Tuesday, April 20, 2010

To Each Her Own

A short short story

“Go back to your own hell!” He whispered in her ear.

She turned her head, sharply. Undisguised hatred in his eyes sent chills down her spine. She looked away, adjusting her scarf and pulling her coat tightly around her.

A little girl started coughing and gasping. The mother cried out.

Maheen jumped from her seat. “…trained in Emergency First-aid”, she mumbled before bracing for the Heimlich manoeuver. The smiling blue eyes of her instructor flashed through her mind, '...you might save a life someday...'

“Aa-aagh” the child coughed up the candy blocking her airway. Maheen gently put her down into the mother's waiting arms.

She looked up; tears of gratitude filling her eyes.

Maheen smiled, and turned back. A sudden round of applause burst out around her. She stopped, surprised.

She met their eyes, unflinchingly. They were Appreciative. Grateful, even.

The train stopped. The doors slid open. She got up.

“Hey!” He called out.

She turned.

He raised his hand.

She smiled and raised hers, before melting into the crowd.

Motherhood Redefined?

Are all alternative arrangements to human limitation justified?

Traditionally, a mother may be defined as a female who is the biological parent, related through marriage to a biological father, or through a contract of adoption. However, procreative options have multiplied over the years to include a surrogate as a third party in the usual two-party parenthood equation.

A surrogate mother is defined in The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, as “a woman who agrees, usually by contract and for a fee, to bear a child for a couple who are childless because the wife is infertile or physically incapable of carrying a developing fetus.” The resulting offspring may be a biological offspring of one or both parents. The book, “Children of Choice: Freedom and the New Reproductive Technologies” authored by John A. Robertson, calls this arrangement, “Reproductive Collaboration”.

In recent years, India has placed itself on top of the reproductive outsourcing industry owing, mainly, to medical expertise, low costs and a relaxed legal atmosphere. The surrogacy industry in India is considered to be at a value of $445 million/year, by some estimates. Commercial surrogacy was legalized in India in 2002. In the absence of a proper legal framework, the surrogates sign a contract handing over all rights to prospective parents according to the guidelines issued by the Indian Council of Medical Research. Since the name on the birth certificate is that of the biological parents, the process of taking the baby out of the country is also carried out with relative ease. Contrarily, pre-signed contracts hold no legal standing in many US states wherein the surrogate is required to sign over her rights at the time of delivery. If she chooses to assert her claim, however, she has a window period after birth to file that in.

Multiple reasons push couples towards this option, like repeated miscarriages and IVF failures, a hysterectomy or a diseased/damaged uterus etc. However, Dr. Nayna Patel who runs the popular Anand Clinic in Gujrat, India, has admitted to having received requests by women who have none of the medical reasons to go for surrogacy, "I've had some women ask to do surrogacy because they don't want to give up work for a pregnancy, but I turned them down flat." To want to use poor women from developing countries as human incubators to produce their off springs, while not compromising their work, health and physical attractiveness raises some serious ethical questions that further complicate the issue.

When fertility clinics match prospective surrogates with infertile couples, elaborate screening and counseling is done to ensure a harmonious transaction. Indian women, belonging to a largely conservative society, are believed to maintain a generally healthy lifestyle devoid of alcohol and drug abuse, though various poverty-related environmental factors affect their health in other ways not always taken into consideration. The chosen surrogates are usually below the ages of 40 and are married women with at least one live birth to show for credible reproductive capacity.

In the absence of an effective social services network or support system, the surrogates are left to deal with the trauma of delivery and separation all by themselves. However, fertility experts like Dr. Patel insist that "Many surrogate mothers see this not as 'handing over' the baby, but as 'handing back' the baby, as the baby was never theirs to keep." To avoid stigma and condemnation from their conservative society, often these women keep their services secret from their relatives.

The cost factor remains one important reason for these couples to look to the Indian industry. Anuj Chopra wrote in April, 2003 in the Christian Science Monitor about a couple from London who found a surrogate mother in India, paying her $9,720 for a service which would have cost them three times more in UK. The cost for surrogacy in the US comes to around $75,000 as compared to an average of $25,000 in India, including the complete costs of travel and treatment. The surrogate receives approximately $6,000 to $7,000, which is a small fortune by local standards. Many surrogates have disclosed using the money for buying property or paying for their children’s education. Some have even used it to get expensive medical treatment for family members otherwise beyond their grasp.

