US broker to sell babies to British

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The Department of Health warned last night that it may take legal action to stop an American "rent-a womb" baby broker recruiting childless couples in the United Kingdom.

This follows advance publicity for a visit to London by Bill Handel, a lawyer and founder of The Center for Surrogate Parenting & Egg Donation in Los Angeles.

Six couples are signed up so far for Mr Handel's weekend seminar at the Hilton Hotel on 1 and 2 February, when he will discuss their going to Los Angeles to procure eggs or surrogate mothers. The centre's psychologist and lawyer will also take part in the discussions.

The total cost of a baby born in the United States to a surrogate mother from the centre is put at between pounds 30,000-pounds 40,000. The cost of a donor egg for women who can carry a child but do not produce their own eggs is about pounds 6,000, excluding medical, legal, and travel expenses.

Health ministers were last night seeking clarification from government lawyers on the Surrogacy Arrangement Act 1985 which forbids a third party other than the intended parents or the surrogate mother from working "on a commercial basis to negotiate or compile information" for surrogacy arrangements. Private arrangements between a couple and a woman willing to be a surrogate are not illegal.

Mr Handel could be arrested if he openly touted for business or advertised his services. However, he is publicising the visit without paying for advertising, and a press release issued yesterday by his spokesman Mark Williams is within the law. Mr Handel says that the seminar is for the benefit of six invited childless couples who approached him initially.

Couples who use Mr Handel's agency in Beverly Hills can choose a surrogate mother or egg donor from a list of 250 women whose pictures and details are supplied. The women are picked for their intelligence, looks, and health. US law differs from British law in that surrogate mothers normally have to hand over the babies they give birth to.

Mr Williams said last night: "[Mr Handel] is coming over to meet six couples who have been in touch with him several times over the phone. He is not coming here to walk around with a banner on his head saying 'do you want a baby?' The publicity is to provide information. These people who need children might have tried every other option." He said other couples were free to turn up to the seminar if they first contacted the centre in LA and received an invitation.

A DoH spokesman said: "We cannot stop couples going overseas to have a surrogate baby. But under the law in this country agents or individuals other than the surrogate mother or intended parents are prevented from acting on a commercial basis."

He added that "we may possibly want to take action but it is too soon to say what that will be. We will watch events very closely over the next few days."