BY: Jamie Ee Wen Wei
For some Singaporean couples desperate to have a baby, surrogacy is the answer if all else fails.
Because renting a womb is illegal here, they turn to countries like Malaysia, the Philippines and India to find a surrogate mother to carry their child.
At least two Singaporean couples are known to have successfully become parents through this method.
In the first case, a couple was reported to have approached the Dr L.H. Hiranandani Centre for Human Reproduction in Mumbai, India, in 2005. It supplied a surrogate mother who delivered a baby boy for them in May 2006.
Mr Low Soo Meng, 50, who runs Greenhouse Adoption Agency which matched couples with surrogate mothers in China, told The Sunday Times that he has also helped a couple become parents.
He started the service in 2006, but added that he stopped it last year because the surrogacy process became 'too long and complicated'.
For the last three years, another company has also been providing rent-a-womb services to childless couples here and abroad.
Mr Michael Ho, who declined to reveal his age, offers this service under Asian Surrogates, which he set up with his wife. It has a website which is advertised on Google.
For $45,000, they find a suitable surrogate mother overseas, arrange for the medical procedures and take care of the financial and legal issues involved.
He said that he receives about two to three inquiries from couples here every month. Three of his clients have followed up. In the first case, the surrogate mother miscarried, while in the second case a woman is now bearing a child for the couple. He did not want to elaborate on the third case.
'I found out that there were a lot of people with fertility problems who needed help,' said Mr Ho, who also runs an employment agency.
Indeed, more couples here are seeking help in the baby-making department.
The Straits Times reported last week that there are at least 2,000 women seeking in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) each year.
Singapore has been plagued by the baby blues for more than 20 years. Its fertility rate of 1.29 last year is far below the 2.1 replacement rate, which explains why the Government will roll out a slew of measures to boost birth rates.
Those thinking of surrogacy head overseas because renting a womb is forbidden here.
While no official figures on surrogacy are available here, a check with several fertility doctors here and overseas revealed that such cases, though rare, are not uncommon.
Dr Ann Tan, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the Women & Fetal Centre, saw two patients last year who asked about it. One eventually went ahead with the procedure in the United States, where surrogacy is allowed, she said.
Another popular destination is India, dubbed the world's fertility hub. Doctors there have reported seeing more Singaporean couples seeking egg donations and surrogate mothers over the years.
Dr Sunita Tandulwadkar, head of the department of obstetrics & gynaecology at Ruby Hall Clinic, Pune, India, is one of them.
Last year, a Singaporean Chinese couple flew to the city in western India to search for a surrogate mother to carry their baby, she told The Sunday Times.
They were desperate as the wife could not conceive despite undergoing four cycles of IVF. But after three weeks and several advertisements placed in newspapers there, they still could not find a willing woman. They left the country heartbroken.
Couples who approach Mr Ho will apparently not have such problems. He claimed to have a pool of eight women who are willing to carry a baby for a fee.
These women hail from rural villages in the Philippines and have been carefully screened, he said. All are under 30, married with at least one child, of good health and have at least a high school education.
'We have contacts in the Philippines who helped us to find these women,' he said. The women are 'educated and they know what they are getting themselves into', he added.
But finding a surrogate mother is just one part of the picture.
Once the couple and surrogate mother enter into a surrogacy contract, they face a potentially risky procedure that will stretch over almost a year.
Mr Ho said the couple will fly to the Philippines to choose the surrogate mother and harvest the eggs and sperm for IVF treatment. After that, the embryo will be implanted into the surrogate mother.
During the pregnancy, the surrogate mother will be taken care of by a 'coordinator', usually a neighbour or relative, who will be paid by Mr Ho.
The next time the couple meet the surrogate mother will be when the baby is born. For the nine months of labour, the surrogate mother is paid about $20,000 - half of the entire fee.
But surrogacy is no panacea for childless couples. As with all fertility treatments, there is no guarantee of a baby.
This was the case for a Singaporean couple in their 50s. According to Mr Ho, the surrogate mother suffered a miscarriage during the term and so the couple remain childless today.
The other cases he is handling involves two couples from Thailand. One couple have found a Filipino surrogate mother who is carrying their child.
Doctors interviewed said surrogacy is fraught with medical risks.
First, there are risks in IVF, said Dr Surinder Singh, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the TMC Fertility Centre in Johor Baru. About 30 per cent of its clients are Singaporeans.
The common risks include ovarian hyperstimulation (when the ovaries produce too many eggs in response to the hormone injections) and high-order multiple pregnancies (triplets or more, as they may deliver prematurely).
Second, the surrogate mother may also face complications during the pregnancy and labour.
Legal and medical experts also warned of the legal and ethical issues involved in the procedure.
It becomes especially complicated when the eggs of the surrogate mother is used. This is known as natural surrogacy or the straight method.
Lawyer Alvin Chang from the M&A Law Corporation here said: 'How do you declare that the child is yours when the birth is by another woman?'
Dr Singh said: 'It is not as easy as you think. My feel is that couples who go for surrogacy don't know enough about it. If they understand what they are in for, I think many of them will find that it's not worth their while.'
The term surrogacy is used when a woman carries a pregnancy and gives birth to a baby for another woman. There are two methods:
- IVF surrogacy (gestational carrier): This is where a woman carries a child created by the egg and sperm of the genetic couple. It is done through in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). Eggs from the mother is mixed with the father's sperm in the laboratory before it is transferred into the surrogate mother's body.
- Natural surrogacy (traditional/straight surrogate): Here, the surrogate mum's egg is inseminated with sperm from a couple's male partner. The child that results is genetically related to the surrogate and to the male partner but not the female partner. Insemination is easier and the process is also less expensive than IVF. Success rates are higher if the surrogate mother has given birth before.
This article was first published in The Sunday Times on August 17, 2008.
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