Opinion on the moral, ethical and legal issues surrounding surrogacy vary considerably worldwide. Surrogacy was outlawed in 1991 in France by the highest court and it was declared that, "The human body is not lent out, is not rented out, and is not sold." In Australia it is illegal to pay a surrogate mother apart from her medical expenses. In Germany, sperm and egg donation are not allowed, based on the idea that every child has a right to know and be raised by their own parents. In some other countries like Sweden and Spain efforts to legalize surrogacy have received wide condemnation, while some other western countries evaluate surrogacy requests on a case-to-case basis through independently formed Ethics Committees.

The Oprah Winfrey Show aired an episode titled, ‘Wombs for Hire’ on October 09, 2007 anchored by Lisa Ling of ABC and The National Geographic. It received some strong criticism for calling the desire of commissioning couples from richer nations to find surrogates from poor countries as a case of “women helping women”, rather than exploitation of the surrogates’ economic desperation. When Lisa asked the commissioning mother in question about her views on this, she tearfully responded with, “Sangita and I give each other a life that neither of us could achieve on our own.” Literally speaking, that might be true but the program has been criticized by viewers for not addressing more critical moral and legal questions regarding the rights of the surrogate in case of complications, rights of a baby born with genetic abnormalities, DNA testing to ensure paternity, or issue of the donor’s unused egg disposal and the like.

Another moral dilemma rises when surrogacy is likened with prostitution as it involves the appropriation of women’s bodies for money. While some call it empowerment of poor women, others insist it is nothing but degradation and exploitation. Merits of adoption have long been propagated as the real solution to the problem of childless couples, yet the desire for becoming a biological parent remains.

Commercial surrogacy is a complicated issue and opinion is deeply divided on its various implications for individual and society at large. It will take a long time yet before we can make the choices of individuals consistent with values of their societies in a rapidly evolving world. The use of services such as commercial surrogacy requires regulation and clearly defined framework to prevent misuse and injustice to all concerned.

SouthAsia July, 09

Friday, April 16, 2010

Follow the Dream

International student populations not only enhance their own learning capacities through their exposure, they also enrich host cultures and boost host economies.

In today’s globalized, inter-dependent world the value of cross cultural learning cannot be ignored. Global engagement to broaden perspectives and vision is a necessity for growth and advancement in all fields.

Many South Asian students look towards foreign shores for higher education because the existing infrastructure in their own countries proves insufficient to accommodate the large number of intellectually motivated individuals. Competition for better job prospects compels others since most prestigious national and multinational corporations seek foreign-qualified professionals for their more challenging positions. Armed with new skills, these professionals also play an important role in helping their home countries move forward in scientific advancement.

The host countries benefit significantly from the revenue that international students bring in. More than 10% of the revenue in universities in Australia and New Zealand is believed to come from international students. According to a Time magazine report, Indian students comprise the second largest foreign student group in the US after China, while a 2008 report by The Guardian revealed that “international students contribute an estimated £2.5bn to the UK economy each year in tuition fees alone and an overall contribution of £8.5bn.” Alan Ruby, of the University of Pennsylvania writes that, in Australia, “education is considered second to iron ore and coal as an export earner and worth more than tourism… In British Columbia, foreign students are compared with fishing and trapping and the Vancouver film industry as contributors to the provincial economy.” As a destination of choice, the US still remains at the top of the list. According to James Hosek, who tracks global science and engineering trends at the RAND Corporation, the research papers published by US scientists is double that of their European counterparts, and four times as many as the ‘Asian 10’ which include China and India.

