Whoa, Baby! Why American Surrogates Are in Demand for Chinese Families
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

Whoa, Baby! Why American Surrogates Are in Demand for Chinese Families

Top fertility agencies scramble to meet foreign demand for the States' surrogate moms as new wealth and the end of one-child laws bring baby seekers willing to spend $200,000.

The first time Dianna Barindelli carried a baby that wasn't her own was in 2012. "We were done having kids, but I still wanted to be pregnant," says the Modesto, Calif., stay-at-home mom, whose own daughters are 6 and 9. Barindelli signed up with the Center for Surrogate Parenting in Encino, one of the most exclusive surrogacy agencies in the world. In 2014, she matched with a Chinese couple. Unlike many agencies, CSP first shows parent applications to the surrogates, rather than the other way around. "It's little things that you'll connect with people over," says Barindelli, who was attracted to pictures of the couple's extended travels and their traditional wedding photos.

The embryo transfer took place in late 2014. Barindelli emailed the mom weekly, sending updates and ultrasound pictures with WeChat, an app that offers instantaneous translation. The intended parents (IPs) planned to be there for the birth, but the baby boy arrived two weeks early, 24 hours before they arrived. Says Barindelli: "I texted and made sure [the mom] was OK with him staying in my room. I cleared everything with her. I didn't want her to feel bad that she wasn't there."

Barindelli, who used her surrogacy fees to set up a college fund for her girls, is pregnant again, this time with the baby, due Feb. 1, of a Taiwanese couple. She may not be done: Her first Chinese couple emailed her recently, soon after their son's first birthday. They still have frozen embryos and hope that Barindelli, now 40, will carry their second child.

Commercial surrogacy is banned in most parts of the world, as well as in many U.S. states. Until recently, infertile couples, singles and gay would-be dads had a handful of options to turn to when it came to finding a surrogate, among them India, Thailand, Nepal and Mexico, where surrogacy services have cost a quarter of the $100,000 to $200,000 bill typical in the U.S. But in the past few years, those countries have started enforcing laws banning international surrogacy. Meanwhile, China — the world's most populous country, with a growing wealthy elite and where some doctors believe infertility is more common than in the U.S. — lifted its decades-long one-child policy. The result is a soaring Chinese demand for U.S. surrogacy services, one that is flourishing particularly in California, with its culturally friendly enclaves, excellent physicians and favorable state laws that regard IPs as a baby's legal parents even before birth, if proper court documents are filed. "We have more legal firepower in terms of the statue and case law than anywhere else," says Lesa Slaughter of The Fertility Law Firm in Woodland Hills, whose own twins were born via surrogate.

"We've seen a surge," says Christene Anthony, who matches Chinese IPs with American gestational carriers for CSP, which has facilitated more than 2,300 births since 1980 and is responsible for helping Elton John, Elizabeth Banks, Angela Bassett and Mitt Romney's son Tagg become parents. "There's a lot of money in China that's being put into the second child," she adds, noting that it has become common for reproductive endocrinologists, fertility attorneys and surrogacy agencies to hire Mandarin-speaking staffers to cater to Chinese clients. Despite CSP's Southern California location, 51 percent of its clients now are foreigners, up from 15 percent a decade ago. Rival agency Growing Generations (clients have included Sarah Jessica Parker and 30 Rock director Todd Holland) also sees half of its clients coming from overseas, as does Gifted Journeys, a boutique agency in Pasadena. At San Diego's Expect Miracles Surrogacy, international clients account for 80 percent of IPs. And of foreigners participating in this permutation of California's birth tourism, the number of Chinese IPs is growing the fastest, making up the most common single foreign nationality for many agencies right now.

"If they can afford to, they'll demand a California surrogate because they've heard they are the best," says Sam Everingham, founder of nonprofit Families Through Surrogacy, of California's current foreign baby boom. "It's a supply-and-demand issue and has raised the prices of surrogacy in California." Adds Wendie Wilson-Miller, CEO at Gifted Journeys: "Every single [surrogacy] company in the U.S. is advertising for surrogates in California. It drives up the cost, the surrogates themselves become savvy and know they can request more, and the cost of living is higher here." A first-time surrogate in California, Wilson-Miller says, might get a $5,000 to $7,000 fee premium over an identical surrogate in another surrogacy-friendly state like Nevada, Arkansas, Texas or Oregon. Compensation for a surrogate working through an agency — which is just one slice of the total cost of surrogacy — now typically ranges from $25,000 to $65,000, depending on the location, experience, and qualities of the surrogate and the requirements of the intended parents. Surrogates may also be reimbursed specific expenses, like lost wages in the case of required bedrest, a budget for maternity clothes, housekeeping, and childcare — as well as premiums in the case of twins or a C-section birth (high-end agencies might pay $5,000 for each). Says Jon Anderson, head of Expect Miracles: "Ten years ago, you could have a surrogate in California with a base compensation of $25,000. Now, with all the Chinese people coming here, that base compensation is at $40,000. Europeans and Israelis have been priced out."

Jerene Underwood, 23, a mother of two in Covina and a part-time In-N-Out Burger cook, recently was matched with a Chinese couple seeking a second son through Growing Generations' VIP program, a concierge-like service that allows increased anonymity to famous IPs. "I would like to get rid of one of my car payments," says Underwood, who has seen close friends and family members suffer from infertility and was attracted to the idea of helping others build a family. Paulina Aquirre, 34, who works part time as the Spanish-language coordinator at her agency, Expect Miracles, is now 26 weeks pregnant with a Chinese IPs' twin girls. "The biggest misconception is that people think you're giving away your own child," says Aquirre, who plans to use the surrogacy fee to fund her daughter's quinceanera and to buy her son a car for his high school graduation. She compares her job to someone donating blood for a friend who needs a transfusion. "Even though you try to explain the science, people seem to think that since you're feeding the baby through the placenta that somehow it's genetically your baby," she says.

