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India's Obsession with Fair Skin

How far does India's obsession with fair skin go? All the way to the West. Many Indian couples now opt for Caucasian egg donors so they can have white babies through IVF.

Mayuri Singhal, 36, married into a fair-skinned family. She herself is what is often described in matrimonial columns as "wheatish". When she couldn't conceive, she walked into an IVF clinic with her demand: a "white" baby. "I had read on the internet that one could access a donor who is fair. I decided to opt for one so that the child blends in with the family, “says Singhal.

According to the World Health Organization there are close to 13 to 19 million infertile couples in India and their numbers are growing. Most of them opt for Artificial Reproduction Technology, or ART, to conceive.

"Couples who come for IVF require a donor egg or sperm. Once this is explained, they demand specifications - the donor should be educated, fair, have blue eyes, " says Dr Rita Bakshi, an IVF expert who runs the International Fertility Centre (registered with the Indian Council of Medical Research) in Delhi. Dr Bakshi says that roughly 70 per cent of her clients ask for fair skinned donors. "I get clients who even ask me for donors who look like Aishwarya Rai.”

IVF clinics can obtain permission to import frozen human embryo after getting certain documents in order. Caucasian eggs are usually sourced from donors in Spain and countries in Eastern Europe. Dr Bakshi explains: "You need to get a legal agreement signed by the intended parents, and the clinic, which should be registered with the ICMR. The clinic should issue a No Objection Certificate to import frozen human embryo and it should be signed by the intended parents while they are physically present in India. "Various courier services, like DHL, Time and Temperature Couriers and cryopreservation companies dry ship such biological material to India.

Infertility experts, however, warn that getting a 'designer' baby is a difficult and expensive procedure. "You need a lot of paperwork and approvals from government agencies,” cautions Dr Anjali Malpani, a Mumbai-based fertility specialist. European donors may charge between $1, 000 to $5, 000 (Rs 6, 000 to Rs 30, 000 approximately) depending on factors such as physical health and educational background. Laws vary according to the country. For example, Canada forbids its donors from demanding any financial compensation. On the other hand, the US does not regulate the amount of money that can be paid to a donor.

There is also the issue of logistics and laws. Dr Malpani cites a 2010 incident where a container carrying frozen human embryos from the US was seized by Customs officials at Mumbai airport and returned to the US. While the ART Bill 2010 clearly states that import of human embryos is allowed, the Customs department has yet to update its import tariff manual to include it.

None of this deters couples like Suresh and Supriya Shetty from Hyderabad who scouted for a donor fairer than them. "We are so grateful that our daughter Vani is as white as milk. There is no denying that it is easier to get fair girls married, " says Suresh who came to Ahmedabad to get IVF treatment done at Bavishi Infertility Institute after a couple of failed cycles in Hyderabad clinics.

Dr Manish Banker, director Nova IVI Fertility Clinics, says he deals with a similar request at least once every two months. "Seeking fairskinned donors is a rising trend. Couples usually ask for donors with blue or brown eyes, “Says Dr Banker. Dr Malpani adds that the maximum demand for fair-skinned donors comes from Kashmiris, Parsis and Punjabis as they themselves are fair complexioned. "A couple came to me asking for a German donor because they wanted a child with a strong physique and fair skin,” says Dr Malpani.

Kiran Chugh, a 45-year-old woman of Indian origin living in London has recently found a Caucasion donor via Dr Bakshi's clinic. She is a second generation NRI who is a working professional and very happy with her choice of donor. "We live in a multicultural society. Many members of our family are of Caucasian descent. Therefore, having a child with Caucasian looks works for us, “says Chugh, who earlier had an unfortunate experience with an Indian surrogate at a different clinic. The surrogate lost Chugh's twins due to mismanagement on part of the clinic.

Is she concerned that people might judge her for being racist? "I am not bothered with what others say. I am more concerned about my family's needs and the future of our child, “says Chugh.

Doctors say that the demand for donor eggs is much more than for sperm. The donors either come to India for egg retrieval or eggs are fertilized abroad and the embryo is then imported. Like with surrogacy, the trend of Indian couples seeking Caucasian donors is raising many ethical questions. Banker claims that legislation to ban the use of foreign donors is being contemplated. Till then the use of fair-skinned donors remains in a grey zone.

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