The issue of costs is a huge consideration for students from developing countries because their resources are truly stretched thin. Most US colleges have a yearly expenditure of international students comes to around $50, 000 including tuition, boarding etc. Merit scholarships afford motivated yet financially constrained students a chance to utilize their potential without the stress associated with a loan, but these scholarships are very hard to find and most cover only part of the expense. The World Bank and UNESCO’s joint Task Force on Higher Education and Society in its 2000 report, ‘Higher Education and Developing Countries: Peril and Promise’ raised a valid point: “the cost of overseas instruction, particularly if it takes place in a developed country, is generally extremely high. If the student's home country pays for this education for a large number of students, this can represent a significant fiscal drain. Even if an outside donor is paying for the student's education, study abroad means that funds from donor agencies are being used to pay for a very expensive type of higher education. Such funds could, in principle, be used more effectively to promote quality higher education in the developing country itself.”

Some initiatives in this regard are being taken by collaboration of private sector in developing countries and foreign universities of developed countries to further strengthen the existing programs in South Asia. Building country campuses would accommodate those who cannot travel abroad, without compromising on opportunities for educational excellence. As part of the same idea, India has taken the lead in inviting world renowned universities to strengthen their own educational institutions. York University's Schulich School of Business has been developing educational ties with India for 15 years. The Montreal universities of McGill and Concordia, the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia are among the schools with large Indian student associations. The Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont., is world renowned for its case-writing and case-teaching workshops in India and has signed a partnership deal in 2009 with the Indian School of Business for a new Case Development Centre.

Another related issue of importance for international students is whether they are getting good value for their money. An international education scam unearthed by the BBC in a 2008 report detailed how “the bogus Irish International University (IIU), has been allowed to flourish in the UK - virtually unchecked by the government - for the last seven years.” The IIU maintained a misleading website to project its validity. When faced with this reality, the British Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell insisted, "Our universities are rightly regarded as world class and any attempt by bogus institutions or conmen to tarnish this hard won reputation will not be tolerated”, but the fact that this had been going on for years unchecked is seen by some as simply looking the other way for the sake of the revenue the international students are bringing in. Though steps have been taken by the British government since to prevent further misuse, for many it is already too late.

Exploitation and lack of protection has also been a serious issue between the Indian and Australian governments of late. Racism driven attacks in 2009 on Indian students have caused much tension in the community. Pawan Luthra, chief executive of the local Indian community newspaper, Indian Link, insisted that "If even 0.1% of the $15 billion or so earned by Australia from the sector had been invested in safeguards and [better conditions], this situation would not have occurred ... Coal and iron are commodities, but these are human beings, with feelings and emotions. They need to be protected."

In the last decade despite a very high number of students travelling abroad, not many returned to benefit their home countries. Hence a valid question arises whether it is even feasible to send the top brains abroad when a significant number is lost to the brain drain. UNESCO estimates indicate that about one-third of foreign students studying in the USA do not return to their home countries. Another interesting observation made by the UNESCO and World Bank’s Task Force noted that “study abroad is often a student's first step toward resettling abroad. A country may invest large amounts of money in training students abroad only to find that they very often do not come back. Various schemes have been employed to encourage students to return, but in the end they have met with only partial success. It is apparent that the benefits of this accrue with donor countries, not developing countries.” The report suggested that “countries would benefit by improving their higher education systems sufficiently to attract a greater portion of their students to study in-country”

However, a report in The Christian Science Monitor 2009 quoting a survey at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology introduced a counter observation regarding ‘reverse brain drain’. The author of the report Peter N Scotts asserted that countries like India and China with impressive growth rates are trying to attract expatriates back from the US offering better career opportunities, a better quality of life, and the most valued prospect of being close to family again. The report also implies that the US may not be able to fill the vacuum if the trend continues. The report is supported by another analysis by Michael Finn at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education in the US which points out that percentage of those staying in US two years after receiving their PhDs has been found to have reduced from 71% between 2001 and 2003 to 66% in 2005. This is causing some concern in the academic circles.

To conclude, the benefits for developing countries from study abroad can be significant in terms of human resource development and scientific advancement, while economic benefits for host countries are also substantial. If issues like expenditures, bogus universities and the student visa delays etc are amicably resolved, not only students, but countries as a whole, would benefit greatly from this experience.

Published: SouthAsia Magazine, as Follow the Dream April 2010.