Going global for a family: Why international surrogacy is booming

The billion-dollar international surrogacy industry is growing quickly – reaching unexpected places

Like many Americans who want to become parents, Crystal Travis' journey to motherhood wasn't easy.

Her career delayed having a family. In 2007, at 45 years old, fertility issues led Travis and her husband Colin McRae to turn to surrogacy. But in the United States, the price of having someone else carry a baby to term often exceeds $100,000. Travis and McRae couldn't afford it.

So the couple researched cheaper options online. Two weeks later, they were on a plane to India, where surrogacy can cost between $20,000 to $60,000, depending on the types of services and the clinic. Less than a year after that, they welcomed their first child, a son named Mark, into the world.

"The one thing that I remember about it was when Mark came out, is they said, 'He's beautiful. He looks just like you,'" Travis remembered. "And I said 'thank you.’”

Crystal Travis, who runs the consulting service World of Surrogacy, had three children through an Indian surrogate.

Mark was conceived using an egg donor and a surrogate mother from India, and the entire process cost only a small fraction of what the couple would have paid in America. Today, they have two more children from the same surrogate, 3-year-old twins named Elle and Alec.

Travis started receiving phone calls from other couples interested in pursuing surrogacy in India. So she started a business, and is now part of a booming, billion-dollar international surrogacy industry that's connecting individuals from far-off corners of the world in new and unexpected ways.

Worldwide baby

Since 2010, Travis has helped more than 600 couples build their families through her consulting service, World of Surrogacy.

"When we started that process, you know, six and a half years ago, it wasn’t a billion-a-dollar-a-year industry,” said Travis. “Now, it’s a different story. And they say probably more because it’s a cash-and-carry industry."

It's taking people on three different continents for Etz Botes and Tony Johnson to get their baby.

India is one of a few countries where commercial surrogacy is legal, making it a "hotspot" for those who can't afford surrogacy elsewhere or wish to become parents more quickly than other options available to them allow. But as the country has grappled with how to regulate the quickly growing industry, it has imposed limits that are making it harder for some of the people Travis is trying to help.

Last year, the country introduced a new surrogacy visa, exclusively available to heterosexual couples that had been married for at least two years.

In the face of those new restrictions, World of Surrogacy has had to get more creative to help gay couples. For example, it’s bringing together people from five cities on three continents to get Etz Botes and Tony Johnson their baby.  

Botes and Johnson live in Florida; their egg donor, a friend who lives in London, will undergo the procedure in New York, the surrogate lives in India; and the delivery will take place in Nepal.

"The village is global, so this feels just like we're going to another place that's right in our backyard. It happens to require a few more plane rides," Botes explained.

The practice of "outsourcing" surrogate birth abroad is controversial, with some suggesting that it exploits poor women, who can't demand the high amounts surrogates in the U.S. do.

"I think they should ask the surrogates if they feel that they're being exploited," Travis responded, when asked what she would say to critics. "I mean, my surrogate, if she felt like she were being exploited, she wouldn't have asked 24 hours later if she could be a surrogate again."

Made in the U.S.A.

When money isn't an issue, global surrogacy also goes in the other direction.

Surrogacy is banned in China. So when Tony Jiang and his wife, who live in Shanghai, discovered they couldn’t have children on their own, they decided to look overseas, and ended up traveling to a surprising place for help.

“I already tried illegal underground surrogates in southern China, which turned out to be a total failure,” Jiang told America Tonight. “So that’s why afterwards I would try to explore international surrogacy industry. I checked with the surrogates from India, Ukraine, and Thailand. They had the solution in California.”

Three years and $275,000 later, Jiang and his wife now have three children: a daughter and a twin boy and girl, who were all born from the same surrogate. If they had been born in China, Jiang and his wife would be in violation of Chinese law. But the children were born in The Golden State; they’re all American citizens.

The government has already relaxed its one-child policy, permitting couples to have two children if at least one spouse is an only child, like both Jiang and his wife. But Chinese couples who have more than two children still face heavy penalties, so surrogacy is attracting the Chinese parents who can afford it to come to the U.S.

"It means that they’re getting their children with foreign passports," said Jiang. "So they don’t bother registering that newborn as a Chinese citizen."

Soon after his children were born, friends began asking Jiang for help. Before long, the young father was in the business of babies, setting up his own surrogacy agency, DiYi Consulting, which has helped nearly 100 couples since it began operating in 2012.

In addition to skirting China’s child restrictions, American surrogacy also opens a window for emigration. Upon turning 21, children born in the U.S. can apply for green cards for their parents.

Jiang pointed out another advantage in the American surrogate experience: gender selection.

Many Chinese seeking American surrogates request boys because male children are still culturally preferred. That’s possible in the U.S., where gender selection in technically straightforward through in vitro fertilization.

"It’s not commercially open or allowed in greater China region,” Jiang explained. "Especially for those couples already having a girl or a boy and they are doing further family building, gender selection will be very essential to them."

Three of the nearly 100 Chinese couples Jiang's agency has helped are gay, but he said infertility is what has motivated most of his clients to seek out surrogacy.

According to the Chinese Population Association, some 40 million Chinese citizens are infertile – about 12.5 percent of people of childbearing age. That number has quadrupled over the past 20 years.

But surrogacy in the U.S. is only available to those who can afford it. Jiang said a basic package, including one IVF cycle, costs between $120,000 and $170,000.

“I think 90 percent of my clients are private business owners," Jiang said. "They have very high income. Also, maybe some middle class and above."

Although there are no official statistics on the number of Chinese parents who come to the U.S. for surrogacy, agencies say it's growing rapidly. All they have to do is point out the growing number of American surrogacy clinics and agencies that are hiring Mandarin speakers and developing websites in Chinese.

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