Tony often joked that his baby girl is, quite literally, a million dollar baby. After years of failed attempts at having a baby through surrogacy in China, the couple went to the US for one last shot.
This time, it worked.
Born in December 2010, the baby girl, born a US citizen, is growing up healthy in Shanghai, said Tony, who asked to be identified only by his English name.
Surrogacy remains a legally gray area in China. A lack of experienced facilities and the risk of scams have prompted many well-to-do couples to turn overseas to seek surrogacy in countries such as the US or India.
In 2007, three years into their marriage, Tony and his wife Cherry were told that they couldn't conceive because Cherry had a uterine malformation. "We felt like the sky was falling on us," said Tony, 35, a marketing director in Shanghai.
They spent the next two years trying to have a baby through surrogacy in China, a process which left them exhausted and spent. They forked over 200,000 yuan at a hospital, but failed twice.
Defying the ban
The Ministry of Health banned surrogacy in 2001. However, surrogacy is still performed surreptitiously because of increasing demand. With connections and backdoor deals, couples are sometimes able to find a surrogate mother and a hospital willing to take the risk.
It was reported last December that a rich couple in Guangzhou had conceived eight babies through in vitro fertilization (IVF) and surrogacy.
Infertility is on the rise. Statistics from the All-China Women's Federation show that infertility now affects about one in eight families, or over 50 million individuals in China.
Large demand and a fuzzy legal status have created an underground surrogacy business. Dodgy adverts can be found across the Web luring surrogate mothers with high pay, usually hundreds of thousands of yuan. There are also many agencies boasting a high success rate in helping desperate couples find surrogate mothers and clinics.
Tony and Cherry were very hopeful, but saw their dreams dashed. Having wasted two years of time and money, the frustrated couple decided to go overseas. In some European countries, surrogacy is banned for ethical reasons but it is allowed in at least a dozen states in the US.
Tony later consulted fertility doctors in the US and realized those who had helped him in China were inexperienced and had not implanted the embryos in time.
"We felt cheated. We felt they were just scamming us," said Tony.
It has been widely reported that India has a booming surrogate baby industry. Many couples from the West go to India to find surrogate mothers, as it is legal and relatively cheap there.
There, costs run as high as $20,000 for surrogate births, approximately 20-50 percent of the price in the US. Regulations about the practice have been drafted and are pending approval.
However, some couples have reportedly had trouble bringing their baby back home.
Doing the legwork
Tony did his homework. He contacted agencies and clinics in India, Thailand and Ukraine. He even arranged to fly over to a surrogacy agency in Ukraine, where the surrogacy would cost around $40,000-50,000, but gave up at the last minute fearing a trap.
Both Tony and Cherry work in foreign companies and have a combined annual income of over $130,000. They decided to go to the US, where the process is more developed and open.
"We didn't get our hopes up, after all, we had already been through a lot of disappointment," said Tony. "We decided this would be our last try. If it didn't work, maybe it was just not meant to be."
In 2010, through a surrogacy agency in California, they found their surrogate mother, Amanda, a 33-year-old housewife with a 3-year-old son at the time.
The mountains of paperwork were fearsome. There were at least 300 pages of legal documents to go through, said Tony, most of which were telling the intended parents about all the possible consequences and that neither the agency nor the clinic would be held responsible, if anything went wrong.
"It's so different from in China, where all the doctors and agencies are painting you this rosy picture; in the US, they tell you everything that could go wrong from the outset," said Tony.
Wannabe parents like Tony also have to undergo evaluations by fertility doctors and psychological counselors. There needs to be sufficient physical or social reasons for seeking surrogacy and the couple's relationship is also taken into consideration.
"I feel they are being very responsible for the baby," said Tony. "In China, nobody cares about these factors, all you need is money."
The procedure could take 12 to 18 months and costs add up to over $100,000, including agency fees, legal fees, screening and medical bills, IVF procedures, insurance, surrogate benefits and so on.
Despite the high cost and the multiple trips back and forth between China and the US, surrogacy in the US is still popular among Chinese families which have the means. Fertility clinics and surrogacy agencies in the US are seeing an increasing number of Chinese clients, especially in the last couple of years. Many of the agencies even have Chinese language websites.
Coming over in droves
West Coast Surrogacy, in California, has worked with about 40 Chinese clients, with 40 percent of their clients now coming from China.
Lee Truong, in charge of international relations at Surrogate Alternatives, founded in 1998 in San Diego, says they have seen a significant increase in Chinese clients in the last 18 months.
"This year, about a third of our clients are from China, and of the babies already born and those still due in 2012, more than 30 percent are children of Chinese parents," Truong told the Global Times in an e-mail.
Lauri de Brito, vice president of California-based Agency for Surrogacy Solutions, says the agency has seen about 10 Chinese couples since 2004, with most coming over in the past two years. The agency handles about 40 to 50 cases each year.
Most agencies and clinics contacted by the Global Times gave an average 70 percent success rate across all surrogacies but noted this could vary according to a number of factors.
High success rates and legitimacy are probably what draw patients from all over the world to the US, although American citizenship for their children is certainly an added plus for the Chinese parents, said de Brito.
Most of the Chinese clients are well-to-do and mostly in their late 30s and early 40s, she adds, saying that most have tried IVF on their own but failed.
On occasion, these agencies have gay Chinese couples or single gay men approaching them but not many among these follow through.
Tony and Cherry are the first Chinese couple the California Fertility Partners clinic have had since the 1980s.
Having navigated the surrogacy process on their own, Tony and Cherry are now helping Chinese couples who want to follow in their footsteps and find surrogate mothers in the US. In 2012 alone, Tony said they've referred about 45 couples to the clinic. He consults with on average six to seven couples a week.
Although most potential clients are couples who have exhausted all other means to conceive, some are seeking surrogacy for less acceptable reasons, said Tony. "Some say they are just too busy to have kids, and that's just not a sufficient reason," he said.
Tony said he usually warns parents against the risks involved, especially financial risks.
"You need to have at least $100,000 in dispensable income," said Tony. "I've met couples who sold their house just to go through this procedure, and I don't think that's wise."
Most intended parents have similar requests from surrogates such as a healthy lifestyle. Truong from Surrogate Alternatives says Chinese parents sometimes require a specific blood type, which is a bit unusual. De Brito also mentioned that many Chinese clients request to have a boy.
Many parents who approach Tony expressed wishes for an Asian surrogate, especially if a donor egg is required. Some may also have misgivings about the race and age of potential surrogate mothers, said Tony.
For Cherry and Tony, after all the paperwork and tests, three embryos were implanted and one survived. During Amanda's pregnancy, Tony and Cherry kept in touch with her by e-mail and over the phone. When their daughter was born in December 2010, they couldn't have been more thrilled.
The names of the biological parents appear on the birth certificate and getting the baby back to China generally isn't a problem.
Of course their "million dollar baby" just might cost even more as she grows up in China. The cost for the child's education in China as a US citizen could be staggering, but Tony said they did not even think about that because they wanted a baby so much.
Seeing their child growing up, Tony and Cherry wanted her to have some company. They persuaded Amanda to become their surrogate mother again. They were expecting a second child in February, but the more the merrier, as they will be having twins.