The advertisement was seeking a woman with a “high intelligence quotient, fair or wheatish complexion, between 22-26 yrs. Preferably B +ve”.

It might have added convent-educated, very good-natured and specified a caste. But this was no matrimonial notice. Placed by an organisation called Surrogacy India, it was looking for egg donors who would meet that description. It went on  said egg donors would be “duly rewarded”.

The prejudices that prevail in practices such as marriage seem to have been transferred to the process of birth itself, with people openly asking for traits that they think will produce the kind of babies they want. It's a kind of a for embryos.

Except that it’s more complicated than that. The practice of egg donation, especially when done commercially, has thrown up a range of tricky ethical questions over the years. India, which has seen an assisted reproduction boom in recent years, was blissfully oblivious to these questions. These procedures were lucrative businesses with no regulations or standards. But with drafting of the Assisted Reproductive Technologies (Regulation) Bill, 2013, the conversation has begun to change.

The regulation must, of course, cover questions of consent from the egg donors, their reproductive rights and the safety of such procedures. Only last year, a young woman in Delhi died after donating eggs. But as it decides on the business of birth, India will also have to deal with questions of commodification and choice that the West has long grappled with.

Baby farming?

Egg-harvesting first happened during World War II to breed livestock and it wasn’t until the 1980s that the first human egg donation took place. The association stuck, with shrill critics condemning the practice of “baby farming”. As prospective parents “shopped” for suitable egg donors, it invoked dystopic possibilities of an assembly line of fit, beautiful babies harvested from genetically suitable mothers. Somewhat similar to Gattaca without Ethan Hawke.

The unease is sharpened by the forms of compensation offered to the donors. The compensation policy in the US, for instance, allows two kinds of monetary incentives. The first is burden based ‒money given to women for the risks and pain of going through the process of having their eggs extracted.

The controversial component is money offered for “desirable traits” that a donor might possess. A woman could charge more for being blonde, blue-eyed, athletic, having musical talent or being a maths wizard, raising the unmistakeable spectre of eugenics.

Paying women for eggs with desirable traits gives rise to other more immediate question. Does it commodify women for their reproductive traits? Does it even commodify babies as clients look for specific traits?

A study conducted by doctors at the Mt Sinai School of Medicine and the Reproductive Medical Associates of New York, a fertility clinic, showed that specifications had changed over the years. From hair and eye colour, clients were more anxious to have intelligent children.

Between 2008 and 2012, women who wanted babies from a “similar gene pool” had gone down from 40% to 25%. For the same period, women who prized “intelligence” went up from 18% to 55%, and athletics, from 1% to 17%. The customise-your-baby approach seems to assume that genetic traits can be passed neatly from one generation to another.

These concerns have prompted researchers to recommend that the US stick to burden-based compensation, and a flat rate offered to all donors. While egg donation can give thousands of childless couples the hope of parenthood, it needs to be protected from the acquisitive habits of a consumer society.

Caste and class

In India, egg donation enters particularly dangerous ground. Famed for its fertility tourism, the country draws foreigners who can find clinics that charge half the price of those in the UK. They are also unencumbered by the thicket of regulations in countries such as the US and the UK. This has created a high demand for Caucasian and Thai egg donors. The “diva” donors are those from foreign countries.

As it becomes more popular in Indian cities, the biases seen in other countries enter a toxic cocktail of caste and class prejudices. Women in metropolitan cities want “good quality eggs” from “fair, beautiful and educated women”. These are coded words that could just as easily stand for “upper caste and upper class”. With affluent urban couples opting for egg donation, it has come to involve big money. A woman could earn between Rs 25,000 and Rs 2 lakh per donation.

Both the tastes of clients and the money involved would determine the demographic of donors. For many women, donating eggs is a way of supplementing their income, gaining a degree of financial independence. A number of them are from low-income backgrounds, struggling to feed large families. But to cater to preferences, clinics could be looking at a different pool of donors. In recent years, this has come to consists of young students, some still going to school, with bodies unprepared to take the procedure.

As India becomes a country that openly accepts and regulates assisted reproduction, it must guard against the social prejudices that affect all other spheres of life here, and are not likely to leave this one alone.