Local agencies report typical current wait times for surrogate matching is a matter of months, but "the wait time for Chinese couples is longer" than for the typical American, says  Growing Generations owner Kim Bergman. Perhaps ironically, that's partly because Chinese couples tend to want less when it comes to contact. "Chinese expect less during and after the relationship," Bergman says, while many surrogates want someone eager to share the day-to-day developments of the pregnancy journey, and maintain contact afterward.

Many foreign IPs coming to the U.S. are gay would-be dads; Everingham estimates that half of all IPs using surrogates worldwide are gay. "More surrogates say they'll only work with gay couples," says Anderson, because they believe men's options are more limited; because they know the pregnancy will have a higher chance of success since gay men use eggs from young, healthy donors; or because it's emotionally draining to deal with an intended mom mourning her own inability to carry a child or a couple pummeled by years and tens of thousands of dollars spent on unsuccessful fertility treatments. Openly gay Chinese IPs are relatively rare, though. "Many of my gay couples have bought houses next to each other, so they are separated but together," says CSP head Karen Synesiou, who says that gay dads from China typically request that the surrogate mom's name remain on the birth certificate. "One man becomes the dad or they raise them together as friends." (The use of third-party egg donors is common in surrogacy and particularly for gay dads, obviously. Due to a relative dearth of Asian-American egg donors, some Chinese IPs will choose a Caucasian donor with dark hair and eyes instead, agency heads report.)

Most local agencies have a mix of Caucasian, Latina and African-American surrogates. "I can't think of a time when we've had an Asian surrogate," says Growing Generations' Bergman. Multiple agency heads say Chinese IPs tend to strongly prefer a Caucasian surrogate. "People really have this fantasy because of a lot of the marketing that was done in China," says Gifted Journey's Wilson-Miller. "They have this picture of blond surrogates who look like movie stars carrying the baby with their traditional families." Chinese IPs are also more insistent that the surrogate not be overweight, that she be married, that she eat organic food and be in her early 30s or younger: "Women in their country only have one baby; they have them younger. They don't delay marriage like we do," says Anderson. "To them, a pregnant woman is younger; that's all they've seen."

The concept of cross-race surrogacy can confound friends, family and associates of surrogates and IPs alike. In August, comedian GloZell Green, who is African-American, and her husband, also African-American, had a baby girl via a surrogate. "Our surrogate is a blue-eyed blonde," the YouTube star told potential IPs gathered in a Culver City hotel in early October. People in her life "kept asking if the baby was going to be white."

Surrogate selection aside, California has the added allure of numerous enclaves where families can be surrounded by Chinese speakers and businesses. "People from China can stay in Irvine, for example, and they have Chinese TV on their cable packages. Throughout California there are places they can go and shop and find stuff in Chinese. If they go to Kansas or Oklahoma? It's total culture shock," says Expect Miracles' Anderson. One L.A. movie producer who works frequently in China says she'd regularly see between four and 10 newborns in business class on flights from LAX to Beijing, some of them likely babies carried by U.S. surrogates for Chinese moms. "It was like a flying nursery — we saw it trip after trip," the producer says.

Of course, any baby born via surrogate in the U.S. has birthright citizenship. "The Chinese couples really like that because a lot of them want to come back and forth," says Molly O'Brien, a fertility lawyer with offices in Torrance who frequently travels to China to participate in information sessions for would-be parents, often sponsored by doctors offices or assisted-reproduction agencies. "Maybe they eventually want that child to be able to go to college here." Unlike the U.S., China forbids dual citizenship, and most American-born Chinese babies remain U.S. citizens. "Most Chinese couples just keep that American passport. It's only if you want to use the government services that you've got to be Chinese," says CSP's Synesiou.

In early 2015, Trisha Richmeier, a mom of two from Wichita, Kan., met IPs matched by Growing Generations for lunch with her husband (and a translator) at Ray's and Stark Bar at LACMA. A few months later, in May 2015, after Richmeier had prepped her body with weeks of hormone shots, they returned to L.A. for the transfer. Richmeier knew the Chinese couple had just one shot — with a single frozen embryo the couple had leftover from earlier fertility attempts. "I really wanted to work to make a woman a mother," says Richmeier, now 38. Being a surrogate was "almost like a bucket list item for me." The day after her transfer was Mother's Day. "I emailed the parents and said that by the next Mother's Day I was hoping she was going to be a mom."

When the IPs returned to China, Richmeier sent them a tummy pic every week. "They would email back, 'Take it easy, we want you to be careful,'" says Richmeier, who has an MBA and works at a medical school. Richmeier often had to explain to people in her hometown that she was just "the baby-sitter" — "It's not my child; it's not my husband's child; it won't look anything like me." The IPs wanted her to be on bedrest for the last three months, but Richmeier asked a Chinese-American friend and co-worker to reassure them and help them make arrangements to stay for four weeks after the birth in Wichita.

Following an unexpected bout of high blood pressure, Richmeier was induced in January. "The mom stayed in the room the entire time" for the full 12 hours of labor, says Richmeier. The mom was by her side, the dad right behind the curtain. The hospital encourages at least an hour of skin-to-skin contact after birth: "They put the baby skin to skin with the mom, and she held her and snuggled." Before the Chinese couple left, at Richmeier's suggestion, the two families had professional portraits taken together. When they got home, the new parents sent Richmeier pictures of a big banner with the baby's image and a celebration at the dad's workplace. In July, they forwarded her a video of the little girl babbling. They told Richmeier that they have thought about moving to the U.S. "It was always a given that we would have at least some contact," she says. "They were just a lovely couple."

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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