Womb For Hire

ABC News, By Raissa Robles, Newsbreak, 06/16/2009, 06/23/2009

The story almost reads like a fairy tale: no sooner had the child been born than it was taken from its mother and whisked to a land far, far away.

Except that in this case, the infant was flown as hand-carried baggage from Manila to Bangkok, swaddled in the arms of a Danish man who had bought and prepaid for the baby boy.

Far from being a tale of enchantment, what took place  seven months ago in October was the first ever commercially transacted case of surrogacy in the Philippines. It was arranged by a foreign company between a Filipino married woman and a male gay couple from Malaysia and Denmark.

“The egg is actually her own,” Michael Ho, owner of Singapore-based Asian Surrogates, told Newsbreak. He said the woman, whom he declined to name, became pregnant in a “pretty straight forward” manner – through intrauterine insemination or IUI.

“The sperm is inserted into the womb of the surrogate and she gets pregnant, (with) no physical contact” with the male client, he assured.

Because the client “donated” his own sperm, he is the baby boy’s legitimate father and therefore has the legal right to take the infant out of the country, he said. The mother’s prior consent is part of the transaction, he added.

“The father took him back to Thailand because even though he’s Danish, he was working in Thailand,” he said.

He said the gay couple paid Asian Surrogates at least 45,000 Singapore dollars or P1.4 million pesos for the service. Of this amount, roughly P715,074 or 22,000 Singapore dollars went to the Filipina for renting out her womb and providing her eggs. The sum would roughly take   her 5.4 years to earn on minimum wage.

Eight other Filipino women are eagerly waiting in line to provide a similar service, Ho said, expressing his satisfaction.

“I have to say, the Filipinas, they are all very helpful, very enthusiastic. I find the Filipina excellent as a surrogate mother.”

However, they all appeared to be media shy since all refused to be interviewed for this article.

The transaction went unnoticed in the Philippines. Social welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral said in an interview that she was not aware that commercial surrogacy was being practiced in the country. Even if it was, she said there was no law to ban it.

Womb Service-Provider

Ho’s company has been operating for four years now as a womb-service provider and claims to have clients in 15 countries including the Philippines, Canada, US, France, Belgium and Germany.

As a womb service-provider, Asian Surrogates is pretty up front with its array of services and fees.

It claims to handpick surrogates. They have to be non-smokers, non-drinkers, bright, healthy and attractive, below 30 but married or with a partner, and a tested baby-maker with at least one child born the natural way.

Unlike similar companies in India which advertise their surrogates are at least five foot three inches tall, Ho’s company imposes no height requirement.

However, he stresses that his girls “do not change their minds, (are) reliable, caring and ethical,” meaning, they “do not keep a couple’s baby for their own gain.”

The straightforward transaction discards any notion of romantic love or lust between the surrogate and her male client. Still, Ho believes love motivates his handpicked girls: They “want to help their own families with the fees they earned” and their husbands, partners or families understand and support this.

His company arranges both the “traditional” and “gestational” forms of surrogacy. The first method is illustrated by the Danish national’s case, where his sperm was mixed with the surrogate’s own eggs through artificial insemination.

The “gestational” method is harder, riskier and costlier. Here, the surrogate merely acts as the host. Eggs from another woman are mixed with sperm in a laboratory using a process called in vitro fertilization. The resulting embryo – popularly known as a “test tube baby” – is then planted inside the surrogate’s womb.

The traditional or natural surrogacy, if done in Manila, costs at least 45,000 Singapore dollars (US$30,380.80). This is easily thrice more expensive than in India, but far cheaper than in the United States.

Der Spiegel magazine, in a September 25, 2008 piece called  “The Life Factory”, estimated that commercial surrogacy in India costs US$10,000, and between US$50,000 to US$80,000 in the US.  (See http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,580209-3,00.html [5])

Costs in Manila could go up, though, in case of medical complications such as the “loss of reproductive organ.”

Ho’s company justifies its price. This includes the surrogate’s fee, her clothing allowance, food, housing, travel, insurance, medical bills and loss of wages. It also includes chauffeuring the client parents around and housing them.

Looking at the lengthy menu of its services, the firm is in effect practicing medical tourism in the Philippines.

The fee is paid in six gives, with an initial down payment of 5,000 Singapore dollars upon signing the surrogacy agreement. By the third month of pregnancy, two-thirds would have been paid up.

