lives when opting for IVF for becoming mother and getting rid of the stigma of infertility[emphasis added]. Becoming pregnant at advanced age has its own hazards. National Fertility Centre has given the best results by blessing Infertile couples of advanced age with children — these couples could never dream of becoming parents.

The site touts the extremely advanced maternal age success stories.   “[I]f the lady has uterus, she can become mother,” it boasts.

Any lady with a uterus can become a mother.  But at what cost?  Financially, very little, although it is enough to reduce the local population to ruin in order to participate. 

Physically, however, the costs are enormous, and the price for one heir seems to slowly be rising to the life of one mother.

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  • julie-watkins

    The stigma of being barren.  Not leaving behind an heir.  These are great fears in Indian society,

    Thanks for the summary & many good links. The culture is hard on women when there is such an emphasis (cultural & religious) on bloodlines & sons.