Aussie families struggle to find womb-for-rent
The wombs-for-rent industry has collapsed across southeast Asia, forcing Australians to hunt for surrogates far afield in countries such as Canada, the US or the Ukraine where they can expect six-figure costs and to tread legal minefields.
For Sydney woman Lisa, who prefers to use only her first name, the 2016 birth of her fraternal twin daughters Bronte and McKenzie to a surrogate in Canada came after extensive and expensive consultation with lawyers on both sides of the Pacific to ensure she could bring her babies home without risk of losing them.
At the time, Thailand had banned surrogacy following the Baby Gammy scandal, Cambodia was shutting down and India closed its doors.
Laos was the last country in the region to allow commercial surrogacy, though experts warned all of southeast Asia was fraught with unpredictable governments and risks of exploitation.
"I wanted somewhere less risky and legal," Lisa said.
"Baby Gammy was happening and I could see things going wrong."
Gammy involved an Australian couple - one of them a convicted paedophile - paying a Thai surrogate to deliver a baby in Thailand, which turned out to be twins.
The couple were accused of choosing the healthy baby while abandoning the other, Gammy, who has Down syndrome* (see below).
Lisa had tried IVF using a sperm donor without success and miscarried after using an egg donor.
"Nothing was working," she said.
She consulted Brisbane-based surrogacy lawyer Stephen Page, who advised in the absence of finding an altruistic surrogate in Australia - not easy, with only 40 to 60 surrogates making themselves available each year, usually on a friendship basis - she should look to Canada or the US.
In Canada, where altruistic surrogacy is available, her Toronto lawyer put her in touch with a club where willing surrogates post profiles online.
"There is more of a culture of wanting to do it there," said Lisa.
"Once you join, it's kind of like internet dating. You try to find a match - knowing there's the hurdle of finding someone willing to work with an international single parent."
She found a woman. They spoke on the phone. Then things moved fast.
Contracts were drawn up. They had a day getting to know each other in late 2015 and did an embryo transfer the following day.
"The legal advice was if you don't use your own eggs you shouldn't use the surrogate's eggs," she said.
"The advice is to get a third-party's DNA. Because there could be problems."
In talking to surrogates, Lisa found a consistent motive.
"They said they'd had their children, had good pregnancies, felt lucky and knew people were struggling. And they said they felt healthy when pregnant.
"One said to me, 'I'm not giving them away. I'm just helping to carry it.' It's an incredible gift. You have to be special but Canadians are some of the friendliest people on earth."
Her own surrogate told her: "I will love them and nurture them but they're your babies."
She was good to her word.
Lisa was there for the birth in 2016.
"I cut the cords and they were given to me," she said.
She stayed on a month, arranging paperwork.
Lisa's name appeared on the birth certificates as the parent, by Canadian court order.
She flew with the twins, travelling on Canadian passports, to Sydney.
There, a prearranged immigration agent ensured a seamless transition for the babies' citizenship.
"A couple of weeks after we got them to Australia they became Australians as well, so they have dual citizenship," she said.
Lisa said she'd never counted the total cost but with IVF, medical costs for the surrogate, travel, accommodation and car hire in Canada, and legal and immigration advice, even this non-commercial surrogacy entered the "six-figure region".
She had to refinance her mortgage but said it was worth it: "Look at the reward. All I could see in my future was just regret if I didn't do everything available."
SOUTHEAST ASIA IN SURROGACY SHUTDOWN
The aftershocks of Baby Gammy are still felt today.
Cambodia, reacting to the outrage, jailed Australian nurse Tammy Davis-Charles in 2017 then freed her last year after serving part of her 18-month sentence for running a surrogacy clinic.
Thai specialists crossed to Laos to set up clinics.
So too did Thai surrogates, who were trafficked into Laos and then sent back to give birth in underground Thai clinics because foreign clients do not trust the standard of maternal care in Laos' inferior hospitals.
Though Laos has no laws preventing commercial surrogacy, it does have laws against human trafficking.
News Corp Australia recently visited the headquarters of Laos' most high-profile clinic, Talent IVF, and found it boarded up after police raided it six months ago.
Figures provided to News Corp Australia by the Home Affairs Department show that the region is now closed for business.
Home Affairs said that in 2014-15, 93 babies were granted Australian citizenship through the Bangkok Embassy after parents provided DNA proof the baby belonged to an Australian parent. Then Gammy hit.
In 2018-19, the number has dropped to less than five.
Mr Page said the figures confirmed southeast Asia was in shutdown.
"Yes, and that's a good thing," he said.
"We don't want repeats of women being exploited."
With commercial surrogacy banned across Australia, except in the Northern Territory where there are no laws, and a low take-up of Australian women prepared to act as altruistic surrogates, couples looking offshore are now finding their options are narrowing - if they want it to be low-risk.
Countries that still offer surrogacy - such as Greece, Russia, the Ukraine, Bangladesh, Nigeria and South Africa - come with strings attached.
Mr Page said they may only allow for heterosexual couples, require one party to be the genetic parent, give surrogates legal rights to claim the baby, present exit issues for the baby, or involve business models that exploit surrogates.
Mr Page said the only safe destinations left are the US and Canada, where there is some legal certainty.
However, he says parents are "now looking at between $145,000 to $300,000" for a surrogate baby, whether commercial or altruistic.
Even then, couples from Queensland, NSW and ACT are prohibited by law from engaging in commercial surrogacy overseas, though no one has ever been charged.
Mr Page describes WA law as "grey" but in the rest of the states and territories - Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the NT - it is legal to engage a foreign commercial surrogate.
The number of children born overseas in surrogacy arrangements now far outnumbers the number of children adopted from overseas, with long wait times and the desire to possess newborns given as the likely explanation.
In 2017-18, only 65 of the 330 finalised adoptions in Australia were from overseas, mostly from Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand.
Australians have shown a massive loss of interest in adoption from 25 years ago, 764 adoptions were recorded in 1993-94.
Last year, only 32 of the 330 adoptions were of local children unknown to the parents, while the remaining 233 were "known child adoptions" - usually meaning someone close had stepped in to resolve a crisis.
It takes on average just under three years to adopt a baby from overseas, according to the federal government's Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Adoption.
Incredibly, it has no data on the waiting times for adoptions within Australia, which is just one of the many frustration intending parents express about the adoption process here.
But anecdote suggests a likely wait of between three to seven years.
For Lisa, the process from finding a surrogate to the delivery of her twins took around 18 months.
"For me it's a miracle and I'm grateful every day," she says.
* The West Australian Family Court found the couple did not abandon Gammy, who remains with his mother in Thailand, and allowed the daughter to remain with the paedophile father and his wife, in Bunbury, WA, with regular visits from welfare authorities.