The company makes no mention what would happen to the baby in case the client fails to pay all.

Ho has a separate company, Ivimed, that buys from egg donors at 6,000 Singapore dollars per retrieval. The fee is higher if the donor has a doctorate or a special talent like in music or math.

A client pays 13,500 Singapore dollars for the egg harvesting and other expenses such as egg donor screening, travel, housing and food. Ivimed claims the harvesting won’t hurt, “though some pelvic heaviness, soreness or cramps are common.” Interestingly, the company provides a 250,000 Singapore dollars insurance “in case of medical emergency.”

Ho told Newsbreak that the harvested unused eggs “are frozen in a doctor’s clinic, either here (in Singapore) or in Malaysia.”

“The eggs belong to the girls,” not to his firm. “We take care of our girls, don’t worry,” he said.

Rent-a-womb & egg harvesting may be next RP sunrise industry

Ho’s company, Asian Surrogates, has targeted the Philippines as its area of operations because its “laws are pro-family and show the way in this part of the world by helping infertile couples to start a family without hassles.”

Among Manila’s major attractions is the absence of a specific law banning surrogacy.

“Yes, that’s right, in the Philippines the law is very hazy so there’s no law,” he said.

He acknowledged that surrogacy is banned in Singapore: ”Actually, it’s illegal in Singapore. But you see I’m not breaking any Singapore law because I’m doing this in the Philippines, in India or anywhere else.”

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez agreed with Ho. He told Newsbreak, “I don’t think we have a law on that” but he added that perhaps it was time the Philippines enacted legislation on the matter.

Ho’s company is not the only one eying Manila.

Fox Family Services Adoption Centre, a Singapore firm which was established “primarily to find good families for unwanted and abandoned infants and toddlers in the Philippines and elsewhere,” has expanded its services beyond mere adoption. It also offers to find for its clients “egg donors” and “surrogate mums”.

Last December, Fox Family owner Irene Low Ai lian was arrested in Jala Jala, Rizal when nine babies were found in the same house she was renting (see Parts 1 [5], 2 [6] and 3 [7], The Baby Merchants).

Meanwhile, the Philippines is apparently acquiring a reputation for its surrogacy services. An American of Taiwanese descent named Tim recently wrote in the web blog 8asians.com : “I was surprised to find out there’s a lack of Asian surrogates in the US (although no lack of them in India or the Philippines apparently.)”

Tim said he and his partner had obtained their daughter through the services of a Latino surrogate.

Commercial surrogacy is legally allowed, but with restrictions, in Tim’s home country the United States, in France, Germany and United Kingdom. It is banned in China, Spain, Australia and Italy.

Considering the skewed growth of the global population, the business caters to a growing niche market. World population is estimated to reach seven billion in two years but with a dramatic decline in fertility levels in the wealthiest regions, according to Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations population division and now research director of the UN Center for Migration Studies.

“The average (fertility) level for Europe, for example, is well below replacement, at 1.5 births per woman,” he said.

Fast-growing India is the acknowledged surrogate capital of the world, according to The New York Times newspaper and  Der Spiegel magazine. While no estimates are available on how much India earns from “baby outsourcing”, it is now being billed as the subcontinent’s next sunrise industry after business process outsourcing (BPO).

Surrogacy in RP

In the Philippines, surrogacy has sometimes been practiced but always informally and never by an organized and registered business like Asian Surrogates.

In fact The Family Code, signed into law on July 6, 1987 by the revolutionary government of President Corazon Aquino, acknowledged this informal practice but placed it firmly within the marital context. It was primarily intended to give the resulting offspring legitimacy when claiming inheritance.

Article 164 states that “children conceived as a result of artificial insemination of the wife with the sperm of the husband or that of a donor or both are likewise legitimate children of the husband and his wife,” provided both spouses agreed in writing before the child’s birth and submitted this agreement to the civil registry, along with the birth certificate.

The Family Code never contemplated that a married couple might opt to hire another woman to grow an embryo from their egg and sperm, like what Sex and the City actress Sarah Jessica Parker and her husband Matthew Broderick are now doing.

Philippine law is silent on commercial surrogacy and egg harvesting, perhaps because it did not anticipate this, said lawyer Sally Escutin, legal services chief of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

She said that in the absence of a law banning either, “technically, it’s allowed. But ethically, shouldn’t this be outside the commerce of man?”

