Two newborn infants. Illegal surrogacy brokers conduct their business online. (File Photo/Wang Chin-he)
Last December's news of a wealthy Guangzhou couple giving birth to eight children simultaneously with the help of artificial insemination and two surrogate mothers, caught the attention of Chinese health officials because surrogate motherhood is banned in China, and each couple is allowed to have only one child.
The Xinmin Weekly in Shanghai said in an in-depth report that surrogate motherhood was banned in an August 2001 regulation on artificial insemination by the Ministry of Health. However, the practice continues underground, with a full-fledged industry to support it.
As long as customers can afford it, they may buy babies tailored to their requirements, according to the weekly. It pointed to the widespread commercials on the internet for the purchases of egg cells and surrogate mothers' services.
For infertile couples who want children of their own, conceiving an embryo in vitro and transferring it into the uterus of a surrogate mother is an option. The practice also attracts people who wish to have more children than Chinese policy allows.
Quoting a 2010 report by the China Population Association, the weekly said one in eight Chinese couples was infertile. This ratio is 4-5 times that of two decades ago.
Also, many couples who have a girl still want a male child to carry on their family name. The preference for a son is still deeply rooted in Chinese society.
Liu Xueli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, said, "Since there is demand for surrogate motherhood and the technique is available, it is only natural for this market to emerge in China."
Xinmin Weekly cited sources as saying there were at least 400-500 firms engaged in brokering surrogate mothers in China, including 40-50 in Guangzhou. Most of them plied their trade on the internet.
However, not every couple can afford a surrogate mother to carry out a pregnancy, since the procedure costs 200,000-600,000 yuan (US$31,660-94,980). This includes 60,000-120,000 yuan (US$9,500-$19,000) in payment to the doctor who carries out the in-vitro fertilization, 30,000-40,000 yuan (US$4,750-$6,330) in payment to the hospital, and additional fees paid to the surrogate mother and broker.
The lucrative profits in this industry have attracted many doctors, hospitals and brokers, as well as young surrogate mothers, said the weekly.
The health department in Guangzhou usually imposes a fine of 30,000 yuan (US$4,750) on hospitals caught carrying out in-vitro fertilization in violation of regulations. However, this fine is too small to deter them. Moreover, the health department cannot punish brokers.
Dong Yuzheng, secretary-general of the Guangdong Family Planning Association, suggested revising the law to regulate surrogate motherhood rather than banning it altogether. "Infertile people can then have children of their own, while the illegal sale of egg cells will be eliminated and irresponsible doctors, brokers and surrogate mothers will be rooted out," Dong argued.