Rainbow Family Planning
by Josie Mitchell
At some point in our lives, we all find out how babies are made. We may have seen some rather confusing diagrams in a high school science textbook, had an awkward conversation with a parent or heard it from a boastful friend in the playground. Most often, we were told that it happens “when a man and a woman love each other very much…’’. Whenever I think of the biology of the reproductive process, my mind immediately goes to the opening sequence for Look Who’s Talking, where we get to experience a point of view shot of a sperm amongst a shoal of little white swimmers racing towards the finishing line that is an egg – all set to the soundtrack of the Beach Boys’ I Get Around. But how about when a man and a man, or a woman and a woman who love each other very much want to have a baby? In either case, one of the key components of reproduction is missing. So what options do LGBT singletons and same-sex couples in Hong Kong have if they’ve made the incredible, life altering decision to start a family?
Biologically, the female of the species has more going for her in terms of reproduction. She has a womb to grow a baby in and she has the eggs, all that’s needed is the sperm. This is where IVF, IUI and sperm donors come in. In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) is a process whereby eggs are removed from the ovaries and fertilised with sperm in a petri dish. Once fertilised, the embryos will then be returned into the womb to, hopefully, develop into a baby. Intrauterine insemination (IUI) is a form of artificial insemination whereby concentrated sperm is placed directly into a woman’s womb using a catheter, a more technical version of the turkey baster method. This is best done around the time of ovulation, so that those little swimmers have something to get stuck into. IVF has higher success rates than IUI but is also more invasive, therefore it tends to be more emotionally, physically and financially draining.
Unfortunately, neither of these procedures is legally available to unmarried women anywhere in Eastern Asia, and as most Asian countries don’t recognize same-sex marriages, IVF and IUI for gay women can be very hard to come by. That being said, there are a few clinics in Thailand, India and Vietnam that have been more lax on the rules and have helped unmarried women to conceive through these methods. Bess Hepworth and her wife Kirsty, who now have two healthy, happy and handsome little boys, told me about their success with a clinic in Bangkok: “They were very comfortable with the arrangement. Although the nurses asked about a husband, the doctors knew full well what was going on. And we’ve been back there several times.” However, due to changes in the Thai government and in Indian legislation, these clinics are having to tighten up their codes of practice and some families have been caught in the crossfire, with stories arising of parents not being able to leave the country with their newborns or having them simply being taken away.
If you are able to travel further, the USA, Canada and the UK offer IUI and IVF to single women and same-sex couples. In the UK, IUI and IVF are free for residents on the NHS, regardless of marital status or sexual orientation. In the USA and Canada, although the costs are higher, there is a wide range of clinics, so you can choose one that you feel most comfortable with. Finding a suitable fertility clinic to carry out your assisted reproduction is just one piece of the puzzle. Before you can go through with these procedures you need to get your hands on some sperm. There are many things to consider when choosing the most appropriate donor for you:
- If you prefer the donor to be a friend, how would you like them to be involved in the child’s life? A full-time dad or more of an uncle figure? These details need to be explicitly agreed on to avoid any future conflict of expectations on either side.
- If going through a sperm bank, what criteria are you looking for? How much should you order? Would you choose a donor who is ‘willing to be known’? Meaning that when your child turns 18, they’ll be able to contact the donor.
- If your sperm is stored in a different country to your fertility clinic, does the bank offer a suitable delivery system? Timing is everything.
In conclusion, assisted reproduction for single women and lesbian couples is an absolute godsend, giving women opportunities to start a family that were simply not available 20 years ago. Thank you, progressive scientists. However, it is important to be prepared for disappointment as women rarely become pregnant on the first attempt. Bess highlights the important part that friends and family can play on this journey: “having the support structure that you need is huge. If some people are starting without one, it’s really insurmountable.” If you are considering this path it is strongly recommended that you speak to other women who have already conceived through IVF or IUI, who will be able to help you prepare both practically and emotionally.
Surrogacy is an ideal solution for gay men who prefer to be biologically related to their children and are keen to have a detailed knowledge of the medical history of their child’s mother. Unfortunately, surrogacy is extremely expensive, unless you happen to have an extremely altruistic female friend who’s willing to have IVF treatment, carry a child for 9 months, go through childbirth, and then just hand the baby over to you, then you’ll probably have to go through a surrogacy agency to find a suitable match. On top of that, you will need to pay for IVF, insurance, legal and medical costs. In all costing around US$150,000, or the price of an Aston Martin DB9. A cheaper option is to find your own surrogate through online forums but you will lack the protection and professional 3rd party mitigation that an agency offers if any problems arise.
Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong law does not make surrogacy a viable option for the gay community. Firstly, paid surrogacy is illegal so you better start screening your friends for levels of altruism. Secondly, at birth your surrogate is the legal mother. You will then be subject to complicated legal proceedings to prove that the child is yours, be legally recognised as the father and have the surrogate’s name taken off the certificate. To top it all off, due to the absence of a legal framework, the surrogate is within her rights to change her mind and keep the baby after all.
In the UK, commercial surrogacy is also illegal and as no third party is allowed to receive financial reward you’re unable to go through an agency and will have to find a surrogate independently. However, you are able to pay ‘reasonable expenses’ to the surrogate and certain non-profit organisations, such as Brilliant Beginnings, can help with the process. As with HK, surrogacy agreements are unenforceable but disputes appear to be very rare.
As with IVF and IUI, Thailand and India have been hotspots for gay men to find surrogates. However, the lack of legal framework and sudden changes in surrogacy law can put intended parents at risk of exploitation. Richard Westoby, author of ‘Our Journey: One Couple’s Guide to US Surrogacy’, warns of the pitfalls of going through these less regulated services: “You can be very easily taken advantage of. Without a legal framework that protects all of the parties involved, those paying for the services are putting themselves at risk. There have been instances where the law changes overnight (e.g. Thailand banning surrogacy for non-Thai people or India banning surrogacy for gay and single people) and all of a sudden no one knows exactly what the status of play will be when you are pregnant with a surrogate, which at that point can be an awful situation. In the US there is a fully known and understood legal framework and culturally it is an accepted practise. In the US everything is done in such a way that all parties are protected: you’ve got escrow accounts for all the monies, lawyers only get paid for work they’ve done, your surrogate signs a contract which is legally enforceable and you are able to be fully recognised as parents from day 1… To me, the US is the global benchmark for surrogacy”.
The biggest and most progressive market for surrogacy is by far the US, with commercial surrogacy providing gay couples with services that help them find suitable surrogates, egg donors, IVF clinics, and a legal framework that protects both parties. Some agencies, such as the Las Vegas Fertility Clinic, have even started to familiarise themselves with the law in Hong Kong so that they can offer a more comprehensive service to their international clients. However, this all comes at a much higher cost than any other country.
As our straight friends are mostly able to pop out babies willy nilly and some may be financially, logistically, or emotionally unable to care for a child, there are many babies and children living in care homes that want nothing more than to be adopted by a loving family. So doesn’t it stand to reason that a same-sex couple that are actively trying to start a family would be ideal parents for these waiting children? The Hong Kong government thinks not. Adoption in HK is only available to married couples and singles over 25 and under 45 after being married for at least 3 years. As a result, many same-sex couples choose to adopt as a single parent and keep their partner hidden from social services. If going down this path, parents should take into consideration the message that this secrecy might send to their children. Bess gives some invaluable advice to LGBT parents, “You’re going to be outed through your children’s experiences. You have to be comfortable with yourself because you need to reinforce that with your kids in a way that’s natural”. She recommends same-sex parents to connect with other LGBT families through the Facebook group, Rainbow Families of Hong Kong. As children are going to notice that their school friends tend to have both a mummy and a daddy, spending time with families similar to theirs can help avoid feelings of being ‘different’ and will aid in nurturing a positive attitude towards their non-traditional family.
If you watched gay dads Mitch and Cam on ‘Modern Family’ and felt inspired by their seemingly effortless adoption of the fabulously precocious Lily, from Vietnam…think again. Worldwide, there are currently 27 countries that allow same-sex parents to adopt. Unfortunately, very few of these countries are open to international adoption, so you can only apply if you are a citizen of that country. This leaves very few adoption choices for HK citizens that are openly gay. If you happen to be an expat from Belgium, South Africa, Brazil or any of the other more accepting countries that allow same-sex adoption, it would be best advised to return home to apply for adoption. However, be aware that an adoption that has legally taken place in one country, may not be recognised in another.
International Services vs. Hong Kong
Many same-sex couples intending on starting a family in HK will choose a service from a foreign country. Going through the above procedures in a more progressive and accepting country will help intended parents feel more comfortable and at ease that their rights are being protected. However, as laws don’t match up across different countries, it is imperative to seek legal advice from a family lawyer here in Hong Kong before beginning your journey. Make sure that you are aware of any possible legal fines or future ramifications, and of utmost importance, ensure that you will be legally recognised as the parent when bringing your child back to HK.
Although the path to starting a family as an LGBT parent may seem daunting, debt inducing and emotionally draining, you only have to look at the smiles on the faces of Bess’ boys and Richard’s twins to know that the rewards are worth their weight in gold.
DISCLAIMER: Laws relating to same-sex parenting are a mine-field and constantly changing. Use the above information as a basic introduction only. Consult a legal professional before engaging in any procedures or services.