Americans have long gone to China to adopt babies. In a twist, Chinese couples are now coming here to become parents — through surrogacy.
China does not permit surrogate parenting, but that country's rising affluence has given many couples the option of coming to U.S. surrogacy clinics. California, with its large Chinese American community and its courts' liberal attitude toward surrogacy, is a prime destination.
Jerry Zhu and Grace Sun of Beijing have so far saved $60,000 toward the expected $100,000 cost of surrogate birth. They hope to come to Los Angeles later this year for the procedure.
"It's going to be expensive," said Zhu, who manages a furniture factory. "But if we have a child it will complete the family. We are hoping for a son."
U.S. and Chinese authorities say they do not track the numbers of Chinese couples coming here for surrogacy services, but surrogacy experts and clinic operators say there has been a sharp upswing.
"In the last year, it went from nonexistent to being tremendous," said Parham Zar, managing director of the Egg Donor & Surrogacy Institute in Los Angeles. He estimates that about half of his company's business comes from Chinese couples.
Surrogate Alternatives Inc. of San Diego has three agents in China who recruit couples. Last year about 40% of Surrogate Alternatives' 140 client couples were from China, Chief Executive Diana Van De Voort-Perez said.
Zhu, 42, and Sun, 35, said they haven't chosen a clinic yet, but know they want to have the procedure performed in Southern California because of the many clinics here that specialize in surrogate births. The couple, who requested that their English nicknames be used because surrogacy is frowned upon by many people in China, said they came to their decision after several miscarriages.
"Of course we would rather have our own child naturally, but we realized that that might be impossible," Zhu said.
Like most couples, Zhu and Sun hope for a so-called gestational surrogacy, in which an embryo created by the woman's egg and the man's sperm is implanted in a surrogate mother who will bear the child.
Clinic directors say a gestational surrogacy typically costs $80,000 to $120,000, with higher costs if there are complications or if repeated implants are needed.
The price rises about $30,000 if the prospective mother's eggs are not viable. In these cases, the clinics typically obtain eggs from donor clinics.
Most Chinese couples insist on eggs from ethnic Chinese women, which has led to inflated prices, said Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg of the Fertility Institutes in Encino.
A Caucasian woman normally gets about $5,000 to $8,000 for 10 to 14 eggs, Steinberg said, with the money technically being paid for the energy, time and pain associated with the "donation." An ethnic Chinese woman can command $15,000 and up for her eggs, according to Steinberg and other surrogacy specialists.
"It's supply and demand," Steinberg said. "Chinese are the premiums."
Shelley Smith, owner of the Egg Donor Program in Studio City, said she does not usually pay Chinese women more for their eggs, but acknowledged that she is planning to pay an ethnic Chinese woman who lives in New York $15,000, which is higher than her normal fee.
Much of that premium is because the woman is a repeat donor whose eggs have proved to be fertile, Smith said, but other factors are also at play.
"This Chinese egg donor is in great demand," Smith said. "She has perfect 1600 [SAT scores], she is very, very pretty, and she went to an Ivy League school."
Chinese clients have become so important that California surrogacy clinics hire agents based in China to drum up business.
Li Dong Ming works in Beijing for the Agency for Surrogacy Solutions and its sister company, Global IVF in Encino. She gets a "finder's fee" for every client who opts for that firm's service, but declined to specify how much that fee is.
Li said it's not a hard sell.
"They want to go to America because they think the science is better," Li said in Mandarin. "They want a precious treasure, and if finances allow, the dream is to have a baby in America."
A baby born in the U.S. is automatically granted U.S. citizenship, which remains valid even when the couple return to China with the newborn.
Robert Walmsley, an attorney who specializes in surrogacy cases, said American citizenship is an "extra perk" for his Chinese clientele, which he says has grown 20% over the last three years.
Like others, he says the trend is being driven by the robust Chinese economy. Clinic directors say many of their Chinese clients are middle-aged couples who can now afford the cost of raising a second child — and also can afford to pay the hefty financial penalty for violating China's "one-child" policy.
"In the last year we have had several Chinese couples already with a child between 16 and 25 years old," said Juli Dean, director of Coastal Surrogacy in Newport Beach. "They are literally starting over again and having a second family."
The process isn't always easy. Dean notes that some Chinese couples see the procedure as strictly a business transaction, viewing the surrogate mother as a hireling. American surrogate mothers, she said, tend to want to have a relationship with the couple whose child they are bearing.
"We have to educate [Chinese couples] that the surrogate is not an employee, that it's more than a business transaction," Dean said. "We have to say it's very disrespectful to the surrogate mother, and a lot of Chinese culture is about respect and not being disrespectful, so they can understand that part and relate to it."
Cultural differences aside, the procedure is also time-consuming — and doesn't always go according to plan.
Amy Lee, 42, and her husband, Harry, 48, of Hong Kong first flew to Los Angeles in 2010 to begin surrogacy procedures. The couple, who used their American nicknames, had always wanted a child, but their careers — she as a film professor, he as the manager of a tech company — had gotten in the way.
Their surrogate became pregnant but miscarried two months later. Later that year Lee went to Beijing to an underground surrogacy clinic. Her surrogate there miscarried too, and Lee decided not to try again in China.
So last year Lee came back to California three times to work with two surrogates. The first attempt did not result in a pregnancy, and the second attempt ended in a miscarriage.
The couple tried again in December with a different surrogate. That resulted in a pregnancy, and they are hoping it goes full term.
"There is a great demand for this in China, but it's illegal in China," Lee said. "So what are couples supposed to do?"