IVF tourism: The Chinese women travelling to Australia for a baby

EXCLUSIVE: Demand for IVF in China has surged since the one-child policy was scrapped, but unmarried women are denied access. SBS News follows one hopeful mother on her international journey to start a family.

Chen Huang didn’t want being single to stop her from having a baby.

Chen Huang didn’t want being single to stop her from having a baby. Source: SBS News

Chen Huang always wanted a baby. She loved children and thought motherhood would make her feel complete. But there was just one problem.

"When I thought about wanting a child, of course, the first thought is to find a man to have a child with,” Chen tells SBS News.

“And in fact, I did try."

But still single in her early 30s and living in Shanghai, the marketing specialist was starting to lose hope.

Following the relaxation of China’s one-child policy in 2016, married couples are being encouraged to have more children; two per family unit is now accepted. As a result, demand for IVF (In Vitro Fertilisation) has surged, leading to waiting lists of up to two years.

But unmarried women, who may be keen to be mothers but are without a partner, are denied access to sperm donors and fertility treatment under Chinese law. 

Chen thought she was out of luck until she came across an article about foreign sperm banks.

Chen Huang realised she could have a baby on her own when she read an article about foreign sperm banks.
Chen Huang realised she could have a baby on her own when she read an article about foreign sperm banks. Source: SBS World News

The research

Unsure about what exactly was involved, Chen joined an online chat group full of women who were in the same boat; single and wanting a child. She was surprised at how many were planning to go overseas.

"These women travelled around the world where IVF is legal, some Denmark, some the United States, some Thailand,” she says.

It sounded promising, but there was still a lot to consider.

"I thought about it for over a year. There were a lot of questions; like after the child is born, what do I tell my friends and family members?”

“Should I be open about it? And when the child grows up, what should I tell them?"

The decision

After more than 12 months of deliberating, Chen decided to go ahead.

She chose to have IVF treatment in Australia, where she had previously studied, because of its proximity to China and good medical reputation.

Australia is considered a leader in assisted reproductive technology. The third baby to be born via IVF globally was delivered in Australia in 1980. More than 70,000 treatment cycles are now performed in Australia and New Zealand each year and around one in every 25 babies born in Australia is a result of IVF*.

Around one in every 25 babies born in Australia is a result of IVF.
Chen found a specialist who spoke Mandarin and Cantonese; Dr Andrew Kan at private Sydney clinic Sussex Specialist Centre. Dr Kan says Chen is one of an increasing number of Chinese patients he has helped.

"The enquiries have definitely increased, we're fielding a lot of telephone interviews, we're doing Skype consults," he says.

"But actually flying over, from about one or two [Chinese patients] a year, we're now seeing a steady flow of two a month from China."

Chen and her father with Dr Andrew Kan.
Chen and her father with Dr Andrew Kan. Source: SBS News

Chen chose to use her own eggs and an Australian sperm donor.

Any patient at an Australian clinic is able to access its sperm bank, regardless of where they live or their relationship status. Chen was able to choose the biological father of her baby after considering questionnaires filled out by donors, which include information about their ethnicity, physical characteristics, social traits including education level, and medical history.

Australia's laws around donor sperm were also a deciding factor.

"Australia doesn't have commercialised donor sperm agencies,” Chen says.

It is illegal to buy any human tissue in Australia, including sperm, although many clinics charge an ‘access fee’ to use donor sperm.

“And … Australia protects a child's rights. In the future they can contact the biological father."

While Chen can’t contact the sperm donor, any child born via IVF in NSW can find out certain identifying information about them via a register once they turn 18.

The procedure

In February 2017, Chen flew to Sydney where Dr Kan carried out the embryo transfer.

“I was a bit nervous. It took me over a year to finalise this crazy idea,” she says.

Chen shops for baby clothes.
Chen shops for baby clothes. Source: SBS News

IVF treatment involves an egg and sperm being joined together in a laboratory. The fertilised egg, or embryo, then grows in the facility for some days before being transferred into the woman's uterus in the hope that a pregnancy will occur.

in July, found overall, for women starting IVF, 33 per cent have a baby as a result of their first cycle. The chances increased to to 54-77 per cent by the eighth cycle.

It took me over a year to finalise this crazy idea.
Back in Shanghai, Chen took a home pregnancy test and was excited to see a faint line. It wasn’t until it was confirmed with a blood test at the hospital that she spread the news.

Louisiana sends 'heartbeat' abortion ban bill to governor's desk
Louisiana sends 'heartbeat' abortion ban bill to governor's desk. Source: SBS News

“I called my mum. I text everybody telling them I was pregnant,” she says.

Each IVF cycle costs between $12,000 and $15,000, but Chen estimates she spent far more on travelling back and forth from China and renting an apartment in Sydney for five of the last 12 months.

The birth

With the nursery in Shanghai decorated, Chen returned to Sydney in September with a suitcase full of tiny jumpsuits, and her mum and dad by her side.

While Chen says some single mothers in China face judgement for defying traditional family values, her parents have been supportive of her IVF journey. She chose to have her baby in Sydney so she could keep the same doctor.

Chen, now 33, gave birth to a healthy baby girl called Alice by caesarean section in November.

Chen will return to Shanghai with Alice in 2018.
Chen will return to Shanghai with Alice in 2018. Source: SBS News

"It was the biggest achievement, the biggest joy of my life,” she says.

“I think my life was completed and it changed ever afterwards."

There's no question in her mind that the tens of thousands of dollars spent on treatment, travel and accommodation have been worth it, she says.

It was the biggest joy of my life.
Chen isn’t advocating for a change in China’s legal system but encourages more single women to follow their dreams.

“I’m not an activist wanting change in my country's laws. I think this is a very personal, very private matter,” she says.

"Someone is like me who really loves children and could not find the right guy at the right age, sure, go for it."

Chen will tell Alice the full story when she's older.
Chen will tell Alice the full story when she's older. Source: SBS News

And there will be no secrets about how Alice came into the world.

"I will tell her the whole story. From the beginning, I'm prepared to be very open-minded about the story."

Children born via a sperm donor in Australia will only be considered Australian citizens if the mother is a permanent resident of the country.

Mother and daughter will return to their homeland in the new year.


Additional research: Katrina Yu

* Data from the Australian and New Zealand Assisted Reproduction Database showed 12,875 babies were born via ART (Assisted Reproductive Treatment) in Australia in 2014. 

7 min read
Published 10 December 2017 at 3:10pm
By Rosemary Bolger