Filling the Empty Cradle

24th March 2017

Whether you call it Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday, it’s a celebration that can be particularly painful for those trying to conceive a child and living with the prospect of never becoming a parent. The sorrow of infertility and constantly defeated hope is very hard to bear. To mark the occasion (this year falling on 26 March), Heather Harris talks to women who have been in that situation – and to those who have helped by offering themselves up as surrogates…

Like being on a blind date but with the odds stacked against you… is how one IP (Intended Parent) describes the whole process of meeting a surrogate. “You go along to the social events organised by one of the surrogacy charities and there is a room full of women who have agreed to be surrogate mothers mingling and chatting to couples like us desperate to have a child through surrogacy… [and then] you go home and wait for ‘The Call’ to see if you’ve been chosen.”

Having gone through the trauma of infertility myself and experienced five rounds of IVF before finally becoming pregnant with twins, speaking to both sides of the surrogacy equation has been a revelation.
Previously my knowledge of the subject had been limited to tabloid headlines of surrogates refusing to give up their baby at the 11th hour or celebrities such as Elton John and David Furnish paying an unknown woman to produce their sons. The reality, though, is that – in the UK – surrogacy is handled with an awe-inspiring degree of sensitivity and the people involved show an unprecedented degree of bravery and compassion.

Kate Dobb, one of dozens of members who volunteer for Surrogacy UK (SUK), tells me that they have never had a case of a surrogate wanting to keep the baby. “There are so many checks and balances in place – both emotionally and physically – along the whole journey, to ensure a positive outcome.”

Kate, who has three-year-old twins through surrogacy after childhood cancer left her infertile, feels very strongly that one of the main reasons for this success rate is because it is not a business arrangement. In the UK, it is not only illegal to pay for a third party to have a baby for you (in the US, commercial agreements can involve intended parents paying up to £100,000 to a surrogate), but also illegal to advertise for a surrogate.

Only the three non-profit organisations – Surrogacy UK, Brilliant Beginnings and COTS (Childlessness Overcome Through Surrogacy, founded by Kim Cotton, Britain’s first surrogate mother) – can help couples find a match, with each organisation having their own approach to this, ranging from social events to online forums and message boards.

“In the UK, it’s all done on trust and you have to sort out the legal issues after the baby’s been born,” specialist fertility lawyer Natalie Gamble explains. On paper that sounds fraught with problems, but, in reality, it does work.
Charlotte, who had to have a hysterectomy at the age of 35, and is now the mother of eight-week-old Ava Jo, born by surrogacy, describes her experience. “When I got The Call saying Jo (a lady we had met at a SUK social) was keen to become our surrogate, the long journey began.”

Charlotte goes on to explain how there was then a three-month period during which she and her husband really got to know Jo and her whole family.

“The whole motto of SUK is Friendship First. We are given a support worker who acts as a go-between, making sure both sides are happy all the way through the process. In January 2016, we finally all sat down to sign the 15 page ‘agreement’”

This document is not legally binding, but covers everything from who will be present at the birth to decisions about what financial arrangements are in place for the surrogate’s existing children, should she die in childbirth. Also, the whole heart-breaking issue of possible abnormalities in the child to be conceived has to be discussed and agreed.

Costs are also finalised. In the UK a surrogate is reimbursed for any financial outlay related to her pregnancy – including time off work for scans, plus travel costs, clothing etc – which, on average, adds up to between £10,000 and £15,000.

With no financial benefit, the obvious question is: why would anyone want to be a surrogate? It’s true that there are three times more Intended Parents than surrogate mothers, but there are women coming forward to make what is clearly a huge emotional and physical commitment.

Sarah first thought about the idea of surrogacy at the age of 16 when she became aware that her aunt was struggling to conceive. It was a notion that never went away and when she was 24 she joined Surrogacy UK.

“I met Katy-Anne and John and we built a friendship first. I felt like an incubator. I cared for my bump and wanted everything to be safe and healthy but other than that I had no feelings. I didn’t see it as me giving him to them: he was already theirs, and never mine to give.”

Sarah’s surrogacy was via IVF, using an egg donor and John’s sperm. This is known as ‘host surrogacy’. The second type is ‘traditional surrogacy’ where the surrogate’s own egg is fertilised through artificial insemination.

“When I did traditional surrogacy, I found it harder,” three-time surrogate mother Lisa confides. “Because it was my egg, the baby looked just like my existing children. I found it emotionally too hard to stay in touch with her and her new parents after the birth.”

Since then, though, Lisa has successfully been a host surrogate for a couple who had suffered repeated miscarriages and also for a gay couple (in 2010 the law changed to allow same sex couples to legally become parents).

“I just wanted to give the gift of life to childless couples, as I loved being a mum to my own three children. At first my husband thought I was mad but then he saw the joy it brought and was fully supportive.”

Lisa and her husband are still in regular touch with the children born through her host surrogacies, however, and have become close friends with the parents. Likewise, all the parent couples I spoke to feel an incredible lifelong bond with their surrogate and in many cases, have appointed them godparent to their child.

Having suffered a traumatic birth with her son and being unable to sustain a second pregnancy, Katie approached COTS for help. “And on 30 June 2015 we met Heidi. She was 40 and had three children but now wanted to help a childless couple. I remember her sending me a text with a photo of her positive pregnancy test, but I was too scared to look at it!”

Katie’s son was three. “Mummy’s tummy doesn’t work,” she and her husband explained, “so we are going to meet a lady who has your little brother or sister in her tummy…”

Everything went smoothly, and their daughter is now eight months old. Katie still speaks to Heidi every day.

They have also just signed their parental order. In the UK, this is a legal document which formally passes parenthood of the child from the birth mother to the new parents. Surrogacy UK, along with Natalie Gamble and other legal experts, is campaigning for the law to be changed so that intended parents are recognised as legal parents at birth, rather than having to wait a minimum of three months, as this can cause practical problems. If the baby needs medical treatment in that time, for example, it is the surrogate who has to give consent.

Heidi herself is quick to stress that the parental order was just a formality; at no time did she ever think the baby was hers. “I felt like a babysitter looking after the baby inside me until it was time for the parents to take over!”

Her husband, too, had stressed to Katie at the 32-week scan that there was no way he and Heidi wanted to keep the baby. “I found this so lovely, as so often the partner of the surrogate is overlooked in the whole process. It is easy to forget what a sacrifice he has to make too, especially if they have other children to look after,” says Katie. Response from friends and family – and even from total strangers – has all been positive.

“A lady in Brent Cross commented how good I looked so soon after giving birth, so I told her my story and she was genuinely so thrilled for me,” Kate recalls. Charlotte agrees, adding that she had had to share their story with everyone from the neighbours to her daughter’s school teachers, “as it was clearly obvious I wasn’t pregnant, but then had a new-born. Everyone was fantastic!”

This increased openness is what Kate Dobb feels is the reason behind the rise in surrogacy births in the UK. The number of children successfully born through the process has almost tripled in the last three years. Figures from the Ministry of Justice Family Court show that the numbers of parental orders granted rose from 117 in 2011 to 241 in 2014, and to 331 in 2015. It’s estimated that the figure will have reached 400 when calculated for 2016.

And, contrary to all the sensationalist headlines, Dr Vasanti Jadva, Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Family Research at The University of Cambridge, is keen to report her findings after studying families with a child born through surrogacy. “After studying them at regular intervals from infancy to adolescence, despite concerns to the contrary, the children have been found to be well-adjusted with positive relationships with their parents.”

And that surely cements surrogacy as a positive step forward in the battle against infertility – and one which deserves greater understanding and celebration. (COTS) • •

Find Your Local