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Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas. The couple recently announced they had become parents via surrogacy. Photo: EPA

Priyanka Chopra backlash spotlights India’s surrogacy stigma – even though it’s big in Bollywood

  • Surrogacy, whereby a woman gives birth on someone else’s behalf, remains controversial in India, which has repeatedly tightened laws regulating the practice
  • Shilpa Shetty, Preity Zinta, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan have all had babies via surrogate – but that didn’t stop online trolls from attacking Priyanka Chopra
No sooner had Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas surprised fans with the news that they’d had a baby via surrogacy last week, than internet trolls were attacking the 39-year-old Indian actress for “outsourcing” childbirth.

Some accused Chopra of “using” another person’s body to safeguard herself from the perils of pregnancy, while others questioned what kind of mother she was going to be, based solely on her and her American husband’s chosen route to parenthood.

The vitriol the star couple faced reflects the stigma that surrogacy – whereby a woman carries a pregnancy and gives birth on someone else’s behalf – still carries in deeply conservative India, where laws regulating the practice have been repeatedly tightened in recent years, even as it becomes increasingly popular among big Bollywood names and other celebrities.
In a joint Instagram announcement on Friday that set social media alight, Chopra and Jonas – who married at a high profile 2018 ceremony in Rajasthan attended by a long list of notables including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – said they were “overjoyed to confirm” they had welcomed a baby via a surrogate, asking for privacy as they focused on their new family.

Many were supportive in their responses. Others, however, jibed that surrogacy meant “Nick has become a father but Priyanka is not a mother”, while some felt the need to take a jab at the 10-year age gap between the two, sardonically asking: “How will Priyanka raise two kids [at her age]?”

“So are you going to dump Nick Jonas now?” asked another Twitter user, referencing earlier remarks about not needing “a guy for anything except children” that Chopra was quoted as making in a 2016 interview.

Ready-made babies

Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi author and feminist activist who lives in exile in India, responded to the social media storm with her own opinions on surrogacy, saying it was only possible “because there are poor women” in the world.

“How do these mothers feel when they get their ready-made babies through surrogacy?” Nasreen asked on Twitter, “Do they have the same feelings for the babies [as] the mothers who give birth …?”

“Rich people always want the existence of poverty in society for their own interests. If you badly need to raise a child, adopt a homeless one … I won’t accept surrogacy until rich women become surrogate mums,” she added, later stressing that her comments had “nothing to do with Priyanka-Nick”.

For God’s sake, we’re in 2022! What a woman chooses to do with her life and her body is up to her
Kalakriti Chadha, women’s advocate

For Kalakriti Chadha of Jagori, a New Delhi-based women’s advocacy group, the backlash Priyanka received following the announcement was “regressive”.

“For God’s sake, we’re in 2022! What a woman chooses to do with her life and her body is up to her,” she said. “How can people feel so entitled as to judge her capabilities as a mother [because] she didn’t physically deliver the child?”

Part of the reason for the toxic comments, according to one Bollywood insider, are stereotypes surrounding the “purity” of motherhood in India, which women who choose surrogacy are often accused of “defiling”.

“For the culture police, Chopra is not a lone target. All adoptive mothers, foster mothers, single mothers, stepmothers, 40-plus mothers and divorced mothers have to routinely face such vitriol,” said the actor, who asked not to be named. “Unfortunately, the dads face no such scrutiny.”

Shilpa Shetty is among the Indian celebrities who have opted to have children via surrogacy in recent years. Photo: Instagram / @theshilpashetty

Despite the controversy, surrogacy has become a popular option for a number of Bollywood’s biggest names in recent years. Shilpa Shetty and her husband Raj Kundra in 2020, Preity Zinta and husband Gene Goodenough last year, Aamir Khan and his former wife Kiran Rao in 2011, and Shah Rukh Khan and wife Gauri Khan in 2013 all opted to expand their families via surrogacy – as have directors and producers Karan Johar and Ekta Kapoor, who are both single parents.

Not even celebrities can escape the stigma associated with the practice in India, however, with both Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan on the receiving end of public criticism after announcing they were having children via surrogacy.

Shilpa Shetty even felt pressured into issuing a public statement to clarify that she had only opted for a surrogate second child after exhausting other options, including adoption, and “after waiting for four long years to gift a sibling to my young son”.

Is this the end of India’s US$2 billion ‘rent-a-womb’ industry?

Until recently, India was one of only a handful of countries where a woman could be paid to carry another’s child. Surrogacy for foreigners was banned in 2015, and a new law enacted in December barred “commercial surrogacy” outright – restricting the use of surrogate mothers to married couples and single women, and allowing payments only for medical expenses.

Modi’s government has said the new law is aimed at “curbing the exploitation of women”, but critics have balked at the exclusion of single men, non-married couples and LGBT people – further cautioning that the legislation will deprive poor would-be surrogate mothers of fees ranging from US$10,000 to US$20,000 and risks forcing India’s estimated US$2.3 billion market for surrogacy services underground.

Sansrkiti Taneja, a Delhi-based lawyer and activist, has warned the new law could create “a thriving grey market for the very services it seeks to regulate” and end up hurting the women that it is intended to protect.

More than 3,000 fertility clinics offering surrogacy services are currently thought to operate across India.