TEL AVIV — Holding his newborn daughter tightly, Amir Michaeli-Molian appeared beyond exhausted.
It was Tuesday, 10 days since baby Maya’s birth in Kathmandu, Nepal. But already she and her new family — her two fathers, Amir and Alon Michaeli-Molian, and toddler sister, Shira — had experienced a devastating earthquake, a daring rescue operation and a flight on an emergency medical jet. Now there was the endless stream of Israeli journalists who had been traipsing through their modest apartment since the family arrived home 24 hours ago.
Maya was one of 26 babies born in Kathmandu in recent weeks to Israeli parents, mostly same-sex male couples, via surrogate mothers. When the earthquake hit Saturday, the Israeli families who were there, working their way through the bureaucratic process required to take the babies home, found themselves with no food, water, electricity or way to communicate.
By Tuesday afternoon, all parents and babies, including some born prematurely who depend on oxygen tanks, had been flown to safety in Israel on Israeli government and medical planes. And with their arrival came a new spotlight on the long, complicated and expensive process that some Israelis — particularly gay couples — must go through to have children.
“I have barely slept over the past 72 hours, but it is important for me to get our story out,” said Amir Michaeli-Molian, a pastry chef who married Alon five years ago.
The preceding days had been profoundly stressful, Amir said. He described sheltering his two daughters in a rickety doorway as the ground shook, then trying to stay upbeat through terrifying aftershocks. After the earthquake, he recalled, “the smell of death was in the air.”
But being in Nepal was what it took for the couple to have a second child. Although Israel does allow surrogacy — the practice of a woman carrying the biological child of another individual or couple — it is restricted to infertile heterosexual couples. Same-sex male couples must look abroad to countries where the surrogacy policy accommodates gay couples.
“Israel is very advanced and liberal when it comes to gays, until you want children,” Amir said. “A straight couple, a single woman, even lesbian couples can have children together. We just can’t.”
Tammuz, an international surrogacy agency based in Israel, facilitated the births of 15 of the 26 Israeli babies evacuated by the Israeli government from Kathmandu this week. In the past eight years, it has assisted about 400 couples, 80 percent of them gay, to have children this way. The agency also works with couples from the United States, Europe, Australia and Asia.
Roy Youldos, the agency’s marketing and business development manager, said 80 surrogate mothers in different stages of pregnancy are still in Nepal, waiting to give birth for foreign couples. All the mothers are Indian nationals, but they spend their pregnancies in Kathmandu. Youldos said all survived the earthquake.
“We are under a lot of pressure and not really sure what will happen now,” said Yaniv Gutwirt, an Israeli who, along with his partner, Rami Gotthels, is expecting a surrogate to give birth to their child within the next few weeks. “We are supposed to go there at the end of the month, but we don’t know if it will be possible now.”
Gutwirt said he is worried about the surrogate, now living through the aftermath of the earthquake, because he knows that “stress in pregnancy is not good at all.” Some Israeli officials have suggested bringing the surrogates to Israel to give birth, but it remains unclear whether that will happen.
It is unknown how many babies are born to surrogates in Nepal, one of the few countries that allows same-sex male couples to hire them. In the past, India and Thailand were popular options, but both countries recently changed their regulations to prevent gay couples from becoming parents there.
“There are really only two options for parents who need surrogacy, either the U.S. or Nepal, and Nepal is 50 percent less than the cost in America,” Youldos said about the intricate process, which involves finding a female egg donor and arranging an in-vitro fertilization procedure for the surrogate. In Nepal, he said, surrogacy can cost between $30,000 and $50,000, compared with more than $150,000 in the United States.
Surrogacy agencies such as Tammuz have brought about a huge change for childless couples, especially gays. Youldos said it had enabled a “big baby boom among gay couples in Tel Aviv.”
Those families face challenges, including religious ones, once they are home. Initially, Israel identifies the babies as having no religion; if the parents want their children to be considered Jewish, they must undergo a conversion that conservative religious authorities might not approve. Parents can, however, opt for a conversion to Reform Judaism, as opposed to an ultra-Orthodox Judaism, which can be more demanding.
Lawyer Irit Rosenblum, the founder of New Family, a nonprofit group that advocates for family rights, said the sudden attention this week to surrogacy in Nepal highlighted “a hypocrisy in Israel, where on the one hand same-sex couples are prohibited from having children here through a surrogate but are allowed to do so abroad.”
She called the current procedure bureaucratic and discriminatory, forcing families to wait abroad for long periods after the birth while they undergo a complicated naturalization process and DNA tests to establish paternity. In the summer, Israel’s parliament passed preliminary legislation that would allow gay couples, as well as single men and women, access to surrogacy services. But final approval has not been given.
“It’s very frustrating,” Amir Michaeli-Molian said as he cradled Maya. “We are citizens, we pay taxes, we served in the army and we give to the state. But this law tells us we are not equal to everyone else.”