JERUSALEM — Ronen and Tom Ziv are expecting their second child any day now.
It would be a stressful time for any soon-to-be parents, but things are far, far worse for the gay Israeli couple.
The woman carrying their baby is stuck in Kathmandu, having survived Nepal’s worst earthquake in decades.
“Naturally, the news from Kathmandu is devastating for us,” said Ronen Ziv, who is a lawyer in Tel Aviv. “We are very worried about our surrogate mother and our baby.”
Nepal is an unlikely central address for gay Israelis looking to become parents via surrogacy. As the toll from Saturday’s temblor keeps climbing and the tiny country struggles to help the injured and get essential services back, a curious Israeli side story is playing out amid the devastation.
Israel airlifted 25 new babies and their Israeli parents out of the country. Meanwhile, Israeli officials are look at how to bring pregnant surrogates, like one carrying the Zivs’ child, to give birth in Israel.
After the earthquake, gay couples who had come to Nepal to pick up their infants fled their hotels with their new children. They set up camp outside of the Israeli embassy in Kathmandu, joining hundreds of Israelis who had been in the country on post-army hiking vacations.
Some parents set up a makeshift neonatal care unit in a car to keep the infants warm, said Roy Youldous, the marketing manager of Tammuz, one Israeli agency facilitating surrogacy in Nepal.
According to the Israeli foreign ministry, there are believed to be 2,000 Israelis in total in the country; as of Wednesday one still unaccounted for.
After the earthquake hit, the Zivs tried desperately to get in touch with their surrogate but with phone and power lines downed from the quake communication was impossible. On Monday, their agency, Lotus Surrogacy, reached them to say that she was safe and on her way to the hospital since she is due any day.
Now, the men are waiting to learn whether their surrogate will be able to travel to Israel instead to give birth. On Sunday, the Interior Minister Gilad Erdan said that surrogate mothers should be able to come to Israel. But according to the surrogacy agencies in Israel, the women have not yet been authorized to come. The Justice Ministry supports the idea but raised concerns that the process could run afoul of human trafficking laws. As of Wednesday, a senior government official said that Israel was planning on some women to Israel as long as they decided to come of their own free will.
“It is really hard for me to think about my baby being born into this reality,” said Ronen Ziv. He said that bringing the pregnant women into Israel is the “natural and humanitarian thing to do.”
“Over there it is an absolute disaster,” he said. “Even if someone thinks this might be considered human trafficking, leaving a surrogate mother in Kathmandu is an absolute catastrophe and over there, she can god forbid give birth in terrible circumstances or maybe die in labor or the baby will die in labor. This is of course not a moral solution.”
The Zivs are not alone in their anxiety. Surrogacy agencies say there are dozens of women in Kathmandu and India carrying infants for expectant parents in Israel.
“[The Israeli parents] are losing sleep, they just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Victoria Gelfand, an Israeli attorney who specializes in cross-border fertility procedures. “They are hysterical trying to push the government to reach a decision very fast.”
In Israel’s family-centric society, child bearing is paramount. But gay Israelis, as well as singles, are barred from having children using Israeli surrogates. In 2007, Israeli couples began finding surrogates in India, where medical tourism had created an infrastructure for the practice. In 2012, however, India changed its rules so that only heterosexual couples married for two years would receive surrogacy visas. Gay Israelis were left to look across the border to Nepal, which is sandwiched between India’s northern border and China.
Nepal has its own set of complex issues regarding surrogacy. Although it doesn’t outlaw the practice, the Himalayan nation prohibits Nepali women from working as surrogates, said Gelfand. So instead, Indian women will cross the open border between the two nations to give birth in Nepal.
In order to bear a child in Nepal, an Israeli couple typically works through one of two agencies in Israel equipped for the task. The couple provides a sperm specimen and selects an egg donor from an online database. The donor, sometimes from Ukraine or South Africa, then travels to India where her eggs are extricated and fertilized with the Israeli father’s sperm. Indian women also sometimes serve as egg donors.
The fertilized embryo is implanted in the Indian surrogate who usually spends two thirds of her pregnancy at home in India and the final third in Nepal. Sometimes she lives full time in Nepal.
Shortly before the surrogate gives birth, the Israeli couple travel to Kathmandu where they meet the infant and spend the next month completing the legal end of the process. According to Gelfand, the surrogate mother waives her parental rights to the infant at the Israeli consul. A saliva sample is taken from the baby and sent to Israel, where it is matched with the father’s DNA. Finally, a judge issues an Israeli passport to the baby and the couple return with their new child back to Israel. Once in Israel, the child must undergo a short conversion ceremony — usually a dip in a ritual bath or in the sea —in order to be considered Jewish under Israeli law.
Nepal is an inexpensive option for surrogacy for Israelis. To complete the procedure in the United States, a couple might pay more than $110,000. But in Nepal, the entire process costs about $40,000. Just a fraction of that figure — anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 — goes to the surrogate mothers in Nepal. In total more than 100 children are born via surrogates to Israeli parents each year, said Gelfand, mainly from women in the United States and Nepal.
There are hundreds of such kids born through surrogacy in Israel right now. The Tammuz agency alone has facilitated the process for has 400 children in eight years.
The community of new and expecting parents has been set on edge by the quake.
“We are all very worried,” said Ronen Ziv, who communicates with other parents of children born to South Asian surrogates via a group on WhatsApp. “It is very hard days for all of us.”
Ronen and Tom Ziv were the second Israeli couple to conceive via surrogacy in Nepal two years ago. Ariel was born five days early, and the couple rushed to Nepal to meet her and the surrogate mother.
“It was very moving and it was very touching,” said Ronen Ziv. “Since then we are in love with Ariel and we wanted another child.”
Today, they are part of a large network of gay Israelis with children born abroad, who gather for meetings and picnics. Eight months ago, the couple began the process for a second child using one of the leftover embryos from their previous round. Things went smoothly — until the quake struck.
Even after the immediate crisis eases, agencies say Nepal may no longer be an option for gay Israelis for quite some time. The earthquake destroyed much of the country’s frail health infrastructure and officials attention will likely be focused for years to come on recovery, not helping citizens of other countries become parents.
It will be “very hard to continue,” said Dana Magdassi, the founder of Lotus Surrogacy.
Reach Naomi Zeveloff at Zeveloff@forward.com or on Twitter @naomizeveloff
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.