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What is birth tourism?

We call Birth tourism the fact that a pregnant woman travels to another country with the aim to give birth in that country. The key reason for birth tourism is to gain citizenship for the child in a country with birthright citizenship (jus soli). In the world, 35 countries benefit from unrestricted jus soli, most of these countries are in North and South America, while none are in Europe. Restricted forms of jus soli can be found in several countries such as Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. In these cases, citizenship by birth can only be granted if at least one parent is a citizen of the country or a legal permanent resident who has lived in the country for several years.

Not all jus soli countries are equally attractive for birth tourism. Popular destinations include the United States and Canada as well as Hong Kong. It is quite common for mainland Chinese woman to give birth in Hong Kong in order for their baby to obtain the right of abode, in other words, the right to legally reside in Hong Kong without any limit or condition of stay. The case of Russian birth tourism to Florida is also well documented. Additionally Los Angeles in the US and Richmond, Canada are considered centres of the birth tourism industry for well-heeled Asian women. However, the practice is not only known in the USA. For example, one option for Chinese mothers is to give birth in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands. This option is cheaper and closer than travelling to the US and Chinese citizens do not require a visa to travel there and stay up to 45 days. Birth tourism is rising on the island and in 2016 more Chinese citizens gave birth in Saipan than Americans.

It should be underlined that entering a jus soli country as a pregnant woman and giving birth there is legal. This practice can even contribute in boosting the economy, as these women are often rich and willing to spend vast amounts of money while in the country where they will give birth. In the case of Saipan, in 2017 tourism accounted for 72% of the islands’ economy and Chinese tourists represent 36% of the total. Moreover, American citizens have to pay US taxes even though they do not live or work in the US. However, criticisms have raised about birth tourism arguing that the process is unfair as these babies could later benefit from an easier access to the labour market, including government jobs, cheaper education and will be able to sponsor their family members for US or Canadian citizenship, without having any link with the country. It is on the basis of this rhetoric that conservative politicians Donald Trump, in the US, and Andrew Scheer, in Canada, have advocated for the abolition of unrestricted birthright citizenship in their respective countries.

In some cases, however, birth tourism can lead to illegal behaviours and become a problem. This is the case for example, when pregnant women lie about their travel duration or purposes when applying for a visa or when mothers leave the country without paying their hospital bills. A recent take down on birth tourism businesses in California shook the lucrative industry. These illegal behaviours should rightfully be sanctioned.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that other forms of birth tourism exist, which includes couples traveling in order to have access to surrogacy practices as these are forbidden in most European countries for example.

Author: Dr. Fanny Tittel-Mosser

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