Family With Eight Children Surprises China Where One-Child is the Law

The photo was undeniably cute: a studio
portrait of eight babies in identical onesies and perky white cotton
hats, sporting an array of expressions from giggly to goofy, baffled to
bawling.


Intended as an
advertisement for the studio, the photo grabbed a different kind of
attention: In a country that limits most couples to one child, many
Chinese were amazed to learn that a couple had spent nearly a million
yuan ($160,000) and illegally enlisted two surrogate mothers to help
have the four boys and four girls.

The
incident has highlighted both the use of birth surrogates, a violation
of Chinese law, and how wealthy Chinese do as they please, with scant
regard for the rules that constrain others. The most common reaction,
though, has been simple disbelief.

“Heavens.
To have one family with eight kids … in an era of family planning
where most people have just one, the contrast is just too much,” said
popular Chinese Central Television news anchor Bai Yansong as he
introduced a 20-minute special report on the babies last weekend. “It
doesn’t sound like news. It sounds more like a fairy tale.”

Chinese
media are calling the mother “babaotai muqin,” or “octomom,” a
reference to the American woman who gave birth to octuplets using in
vitro fertilization.

Much remains uncertain
about the family from Guangzhou, the capital of south China’s Guangdong
province. According to the Guangzhou Daily, a government newspaper, the
biological mother carried two of the babies, while two surrogates gave
birth to three each. After the babies were born in September and October
last year, 11 nannies were hired to help take care of the children, the
report said.

While some suspect a hoax, a
media officer with the Guangdong Health Department said the case was
real and under investigation. He declined to identify the couple, citing
privacy concerns.

The story has captivated
the public because it symbolizes a bold defiance of the country’s strict
family planning rules, said Liang Zhongtang, a demography expert at the
Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

“People
are very interested in the policy these days and the need for changes to
it,” he said. “A lot of people think it should have been dropped a long
time ago, or relaxed at least.”

A 2001 law
prohibits Chinese medical institutions and personnel from performing
gestational surrogacy services, in which an embryo created from a couple
is implanted into another woman who carries the baby to term.

Still,
an underground market is thriving as more couples put off marriage and
childbirth until later in life, only to find they are unable to
conceive. The law forbids only the medical procedures, and agencies
connecting couples and surrogates are easy to find online.

The
Guangzhou Daily said the octomom couple resorted to in vitro
fertilization and surrogates after years of failed attempts to conceive.

A
manager for the Guangdong branch of the Daiyunguke surrogacy agency,
Liu Jialei, said that this has been the busiest of his company’s seven
years in business, with more than 600 surrogates matched to families.
His customers are Chinese, but the medical procedures are carried out
abroad, in Southeast Asia and Japan, to circumvent the law.

Chinese media reports say many procedures are also done illegally at hospitals in China.

Many Chinese frown on surrogacy, which is often portrayed as a way for the rich to avoid going through pregnancy.

An
opinion piece about the eight babies in the China Daily denounced
surrogacy as something done by wealthy women unwilling to disrupt their
careers or ruin their figures.

Author Cai
Hong, a senior writer for the newspaper, wrote that the practice would
inevitably give rise to “a breeder class” of poor women who end up
“renting their wombs to wealthy people.”

But
Therese Hesketh, a University College London professor who has done
numerous field studies in China on family planning issues, says that her
impression is that Chinese who can afford surrogates tend to seek out
attractive university graduates, not the underprivileged.

Chinese
media say octomom and her family have gone into hiding. A Chinese
Central Television investigative report could only dig up former
neighbors who described seeing a pack of nannies taking the babies for
strolls and to a toddler center for playtime.

A
series of outtakes from the portrait session posted to a blog show the
logo for the QQ Baby studio prominently displayed in the background, but
staff at the shop in Guangzhou denied knowing anything about the
photos.

Only the relatively well-off can
afford in vitro fertilization and surrogacy or to live in a villa, as
this couple reportedly did.

The rich also find
it easier to flout the one-child limit, because they are better able to
afford the hefty fines for doing so. Some also acquire foreign
citizenship, which exempts them from the birth quotas.

On
the popular Sina microblog, one user posted an article about the couple
and commented: “If you have money, what does the law mean?”

All
the hoopla may be boosting the surrogacy business. At Daiyun.com – an
agency whose website is splashed with photos of babies nestled in
flowers – a manager said all the attention made it inconvenient for any
staff to speak with reporters.

“But one thing
is for sure, our business is getting better and better,” said the woman,
who would only give her surname, Liu. “More and more people come to us
for services.”

Associated Press researchers Zhao Liang and Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.

Online: Photos on a Chinese blog: http://bit.ly/uxwW80