Childless Japanese couples look for bargains in Asia

March 8th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

In January, Diet member Seiko Noda gave birth to a baby boy after years of medical treatments to help her become pregnant. The baby was the product of a third-party ovum that was acquired in the United States, fertilized with her partner’s sperm and then implanted in her uterus. Though the media initially reported the delivery as being problem-free and both mother and child coming through with flying colors, since then other reports have revealed that the boy is still in the hospital with serious health problems. The egg donor is said to be a young woman, but Noda is 50 and the older the mother is the higher the probability that there will be complications during gestation.

Dr. Yahiro Netsu of the Suwa Maternity Clinic poses with Seiko Noda for the clinic's website

Noda could have reduced the chances of complications if she had opted to use a surrogate mother, but in that case the Japanese authorities would not have recognized the child as hers, which was a very important consideration for her. Nevertheless, surrogacy is becoming an increasingly popular alternative for Japanese couples who cannot conceive on their own and are not partial to adopting (which is almost all of them, since adoption of infants is, for reasons both cultural and legal, not as popular in Japan as it is in the West).

The problem is that there is no Japanese law regulating surrogacy, and the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology disapproves of the therapy in principle. At least one doctor has bucked the society, however, and offers therapy to women who can’t have children on their own, but reportedly the surrogate mothers he uses have to be related to the patients. The principal recourse for Japanese women who want to use this method is America, where it costs anywhere from $20,000 to $120,000 depending on what the surrogate mother requests for her nine months of service.

Since 2008, however, about 30 Japanese couples have patronized surrogate services in India and Thailand, resulting in 10 babies being born. The cost of such therapy in those two countries is about one-fifth what it is in the U.S., and became more widely known through, of all things, a scandal. In 2008, the Japanese media was obsessed with the case of a surrogate mother in India who gave birth to a child for a Japanese couple. Between the time the egg was implanted and the time the child was born, however, the couple had divorced, and initially the Japanese government refused to grant the baby Japanese nationality. Apparently, many couples who were themselves having trouble conceiving read the coverage as an advertisement for bargain surrogate services.

In the last two years three brokers who help Japanese couples find surrogate mothers have opened offices in Tokyo and Bangkok. These brokers have business ties to clinics in India and Thailand. The average price for everything is about ¥5 million. Out of this amount, the typical compensation to the surrogate mother is about ¥600,000. Unsurprisingly, the surrogates tend to be from impoverished backgrounds. According to a recent article in the Asahi Shimbun, the clinics that offer these services keep their surrogate mothers in facilities where their health is monitored. For all intents and purposes, they are prisoners. Their food intake and movements are strictly controlled, and some clinics prohibit their charges from leaving the facilities. Usually, the fees the surrogate mothers receive is the equivalent of five years of their typical income. Many of the women used as surrogates in India are from Nepal, and one who was interviewed by Asahi said that as soon as she gave birth to one child she immediately applied for another “job,” since the money for the first was already used up to buy a house for a relative.

Because of the sudden increase in demand, the Indian government is looking to regulate surrogacy since there are no related laws at the moment. A bill that may be submitted soon to the Indian parliament would require that the client of surrogacy services provide proof that her country allows reproduction by means of surrogate mothers, which would be a problem for Japanese couples since in Japan there still is no law. In Thailand, money is not supposed to change hands in a surrogacy arrangement, but there are apparently ways around that. The point seems to be that surrogates are “volunteers,” since they offer their bodies of their own free will. In that case, the money that changes hands can be classified as living expenses while the woman is carrying the client’s child. Plus a tip.

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One Response

  1. When I was young, I never imagined a world in which we’d be able to actually rent a womb; such things were the stuff of sci-fi or dystopian novels (such as The Handmaid’s Tale). To be honest, the whole business disgusts me. But having said that, I can sympathise with couples who, for some reason or other, cannot have children naturally and are desperate to have them anyway. What I’d really like to know is, why are so many couples experiencing so much trouble conceiving naturally? What’s going on?

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