Anger as UK police claim they’re unable to prosecute ‘criminal’ surrogacy agency New Life
British police have accused New Life, an international agency that sells cut-price, offshore surrogacies to infertile and gay couples, of criminal activity in the United Kingdom — but say they are unable to prosecute anyone involved.
Surrogacy experts said they were baffled by the police decision to drop the matter. "It looks like they're just totally uninterested," said one. The experts point out that New Life continues to run a firm, registered in London, which could be prosecuted.
A police investigation was prompted by allegations of criminality that first appeared last December in the Baby Broker Project, a collaborative reporting initiative, coordinated by Finance Uncovered, which traced New Life’s sprawling surrogacy business across four continents, exposing a wide range of controversial practices.
New Life is able to offer low prices, in part, because it recruits surrogates, and arranges medical procedures, in lower income countries, such as the Republic of Georgia, Kenya, Mexico and — until the outbreak of war — Ukraine.
New Life surrogate recruits are typically poor, unmarried women, with young children of their own, often from countries with limited legal frameworks to cope with international surrogacies.
While these activities are legal in those countries, the law in the UK is different. Paid-for surrogacy is banned in Britain and while UK law has no jurisdiction over New Life’s activities outside the UK, it does govern how the agency can market itself and create commercial contracts in Britain.
It is these laws that London’s Metropolitan Police Service believe New Life has broken.
In a statement emailed to Finance Uncovered, the Met Police said: “Following an assessment, it was determined that an offence had been committed.” It added: “However, it was established that those responsible for running [New Life] are based overseas… At this time, no further action will be taken.”
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), which referred New Life to police following publication of the Baby Broker Project, told Finance Uncovered that the UK government wanted British citizens to stop using New Life’s services. However, officials are yet to issue a public warning about the controversial agency.
Journalists have asked New Life about the UK police probe — which is now over. But the agency declined to answer questions.
Previously, the agency told Finance Uncovered its business had made a “worthy contribution to the cause of human importance” and had “assisted many people to overcome poverty and earn a living.”
Meanwhile, according to its websites, New Life still says that many of its customers come from the UK. The site also claims — misleadingly — that New Life is “headquartered in Great Britain.”
The agency has deeper, ongoing links to Britain too. Its UK-registered firm, New Life Global Network LLP (NLGN) — which journalists found was used to issue commercial surrogacy contracts and to receive commercial fees from parents — continues to be registered at an address in Ruislip, West London, according to the UK’s corporate registry, Companies House.
Asked if NLGN had featured in its probe into New Life’s UK activities, the Met Police declined to comment.
A Met Police spokesperson said officers had asked New Life to amend its website, and had warned the agency that they considered that criminal activity had taken place. The spokesperson said police told New Life that its staff would face prosecution if they returned to the UK and resumed marketing activities in London or other cities.
New Life is one of the world’s largest agencies specialising in low-cost surrogacies. It has previously said it transfers between 80 and 100 embryos a month to women hired to carry unborn babies through pregnancy in a number of countries.
These arrangements, it says, have created thousands of happy parents, from more than 73 countries, since the agency started trading in 2008.
Anti-exploitation laws in the UK effectively stop would-be parents from paying money to hire British women as surrogates, though altruistic surrogacies, which do not involve a service payment, are permitted.
The same law, known as the Surrogacy Arrangements Act, also criminalises for-profit surrogacy agencies that carry out promotional activity or negotiations in Britain — even if the surrogacies are to take place overseas. This is the law that police say New Life has broken.
There is widespread concern among surrogacy experts that low-cost destinations can pose a higher risk of exploitation for poor and vulnerable women recruited to carry and give birth to other people’s children
Official figures, obtained by Finance Uncovered from the UK government’s Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (CAFCASS), show the rising popularity of low-cost surrogacy. For example, in the four years to March 2021, 59 newborns were brought to the UK after being born to surrogates in Georgia, New Life’s home market. For Ukraine — where New Life, until the war, claimed to account for 31 percent of the market — the figure was 147 newborns.
There is nothing that British police can do to restrict New Life’s websites, which are hosted in Georgia, from advertising low-cost surrogacy offers. But investigations by Finance Uncovered and its media partners found New Life went much further.
Since at least 2012, the agency’s sales representatives have regularly taken stalls at high-profile conferences in the UK, including the annual Fertility Show at Earl’s Court, London, which attracts more than 2,000 visitors a year.
Reacting to the Met Police’s decision not to take action against New Life or NLGN, surrogacy expert Professor Kirsty Horsey, of Kent Law School, at University of Kent, said: “It looks like they are just totally uninterested.”
She added: “Given that New Life not only appear to be advertising their surrogacy services in the UK, but also trading and issuing contracts in the UK, it’s disappointing that no further action is being considered, especially since the DHSC seems to want to discourage British intended parents from working with New Life.”
Baroness Liz Barker, a Liberal Democrat who sits in the UK’s upper house and is vice-chair of an all-party parliamentary group on surrogacy, said: “[New Life] appears to be carrying out activities which are criminal violations …. of the Surrogacy Arrangements act of 1985. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, as regulator, should conduct an immediate investigation.”
Emily Jackson, a professor of law at the London School of Economics, described the Met’s decision to drop the matter as “puzzling”. She said: “If police are not going to take action in relation to this agency, when would they take action?”
If police had pursued NLGN they would have quickly run up against challenges because of the firm’s controversial ownership and management structure.
Because it is a partnership, NLGN has no directors. And it has been set up so that its ownership trail quickly disappears offshore, via nominee companies incorporated in the Marshall Islands, a secrecy haven in the Pacific Ocean.
Meanwhile, New Life has allowed a low-level former fertility clinic employee, with convictions for manufacturing street drugs, to act as the ultimate controlling party behind NLGN. When journalist Natia Mikhelidze asked him about NLGN on a street in Tbilisi, he declined to answer and drove away. Days later, fresh paperwork was filed at Companies House in the UK removing him as NLGN’s official ultimate owner.
iFact reporter Natia Mikhelidze interviews Irakli Khvichia about his ownership of NLGN in Tbilisi. October 2022 (Filming: iFact)
Dame Margaret Hodge, a Labour Party MP and a long-time campaigner against corporate secrecy, said: “This story summarises all that is wrong with our current system: no transparency over who owns companies, no clear accountability mechanism, and no punishment in sight either.”
The Baby Broker project, first published in December, involved journalists from Animal Politico in Mexico, iFact in Georgia, The Observer from the UK and Eesti Päevaleht from Estonia. Freelance reporters from Kenya and Cambodia also took part. The project was coordinated by Finance Uncovered and supported by funding from the Pulitzer Center.
* The image at the top of this story is a screenshot of the hompage of New Life's website surrogacyglobal.com from 2019. It shows New Life offering meetings with potential customers in London and Edinburgh. The agency has repeatedly advertised such meetings in the UK