Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Minority report | Death in the birth industry

On 29 January, 26-year-old Yuma Sherpa, who worked as a shop assistant in a store in Delhi, died a most unexpected death following an egg donation procedure. Sherpa had been convinced (without any coercion) to donate eggs in exchange for money. She and her husband Sanju Rana—a working couple who had left behind their three-year-old daughter in Darjeeling with the child’s grandmother—needed the money. Sherpa’s egg harvesting was done at an IVF (in vitro fertilization) centre named New Life India in Lajpat Nagar.

A statement issued on 31 January by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) said that Sherpa had been persuaded by agents of the clinic to undergo this as a service to surrogacy. The procedure had begun on the 8th of last month to prime Sherpa’s body for egg harvesting. Apparently, this had left her physically uncomfortable and she had wanted to back off. The clinic told her it was too late.

On the 29th, after the final process, Sherpa phoned her husband to pick her up, but by the time he reached the clinic, she was unconscious.

After a series of confusions and delays in resuscitation, the clinic shifted her to Adiva Hospital in Delhi’s Green Park area, where Sherpa was first put on a ventilator, then declared dead soon after midnight.

A police complaint was subsequently lodged and Sherpa’s body was shifted the next day to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) for an autopsy, where the family was informed that a panel would probe if there was any medical negligence.

Demanding justice, compensation and a police investigation, AIDWA has appealed to the commissioner of Delhi Police and the health and family welfare minister.

Till I was writing this, the post mortem report was still awaited and Sherpa’s husband was running pillar to post between the police station and the mortuary while dealing with the shock of an innocuous monetary decision having cost his wife’s life.

Insiders at the store where the girl worked, who do not want to be named, told me that Sherpa had been promised 30,000 out of which 5,000 were to be given to the broker who had introduced her to the clinic.

Sherpa’s is not the first death related to an egg donation procedure as more than a few similar deaths have been reported in the last few years.

Yet, till now, no credible organization working in public health exploring the many side effects of India’s burgeoning fertility industry has investigated if they were caused by medical negligence or if a certain physical response is triggered in some patients to the process of egg harvesting leading to death.

In fact, just last month, The Indian Express newspaper ran a story that the JJ Hospital committee in Mumbai formed to probe the death of Sushma Pandey, a 17-year-old egg donor who died in 2010, two days after donating eggs to the Mumbai-based Rotunda-The Centre for Human Reproduction, found no negligence by the institute.

The doctors had earlier noted that Pandey’s death had been caused by “brain haemorrhage and pulmonary haemorrhages due to ovarian hyper-stimulation shock syndrome".

Now, Sherpa’s death has certainly raised once again the red flag for all the stakeholders who consent to treat a woman’s body as a tool for commerce—consenting egg donors included. What is ovarian hyper-stimulation shock syndrome? Which kind of women are susceptible to this? What is done to make egg donors aware of the dangers that could spring up? Very little of all this is known to lay people. While fertility treatments in Indian hospitals boast major medical advances, surrogacy has become a flourishing industry and even the grim ground realities of some IVF centres (which function without a permit) have often been reported in the media; yet the most vulnerable women who choose egg donation seem to have missed the complexities that surround their choices.

Sherpa and her husband—who revealed this to some people in confidence—didn’t have the wildest clue that egg donation could be fatal. Death may be a rare possibility; but the couple was not warned even about any other troublesome after-effects of egg donation. The agent who struck the deal obviously wasn’t playing health counsellor even as the actual negligence of the doctors at the clinic awaits investigation.

With the Assisted Reproductive Technologies (Regulation) Bill, 2010, yet to be tabled in Parliament, legal recourse remains fuzzy. But deaths like Sherpa’s underline why public health agencies in India must invest in trained counsellors who don’t just bleat about the positive sides of egg donation or surrogacy volunteering. More young women from the economically weaker classes need to be made aware before they agree to invasive procedures without considering the encoded risks. Death to aid birth is a headline that even the business of surrogacy can do without.

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