Thursday, July 19, 2012


Michael Cook
Editor, BioEdge

I thought that the shocking American documentary Eggsploitation had the last word on the exploitation of young women for their eggs. It showed that all over the world they are being promised lucrative sums "to make someone's dream come true". Some were racked by regret, some worried about cancer, some had suffered potentially fatal ovarian hyper-­stimulation syndrome (OHSS).

But when I heard the words "young woman", I never, ever, thought of a 15-year-old. That's how old a slum girl in Mumbai, Sushma Pandey, was when she first donated eggs for US$450. She did it three times. A year and a half later she was dead, presumably of OHSS. No one knows where the money went.

The clinic which retrieved her eggs boasts that it is a world leader and a specialist in gay surrogacy. It appears to have been targeted by a criminal gang which somehow dragooned young Sushma into donating. But the shocking thing about this case is that although it happened in 2010, the news has only emerged now. How many other 15-year-old girls in India (and other countries) are being ruthlessly exploited in this way? There could be thousands of them. Are some of them 14? 13? No one knows. No one cares. The important thing is to make sure that dreams come true: the dreams of IVF clinics for money and of Westerners for children.

Almost two years after she died, no one involved in the death of 17-year-old Mumbai woman Sushma Pandey is facing charges. Ms Pandey, who was unmarried, was earning 4,500 rupees a month working in a scrap depot. She had donated eggs three times in 18 months at an IVF clinic, the Rotunda Center for Human Reproduction. Two days after the third donation, she complained of severe abdominal pain. She died on August 10, 2010. At the time of her first donation, she was probably about 15 years old.

The story appears to have appeared in the press only because charges against her former boss were dropped in Bombay High Court.

The Rotunda Center describes itself as a "world-renowned infertility clinic", a "center of excellence in donor egg IVF and gestational surrogacy" (see YouTube video below), and "the only clinic in India that is LGBT-friendly". Its medical director, Dr Gautam Allahbadia, was responsible for the first successful surrogate pregnancy of twins for a gay couple in India.

Newspaper accounts describe a bewildering number of people involved in the death, but no one seems to be responsible for it. Ms Pandey's parents did not know that she was donating. Sunil Chaumal, the 49-year-old owner of the scrap depot, was charged with culpable homicide but has been discharged for lack of evidence. A woman named Noorjahan accompanied her to the clinic and posed as her guardian but seems to have vanished. Ms Pandey stayed in the house of a man named Iqbal Hussein and was driven to the clinic by another man named Rakesh Bhat, but neither of them has been charged. Dr Allahbadia claims that the girl presented fake papers which showed that she was above the legal age limit and that his clinic cannot be blamed.

The fee for egg donation is 25,000 rupees. Since Ms Pandey donated three times, she should have earned 75,000 rupees. The money seems to have disappeared.

The case highlights the fact that India has hundreds of IVF clinics which operate with hardly any regulation. A bill is being studied, but the Indian legal system works at a glacial pace and it is still far from becoming law. This death suggests that criminal gangs are dangling the carrot of easy money in front of potential egg donors, regardless of their age.

Jennifer Lahl, producer of the documentary Eggsploitation, said that Ms Pandey's death was typical. "What happened to Sushma Pandey is happening to women every day, all over the world. The infertility industry knows the seriousness of the health risks, yet objects to any oversight, to long-term studies, and to regulation, simply because it will compromise their profits." ~ Indian Express, July 12

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