Ten years after they met and three years after deciding to start a family, Michael and Ryan are expecting a baby. Make that two.
But the couple, who have so far invested $85,000 in their quest for a biological child only to face heartbreak again and again as laws changed and medical procedures failed, once more may end up empty-handed.
Just weeks after a broker arranged for a fertility clinic to implant two Cambodian women with donor eggs fertilized with their sperm, the government banned the practice, placing the women, the clinic and Michael and Ryan in limbo.
“There is nothing else to say except that we are shocked, sad and feel our future has been taken away,” said Michael, who asked not to use his real name, or his partner’s, because their plans to have children necessitate breaking the laws of the countries they are from.
“We feel angry and hopeless.”
Michael, 40, who works in investment, was born in Europe and is now based in Southeast Asia. He met Ryan, 36, who is involved in the fashion industry, in an online chatroom. Love blossomed and the desire for children eventually followed.
But both men are from countries where commercial surrogacy is outlawed, and it is also illegal in the country in which they now live together.
In interviews over the past few weeks, they shared the ups and downs of their yearslong experience in the murky world of donors and surrogacy.
Their journey toward parenthood is not unlike that of many other couples from the U.S., Australia and Europe who have turned to Asian nations such as Nepal, Thailand and India for surrogacy services.
For many years, surrogacy in those countries was cheaper, less regulated and open to same-sex couples. It made the locations attractive options, even more so than the few European countries where surrogacy remains legal, including Ukraine, Georgia and Greece.
But over the past two years, many Southeast Asian governments have tightened controls or imposed complete bans on the industry amid concerns that the babies are at risk and the women who carry them are being exploited.
Where there is a lack of regulation or changing laws, there is uncertainty, and this is not the first time the couple’s hopes have dimmed as a government moved to clamp down on an industry fraught with controversy.
“I feel it is often a rocky and emotional ride for the intended parents because they go through emotional hardships, legal hardships, financial hardships,” Michael said in an interview last month.
During their first attempt to become parents in 2014, Michael and Ryan entered into agreements with two surrogate mothers from a Thai agency and found an egg donor through a U.S.-based company.
But the industry there soon fell apart after a Thai surrogate mother, Pattaramon Chanbua, accused convicted Australian pedophile David Farnell and his Chinese wife Wendy Li, for whom she carried twins, of taking their daughter and abandoning their son, Gammy, after discovering he had Down syndrome.
Thailand’s government responded to the scandal by banning foreigners and same-sex couples from engaging surrogate services, forcing hopeful parents to make alternate arrangements.
“So we had to go to Nepal,” Michael said.
Last year, they found a new egg donor from South Africa and had prepared to travel to Nepal to give their sperm when their surrogate agency notified them of the ban there.
“In Nepal, we had the same thing happen again,” he said. “We had the tickets; we had the visa; and a week before they said, ‘Sorry, it is not legal anymore.’”
As Michael and Ryan struggled to find a way forward, they learned that agencies that had been forced out of business in Thailand had shifted their operations to Cambodia and were growing rapidly amid lax regulations.
Their surrogacy provider contacted the couple’s South African donor and asked her to travel to a fertility clinic in Phnom Penh where her eggs were harvested and fertilized with the men’s sperm.
Just weeks ago, the eggs were transferred to two surrogate mothers. Ryan and Michael were hopeful, but wary. Multiple failed attempts at fertilizing donor eggs with their sperm and the series of government crackdowns had taken its toll.
“You feel that you don’t have control because everything is done remotely,” Michael said.
Last month, Michael estimated he and Ryan had spent about $85,000 on egg donations, medical procedures and other related costs.“We have gone this far and don’t want to stop somewhere in the middle just because we ran out of funds, so we would do it until we are literally broke,” Michael said.
But money isn’t their only burden in trying to have children via surrogacy. In order to obtain citizenship for their children in their home countries, they also will have to lie about their sexuality.
“Our own countries are terribly conservative,” Michael said. “Surrogacy is prohibited and gay parents are not 100 percent recognized.”
Ryan plans to marry the surrogate mother, while Michael will say that he got a woman pregnant during a trip abroad. Back in October, Michael said he was fearful Cambodian authorities would outlaw the practice before their surrogates became pregnant.
Earlier this month, his fears nearly came true.
In a crowded ballroom at the Intercontinental hotel in Phnom Penh last month, Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana took to the stage and told members of the government, NGOs and legal experts that thousands of foreigners were traveling to Cambodia to have children through surrogacy—and that it had to stop.
He called for a ban while the government considered the ramifications of allowing surrogacy and how it might be regulated.
The pronouncement came two months after the Ministry of Women’s Affairs had gathered relevant ministries and NGOs to discuss how the government should proceed, as Cambodia was gaining a reputation as a popular destination for surrogacy. At the meeting, Rodrigo Montero, gender adviser for German international development organization GIZ, was among those who told the government it should ban surrogacy in order to protect the health and rights of Cambodian women.
“Taking advantage of and exploiting poor and disadvantaged women is unfair, unethical and should always be prosecuted,” Mr. Montero said. “Women and their wombs are not to be sold or rented.”
Michael, for his part, acknowledged surrogacy was controversial, but said women were adequately compensated for their hardship.
“What the government should do is not say surrogacy is illegal or impose a ban—they should regulate it. For example, a woman cannot be a surrogate more than two or three times, or there could be laws to say how you carry out surrogacy.”
Earlier this month, within days of the Justice Minister’s remarks, Health Minister Mam Bunheng made global headlines when he announced a ban on all surrogate pregnancies as part of a wider set of new rules regulating the use of human cells.
The decision, which will remain in place while the government drafts a law regulating the practice, sent shockwaves through the industry and a small but global community of couples already in agreements with Cambodian women.
Mr. Bunheng’s announcement did not include details about the implications for expecting surrogates, parents of the children they are carrying or what measures it would take to enforce the ban.
Ryan and Michael had only just learned that both of their surrogates—a 20-year-old woman with no children and a 29-year-old woman with three children—were pregnant.
“We hope there will be a grace period,” Michael said.
Last Monday, the government for the first time took legal action against a surrogacy provider.
Australian nurse Tammy Davis-Charles, founder of Fertility Solutions PGD, and two of her Cambodian associates were charged for their roles in connecting surrogate mothers with foreign couples.
Keo Thea, chief of Cambodia’s anti-human trafficking bureau, said the charges were the result of a 10-month investigation.
In the aftermath, dozens of pregnant Cambodian women have been moved to Thailand to avoid scrutiny, said one surrogate who recently gave birth. Meanwhile, Michael and Ryan were left wondering: were their surrogates among them? They have no idea.
“We don’t know where our surrogates are, but I hope they are safe,” Michael said in an email on Monday. “That’s the only thing that matters.”
Authorities will continue to prosecute surrogacy providers, Mr. Thea said on Tuesday. But he offered assurances that surrogate mothers and parents of the children they are carrying need not fear the law.
On Thursday, Cambodian officials, NGO representatives and Australian embassy officers met for two hours to discuss the issue and assistance that might be provided to both surrogates and intended Australian parents following Ms. Davis-Charles’ arrest.
Others, like Michael and Ryan, have no government advocating for their interests. They face each day with trepidation—and hope. If they have a message for would-be parents considering surrogacy, it is a simple one.
“Be prepared for the unforeseen,” Michael said. “Be prepared that it will be a very long process, an emotionally painful process and an expensive process.”
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