Geoff Moss thought he had found — in Mexico — the "ideal location" for his agency that offers childless people the chance of paying a woman to bear them a baby.
The southern state of Tabasco happens to have a clause in its civil code that explicitly permits surrogacy, allowing contracting parents to obtain birth certificates with their names on them even if they have no genetic link to the child. Mexico is also not only close to the United States, where most of his clients come from, but costs are far lower, most notably the sums demanded by the surrogate mothers.
"It took a little time for the business to take off," Moss told VICE News. "It took time to convince people that Mexico was a good option, that it had good doctors, hospitals, and proper attention."
Moss was one of the pioneers of international surrogacy in Mexico that began when people like him were looking around for a new base after being largely shut out of India — the previous world hub — in 2012.
By last year, the service was booming. New agencies were springing up all the time and recruiting potential mothers into their programs with the promise of making more money than these typically poor and uneducated women would normally have the chance to earn in many years. The fact that the Tabasco law states that surrogacy is only allowed when it is "altruistic" was considered only a minor inconvenience.
Now international surrogacy in Mexico is coming tumbling down.
A reform approved by Tabasco's congress in December means the state's civil code now limits surrogacy to Mexican heterosexual couples. This essentially removes the surrogacy boom's main two markets — childless foreigners in general, and childless foreign gay couples in particular.
Agencies and intermediaries are also banned from the process, as the agreement can only be signed between the contracting parents and the surrogate mother.
Legislators promoting the reform argued that the lack of regulations made surrogate mothers vulnerable to exploitation and had created a potential hotbed of human trafficking.
"Surrogacy in Tabasco has turned into a lawless and morally offensive business," Tabasco's health minister Juan Antonio Filigrana Castro said at a health forum back in July.
The minister added that young women in rural areas of the state see surrogacy as a safe way to make money, but they only receive a small part of what agencies charge their clients.
"We are going to appeal the decision, because we do not share the authorities' point of view," Ivan Davydov, a lawyer from the CARE surrogacy center said.
But most appear to accept that the Mexican boom is over.
"This is a dead business," said León Altamirano, one of the first locally-based lawyers who developed an expertise in international surrogacy, and then set up his own agency.
The first baby born by gestational surrogacy — in which the surrogate mother has no direct genetic link to the child she carries — took place in the US in the 1980s. Some states went on to legalize commercial surrogacy arrangements.
The practice, however, remains either banned or highly restricted in most of the world.
Many European countries ban surrogacy outright, such as France and Germany. In others, including the United Kingdom, it is strictly regulated and involves a limited amount of money. Meanwhile, although six US states allow commercial surrogacy, the practice can cost up to $150,000 dollars.
The search for cheaper options took off in the early 2000s. India came to dominate the international surrogacy scene for years, until new laws restricted access of the services to gay couples in 2012. This was followed by a ban on foreign couples in 2015.
By that time, however, the agencies had already started looking for other bases.
At the same time as some started exploring Mexico — with a particular emphasis on offering services to the gay community — others set up in Thailand.
That Southeast Asian option, however, suddenly shut down in 2014 after an Australian couple who had surrogate twins left one behind after learning he had Down's syndrome.
This lead the agencies in Mexico to report a sudden surge in enquiries from Australia and New Zealand.
The Mexican option is based on a reform of the civil code from 1998 that, rumor has it, was carried out in order to allow a governor to benefit from the procedure. It remained largely unexplored until it was discovered by the international agencies after they were kicked out of India.
Initially many set up their main offices in the resort city of Cancún. This is a few hours flight from Tabasco, but had the advantage of being already a tourism hub with modern medical services on offer. The agencies argued that the surrogacy arrangement was fully legal as long as the surrogate mothers gave birth in Tabasco.
By 2015, however, some agencies were trying to set themselves off from the competition by moving their headquarters to the state and carrying out all the medical procedures there from the start. They told clients that agencies based in Cancún or elsewhere in Mexico could face legal problems.
Agencies also became more careful about finding loopholes to allow payments to the mothers, even though the law expressly says the surrogacy arrangement should be altruistic. These included setting up charitable foundations that dressed up the payments as philanthropy.
By then the sector had largely overcome an early scandal in which an agency known as Planet Hospital had taken money from contracting parents with the promise of babies, and then left them hanging when the company filed for bankruptcy.
That scandal also drew attention to the way surrogates were sometimes treated — locked in special houses and without proper care. Some also complained that they were not paid.
"Only a couple of the mothers I knew had a pleasant process and a beautiful birth," said Michelle Velarde, who worked looking after mothers for an agency called Surrogacy Beyond Borders. "For most of them, dealing with the agencies was a nightmare."
Velarde highlighted that the gap between the payment given the mothers in Mexico — typically about $13,000 dollars — is less than a third of the amount earned by their counterparts in the United States.
Moss rejects any suggestion that the agencies do anything other than facilitate a relationship in which everybody wins.
"Surrogates are not exploited at all. They sign a contract, they get paid, they know what they are doing," Moss said. "These women want to make a positive impact on the world while also improving their lives. They are earning more money than what women in their condition usually make."
But with the first signs of the crackdown already beginning — the authorities in Tabasco closed down one clinic that offered surrogacy and fertility services last week — Moss' global radar is already active.
"Everybody is looking for new options," he said. "Cambodia offers good opportunities, so a lot of people will begin to consider going there."
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