Israeli officials fault gay couples in Thailand surrogacy saga

But same-sex partners waiting for approval to bring their babies home say they were turned back by consulate

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Illustrative: Eran Pnini Koren and Avi Koren, a gay Israeli couple, with their child conceived through a surrogacy procedure in Thailand. (Facebook)
Illustrative: Eran Pnini Koren and Avi Koren, a gay Israeli couple, with their child conceived through a surrogacy procedure in Thailand. (Facebook)

As activists stepped up their efforts Tuesday to bring home Israeli same-sex couples stuck in Thailand with their newborn or soon-to-be-born babies, Israeli officials claimed that only two of the couples had formally applied for Israeli passports for the infants at the consulate in Bangkok.

In a joint Foreign Ministry, Population and Immigration Authority, and Justice Ministry statement, officials wrote that even those two couples also failed to produce certification ascertaining that the birth mothers had surrendered custody of the children.

Surrogacy in Thailand was complicated by a recently introduced Thai law under which babies are automatically granted citizenship according to the citizenship of their birth mothers. Birth mothers also have full custody of the children, and any attempts to take a Thai baby out of the country can be construed as kidnapping.

If the paperwork is submitted to the consul, Israeli passports would be issued to the babies immediately, the Israeli statement said. However, it also stressed that even an Israeli passport did not guarantee that Thai authorities would allow a couple to leave the country with their baby.

But activists involved in the process dismissed the government’s claims and said applicants were told that the consulate could not help them.

“There are 15 couples in Thailand now. Do you think that they’re just sitting there and not going to the consulate?” Ruby Israeli-Halbreich, one of the leaders of the online campaign, told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. “When we got there they told us there was no point in coming.”

Ruby, whose partner remains in Thailand with the couple’s twins, also denied allegations that the birth mothers did not provide the signatures required to sign off their rights to the children, and said that at one point a birth mother was even brought to the consulate, but was swiftly turned away. Ruby also spent time in Thailand but recently returned to Israel in order to raise awareness of the issue.

The couples were told to contact various Israeli offices, including the Interior and Foreign ministries.

The Israeli statement only proved that various arms of government didn’t know what other arms were doing, Israeli-Halbreich said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Times of Israel that the couples were misguided. Bringing the birth mothers to the consulate had no bearing on the proceedings, he maintained. Rather the couples had to seek out a Thai lawyer to draw up documents recognized by the local authorities and signed by the mothers.

He addressed the discrepancy between the government statement and claims by activists as to the number of couples who came to the embassy, claiming that while there may have been more than two couples who reached out to the embassy, only two of them had filled out an application.

While advocacy efforts have conflated the issue of gaining Israeli citizenship with permission to leave the country, Israeli authorities maintain that the two are distinct issues.

Responding to the considerable difficulties raised by the couples’ plight, the government statement instructed Israeli homosexual couples to avoid surrogacy procedures in Thailand, and warned that as of November 30, 2014, the Israeli government would no longer provide assistance to parents of babies born there .

It was the second notice the Israeli government released on the subject after the Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning to that effect at the end of December 2013.

Meanwhile, campaign efforts to return the couples and their newborn babies to Israel have been gaining traction. The group “Help Us Bring the Babies Home” created a Facebook page last week that had garnered over 20,000 “likes” as of Tuesday evening. The group has also enlisted the support of Gal Uchovsky, a prominent Tel Aviv LGBTQ activist and journalist, and the backing of prominent Israeli celebrities, including supermodel Bar Refaeli, actress Gila Almagor, and singer Mosh Ben Ari, who posted pictures of themselves with signs in support of bringing the Israeli couples home.

Much of the advocacy efforts are aimed at Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, outside whose Tel Aviv home the group has staged multiple demonstrations. These are aimed to culminate on Thursday in a large rally organized with the help of various LGBTQ organizations.

“The state has been trying in past weeks to reach an understanding with the Thai authorities in order to resolve this painful human issue,” Sa’ar wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday. However, he warned that the advocacy efforts would not accelerate the process.

“A publicity campaign on the matter is not a way of solving it quicker and I hope that it won’t damage the efforts that are being made on the subject,” Sa’ar wrote. “One way or another, I have ordered my ministry’s workers to approve issuing passports for the children without delay as soon as the foreign office reaches an agreement with the Thai authorities.”

Israel does not permit homosexual couples to initiate the surrogacy procedure in the country, forcing many who wish to have children to seek a solution abroad.The prime destination for foreign surrogacy used to be India, until last year when the country made it illegal to be a surrogate for same-sex couples.

According to the website New Life in Thailand — one of the many companies that provide Thai surrogacy services for foreigners — both the Thai birth mother and the foreign father (sperm donor) are registered as the parents, and then a legal procedure is conducted whereby the mother gives up her rights to the child. The father must then acquire citizenship for the baby, which, in the case of Israel, requires a genetic test to prove paternity.

In December, Health Ministry Yael German announced that she intends to implement a 2010 panel recommendation to open up the surrogacy procedure to Israeli homosexual couples.

Israel suffers from a shortage of surrogate mothers. According to a 2013 report on the news site Walla, from 2007 to 2012, 313 Israelis found surrogate mothers abroad, compared to only 228 in Israel. The imbalance has become even worse in recent years; in 2012, 126 went through the process abroad, while only 41 did so in Israel.

Gavriel Fiske and Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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