KOLHAPUR, India — Four years ago, when she was expecting her first baby, Kisabai Biranje wanted desperately to be invisible. She tried for as long as she could to keep her pregnancy hidden behind the crumpled pleats of her floral printed cotton saris. But as the months passed, it became impossible to keep her bulging belly a secret.
Becoming a mother was Kisabai's greatest joy. But pregnancy in the sixth decade of her life was also her greatest shame.
As her stomach began to show, it set off a trail of tarnishing gossip and innuendo in this agrarian town in India's western sugar belt: How did she get pregnant in her post-menopausal years? Was the egg her own? Was the sperm her husband's? Why would she want to become a mother at the age of a grandmother?
But her unremitting quest for motherhood, however risky -- or risqué -- at her age, kept her going. "We had nearly given up after more than two decades of marriage," explains Kisabai, who does not have a birth certificate, but says she was born just after British colonial rule in India ended in 1947. "We went to doctors, shamans, god men -- nothing worked."
"Then we discovered a clinic that made childbearing at our age a reality," chimes in her husband Mahadev Biranje, a 68-year-old sugarcane farmer. "When we told the doctor we were thinking about adoption, he said, ‘Why do you want to raise someone else's child when you can have your own?' We looked at him incredulously and said, ‘Can we really do that at our age?'"
The Biranjes discovered that in vitro fertilization (IVF) -- a procreation technique that involves harvesting a woman's egg from the ovary and fertilizing it artificially with a healthy sperm -- could circumvent, if not undo, the deleterious influences of aging on female fecundity, making pregnancy possible even at an advanced reproductive age. For Mahadev, the procedure was akin to being plopped on a biological time machine that miraculously rolled back the years.
In recent years, thousands of fertility clinics have cropped up around India, spawning a new industry of "fertility tourism" for reproductively challenged couples from around the world. They are the medical equivalent of dollar stores, offering IVF treatment at a fraction of the cost in developed economies, and often without the strict regulations and waiting periods that elsewhere make the procedure a logistical nightmare. IVF -- along with other reproductive specialties like surrogacy (the world-famous "womb-for-rent" business), hormone therapy, and gamete (egg or sperm) donation -- are part of India's flourishing fertility treatment business, on track to blossom into a $2.3 billion enterprise in 2012 according to the lobby group Confederation of Indian Industry. The sector, described as a "pot of gold" in a report by the Indian Law Commission, has earned India the dubious reputation of being the world's baby factory.