After the one-child policy.

Photographer: GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images

China's Flirtation With Surrogate Motherhood

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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studio portrait of eight sibling toddlers went viral in 2011 on Chinese social media. According to news reports at the time, two of the children were born to a wealthy couple in Guangzhou, and the other six were born to surrogates hired by the couple to skirt China’s one-child population-control policies.

Chinese social media users, ever sensitive to class divisions, turned the portrait into a viral outrage, stoking the widespread belief that population policies don’t apply to the rich and well-connected.

Four years later, that incident and others like it appeared to capture the attention of Chinese lawmakers. China’s new two-child policy, which takes effect on New Year’s Day, was drafted with an outright ban on surrogacy designed to dissuade population-control policy circumvention.

But in a surprising move last weekend, that provision was expunged by lawmakers concerned that prohibition would drive surrogacy underground and overseas.

QuickTake China's Pain Points

For a government that prefers to make policy behind closed doors, this was an unusually public flip-flop. Though not nearly as consequential as the two-child change itself, the decision to refrain from banning surrogacy highlights the rapid change in attitude that the Chinese government has made as it tries to blunt the potentially disastrous economic impact of China’s aging population. Things that might once have been outlawed are now tolerated or ignored in hope of engineering a much-needed baby boom.

But actually engineering that baby boom is proving to be difficult. Of course there's the burden of 30 years of one-child population planning to overcome. Beyond that, according to the China Population Association, 12.5 percent of the women of child-bearing age were infertile in 2012, up from 3 percent in 2002. The precise reasons for that increase are unknown, but China’s pollution crisis and modern sedentary lifestyles are believed to be contributors. So are later marriages and childbirth.

Even before China turned to promoting parenthood and two-child families, in-vitro fertilization was legal and booming in China. It’s probably going to become even more popular now that older parents can have a second child. But for parents for whom IVF doesn’t work, the options are more limited. Adoption, though available, isn’t widely accepted due to cultural beliefs about children and family blood lines. So that leaves unlucky prospective parents either childless, or, if they can afford tens of thousands of dollars in fees, considering surrogacy.

Seeking a surrogate isn’t easy in China. In 2001, the Ministry of Health banned doctors from offering the service. But because it was a ministry rule and not a law, doctors – and many non-doctors – simply ignore the ban. These days, a prospective parent can find Chinese and foreign providers online. But no matter how professional the clinic, there’s no getting past the gray-market nature of the service in China, or the potential difficulties that can emerge when hiring someone else to carry your baby. Likewise, there is the fear that the desire to have a child might be misinterpreted by the authorities as an attempt at getting around population-control policies.

Still, determined couples try. According to a 2014 New York Times investigation, the number of surrogate babies born in China annually is well over 10,000. That number is supplemented by an unknowable number of Chinese surrogates born overseas, including to birth mothers in the United States. Yet they’re a tiny and notably affluent proportion of the millions of children born annually in China. From the government’s perspective, there’s little to be gained in cracking down.

As they loosen their grip over family planning, Chinese leaders shouldn’t turn their backs on surrogacy and surrogate mothers. Currently, China’s gray market offers no legal rights to women who take substantial physical and psychological risk to carry children for affluent couples. Likewise, couples have little recourse if a surrogate mother breaks a contract and refuses to hand over a baby.

A law that recognizes and regulates surrogacy would take the industry out of the shadows. Though surrogacy alone will never create a baby boom, making it legal and respectable would be a big, symbolic step in China’s sudden expansion of reproductive freedoms.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net