“The law never envisioned that a parent would be part of such trade,” she also said.

A section of the Anti-Child Abuse Law (Republic Act 7610) would appear to classify commercial surrogacy as “an attempt to commit child trafficking.” Article IV Section 8 states that trafficking is committed “when a person, agency, establishment or child-caring institution recruits women or couples to bear children for the purpose of child trafficking.”

RA 7610 defines a child trafficker for the first time in statute books as “any person who shall engage in trading and dealing with children including, but not limited to, the act of buying and selling of a child for money.” It becomes a capital crime when the victim is below 12 years old.

But Atty. Escutin pointed out to Newsbreak that the law  does not extend its mantle of protection to the human egg and sperm. “Technically, when you are still egg and sperm you are not a person yet. You have to be born for you to be a person under the Civil Code,” she said.

Surrogacy and egg harvesting both take place before a child is born, so Section 8 of RA 7610 would not apply since it involves trafficking a child, she said.

Amihan Abueva, national coordinator of Asia Acts, an advocacy group against child trafficking, said she was unaware that the surrogacy business had arrived in the country. “It’s more prevalent in India. Here, it’s easier to have simulated births” or the registration of a birth naming fake parents to facilitate illegal adoptions.

Asked to comment on the successful surrogacy involving a Danish national and a Filipina mother, she said: “This is getting more and more bizarre.”

Offhand, she said that while “this really smacks of commercialism” she could not give her opinion on the matter because of the complexity of the issue.

“I guess the problem is, technology is moving so fast ahead of ethics and the law,” she said.

A local fertility doctor said that medically, artificial insemination or the method used in traditional surrogacy is easy to do but Filipino specialists don’t do this outside of  marriage. Insemination is also cheap in Manila, with prices ranging from P5,000 to P10,000.

The Philippine Society of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility has taken a strong position against commercial surrogacy, said its president, Dr. Eileen Malapaya Manalo. “In 2005, we came up with our own ethical guidelines. One of the principles is, there should be no third party surrogacy and no cloning,” she said.

“Basically, we are still influenced by the Catholic upbringing. Most members are Catholic.”  But she conceded that not all fertility specialists, including some who claim to be one, are society members.

Still, she took strong exception to Ho’s claim that “between you and me, all the IVF (in vitro fertilization) doctors in Manila they say they all don’t do it because of the Catholic faith. But in reality they do.”

“Let him face us,” she challenged Ho.

Some Filipinos are eager donors

Even if the country is reputedly deeply Catholic, some Filipinos would eagerly go out of their way and fly anywhere to perform this “humanitarian” deed.

Five Filipinos have offered to be egg donors and surrogates in the website surrogatefinder.com, which charges a hefty 99.99 British pounds just to trawl its site for six months.

One of them is Erika Obias, single, brown-eyed black-haired, part-time model from Malate, Manila who sent photos of herself in a college graduation gown, a schoolgirl uniform and a skimpy bikini.

On February 22, 2009, she posted this message to gay couples: “Hello, I am Erika, 22 years old and I am currently studying law and I have always dreamed of help[ing] people. If giving eggs is one way, I wouldn’t miss out on that kind of experience, even though it’s scary. But I would give it a try.”

Another is Jelo De Leon, a non-smoker. Offering his sperm to a lesbian couple he posted this message on February 17, 2009: “I’m 24, working in a hospital, friendly, caring and love helping others, and haven’t sleep (sic) with someone.”

Even in a macho society like the Philippines, some men would apparently agree to their female partners becoming surrogates. “Why not?,” taxi driver Nolan Lopez told Newsbreak when he learned how much it pays. “Anyway there’s no sex involved,” he said.

He was surprised when his partner, Jannylyn Macalincag, objected saying: “If even a mere cellphone becomes precious to me over time, what more a baby that I would carry inside me.”

Anthony Brown

Anthony Brown

Attorney and Advocate at Time For Families
Who am I? On the deepest level, I am blessed. I have an amazing partner, who I have known since 1989 and been married to since 2004. I am the donor dad of two beautiful daughters who have two moms who are equally amazing. My husband and I have expanded our family through surrogacy and have a seven-year old son. I have had three careers (acting, massage therapy and the law) and I am still discovering myself. I am the Board Chair of Men Having Babies. The one thing I know for sure is that life is about trusting your instincts. Family is an instinct.
Anthony Brown