t is a familiar sight: a proud father cradling his newborn in a hospital room. When little Arjun was born last week, there were the regular smiles and the customary sweets. Plus, there was a tangle of legal, medical and ethical questions to be dealt with, not to mention the high-decibel media attention. Born on the same day as the Mahatma, October 2, Arjun has already made his claim to fame: he is India's first IVF (in vitro fertilisation) baby born to a single father and a surrogate mother.
The father, Amit Bannerjee, is a 46-year-old divorcee and his son Arjun is the product of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (art), which is the crux of the controversy that surrounds the baby's birth. It involved two female donors: while one woman provided the egg, the second woman, who would be the surrogate, had her menstrual cycle synchronised with that of the donor. This is a crucial part of the whole IVF process and a successful pregnancy depends on this procedure. Dr Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, chief ultrasonologist at the Ghosh Dastidar Institute for Fertility Research, Kolkata, retrieved the eggs using ultrasound and transferred the embryo to the surrogate mother.
Now, the week-old infant looked after by nurses in a small, sterile room of the institute is among modern medicine's miracles. But Kolkata has been here before: Durga, India's first test tube baby, was born in the city way back in 1978. Only this time, there were more flashlights.
Bannerjee, a financial consultant, divorced five years ago and had given up all hopes of having a child of his own. That was until last year when he heard about the options that art offered. "Had I been aware of art earlier, I would have got Arjun five years ago," says a visibly elated Bannerjee, balancing the baby in his arms.
Bannerjee approached gynaecologist Sudarshan Ghosh Dastidar who asked him to take several medical tests to ascertain if he was fit to be a father. The art process which followed involved extensive counselling for all the three parties involved. Medico-legal formalities do not allow the identities of the egg donor and the surrogate mother to be revealed until the child chooses to know-and that too only when she/he comes of age.
While the IVF procedure has been approved by the Indian Council for Medical Research, the question is whether the largely conservative Indian society is ready to accept IVF babies. Sudipto Roy, president, Indian Medical Association, thinks it is. "If a test-tube baby is accepted, why not an IVF baby?" he asks. But Ashim Chatterjee, a leading psychiatrist in the city, warns of the nature versus nurture conflict that may arise in future.
Also, surrogacy is not a simple issue under the Indian legal system which does not have specific guidelines for it. Says advocate Asha Nayar Basu: "We have to specify the rights of the genetic mother, the birth mother and the rearing parent." When baby Arjun grows up, there will be minor and major predicaments on the way. What are Bannerjee's rights as a parent? According to Section 6 of the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, the mother has the right to the child's custody till she/he is five years old. And when Arjun is admitted to a school, will the column after "Mother's Name" be left blank? The Hindu Succession Act also says a child is entitled to the mother's property. So what happens in the case of Arjun? For now the baby, in blissful ignorance, lies in the arms of his father.