Growing up in Haifa, people basically specialized in becoming parents,” says Guy Tatsa-Laur, 44, who runs one of the more than a dozen surrogacy consulting agencies in Israel. “We all had the same banal fantasies of family life.”
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When he realized he was gay, continues Tatsa-Laur, the first reaction he got at home was typically Israeli: “What? No grandchildren?”
“Twenty years ago, coming out and being true to yourself basically meant giving up on family,” he says.
But that was then. Today, same-sex couples (and gay singles) in Israel are as much about having children as their heterosexual next-door neighbors. And while this is increasingly true in Western countries, Israel, with its mix of family orientated character and generally liberal attitude toward homosexuality, makes for a special case.
For example, the theme of this year’s gay pride week in Tel Aviv is “families.” And, as a nod to that theme, the main parade will end not at the beach – where in past years participants have stripped down to basics and partied into the night – but at a nearby park, where gay families can join in the fun and play on the seesaws and kiddie swings.
“Sometimes, when I speak in European capitals to gay groups about surrogacy and creating families, there are those who raise an eyebrow as to why this is so important. Europeans just don’t have the same peer pressure as we do in Israel to become parents,” says Tatsa-Laur.
His agency, Baby Bloom, walks prospective Israeli parents, and increasingly also European ones, through the world of international surrogacy, advising and holding their hands as they weave through the bureaucracy of doctors, insurance agents, IVF clinics, surrogates, egg donors, lawyers and embassies.
When Tatsa-Laur met his husband, Luchi, 20 years ago, kids were not a part of their pillow talk. Tatsa-Laur, who had graduated from medical school but switched to public relations, was focused on his professional life. The same was true for Luchi, a psychiatrist who heads the army’s department of psychiatry, so they were in no rush to start a family. But it was a given, says Tatsa-Laur, that it would happen eventually.
At the time, there were two options in Israel: international adoption or the more popular coparenting with a straight woman or a lesbian couple, which despite the many potential emotional and logistical complications is still cheap and relatively easy. Surrogacy, whereby a couple (or a single person) unable to carry a child in the womb, for whatever reason, uses a surrogate mother to carry and bear their baby (using, in the case of gay men, an egg donation) says Tatsa-Laur, “was not yet on the table.”
In fact, family-friendly Israel, which subsidizes in-vitro fertilization and has the world’s highest per-capita rate of IVF treatments, also boasts of being a leader in the field of surrogacy, having been the first country in the world to officially legalize its use, almost 20 years ago. But until now, surrogacy has been an option only for married heterosexual couples.
This month, finally and after a long battle, a landmark bill permitting single men and women, straight or gay, to obtain the same surrogacy services in Israel was approved by the cabinet and is set to be presented to the Knesset for a vote. Many believe it will eventually pass into law. Health Minister Yael German has hailed the proposed changes, saying they pave the way for “longed-for equality in Israeli society.”
Not everyone within the gay community is applauding the current shape of the bill, with critics raising concerns over the proposed strict regulation over use of overseas surrogates that is part of the deal, and the unlikelihood of finding enough surrogate mothers in Israel to meet the demand. There are also quibbles over several of the conditions being presented, including age limits for prospective parents and caps on the number of children one can have with a surrogate.
“The idea is right, but like most everything created by a committee there are some problems,” says Udi Ledergor, Chairman of The Association of Israeli Gay Fathers. Even if the bill becomes law – and certainly until that time – he stresses, many same-sex couples, and singles, will still be looking overseas to fulfill their dreams.
“About 10 years ago, one started to hear of gay couples finding surrogate mothers and getting egg donations outside of Israel – the results were not impressive and it all sounded like science fiction, something limited to the very rich,” says Tatsa-Laur. “But that changed quickly.”
Because the government does not at present regulate the practice of surrogacy abroad, there are no formal statistics on Israelis having babies with surrogates, but as Ledergor, who, together with his husband Guy, had a baby daughter a year and a half ago with the help of a Californian surrogate – and is about to become a father again through surrogacy – will attest, there has been a sea change in the last five years. Today, he says, the overseas surrogacy route has overtaken both adoption and coparenting as the preferred way for Israeli gays to start a family, with hundreds of couples and singles here opting for this path.
Typically, up until now, the surrogate mothers have been found either in the U.S., where it is, for all intents and purposes, legal in all states but five, or in Canada. Other options are Mexico or one of the handful of Asian countries where it has also been legal at different times and where the process is much cheaper, but potentially more bureaucratic and complicated. Using a surrogate in Eastern Europe where the process can also be cheaper, and remains legal in some countries such as Georgia and the Ukraine, is not an option open to gays. Surrogacy in the U.S. can cost, on average, about $130,000 per child, while surrogacy in say, India or Thailand, which until recently had booming, legal programs open to Israeli gays, can cost half that amount.“That first time was an amazing experience in that it was successful,” says Tatsa-Laur, who, together with Luchi and with the help of a surrogate in Oregon, is today the proud father of Ella, a 5-year-old, as well as 10-month-old twins David and Ethan. “But between all the faxing and phone calls in the middle of the night [because of the time difference] and the wildly overpriced insurance we were pushed into buying, we had a feeling we were being taken advantage of. It was emotional enough without all that.”
Back in Israel with newborn Ella, the couple started compiling files and notes on their experience, hoping to try, as Tatsa-Laur puts it, “to structure the optimal way to do it next time. What we had been lacking was someone to help up step by step and explain, rationally, what was needed and what was not.”
Soon, Tatsa-Laur was advising friends looking toward surrogacy. Seeing how much demand there was for his know-how, it was not long before he quit his job at the PR company and, three years ago, started Baby Bloom, which today has five employees and has been involved, he says, in the birth of 30 babies, all through American surrogates.
Baby Bloom is not alone. There are over a dozen Israeli agencies offering similar services here, as well as a handful of North American ones that have entered the local market. The father of them all, so to speak, is Tammuz, founded by Doron Mamet back in 2008 and featured in the award-winning documentary Google Baby. Tammuz has worked with surrogates in India, Thailand and Nepal as well as the U.S. and has been involved, says Mamet, in the birth of over 300 babies.
“A lot of people in the community owe Mamet thanks,” notes Ledergor.
With all the experience these Israeli agencies are gaining, many of them, including both Baby Bloom and Tammuz, have started branching out to work with clients in Europe and beyond, spreading the baby fever already raging in this country. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we are paving the way,” says Ledergor, “Family is really our thing.”