The fact that it’s controversial and has only been legal in this country for the last fifteen years is to many couples totally absurd. Emma Oliver talks to two women who feel surrogacy ought to be celebrated.
Writer Gail Winter is 37 years old. She and her husband Pete, age 40, live in Wimbledon. They have been together for six years and for four of those they have been trying to start a family.
Their tale is all too familiar, and like many others in their situation, wanting a family for such a long time isn’t the hardest part of their story. It’s the failed treatments and the dashed hopes that cause the most pain.
‘Each IVF round was the same’ Gail said. ‘I would tell myself not to get my hopes up, but of course you do. In truth it is on your mind all the time, whether you want to think about it or not. I think the biggest thing is remaining optimistic.’
Just as well Gail is a positive person then, for not so long ago she had to come to terms with her fertility being taken away from her.
She told us, ‘I always had an irregular cycle thanks to PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) and other endocrine problems. A top consultant put me on some very strong medication for this, which over time led to an unresponsive endometrium. Basically not a thick enough womb lining.’
Not a thick enough womb lining means that Gail has the problem of nowhere for a fertilised egg to embed, and therefore nowhere for a pregnancy to establish itself.
The realisation that she would never be able to carry a baby hit her hard. She told us, ‘I’m still so angry. I told my consultant that I wanted to preserve my fertility. I was so careful.’
Since then, Gail has tried to aid her fertility with drugs; Clomid followed by daily injections to induce ovulation and scans every other day to monitor the size of her follicles (not easy having to nip to the hospital on your lunch break), eventually led to IVF.
Three attempts at IVF all proved futile as unusually, Gail’s womb lining still did not thicken. After two solid years of endless fertility treatment, it was time to stop.
Gail said, ‘Fortunately, we received NHS funding for IVF, so financially it was viable, but emotionally, it was becoming all too much. We realised it was never going to work for us and that we were staring childlessness in the face.
‘We knew we had two choices left, to go for adoption or try surrogacy. We talked about adoption and knew we may find ourselves waiting years and years. Plus Pete and I love the idea of having our own child, half me, half him. And as they had harvested my eggs during IVF and we had some frozen embryos, surrogacy seemed the only natural thing to try next.’
She added, ‘I think Pete felt I’d been through enough and in fact became the driving force behind taking steps towards finding a surrogate mother.’
Most surrogate mothers are hosts; women who agree to give their womb to a fertilised egg that is not theirs, the surrogate acts like an incubator. The couple go through IVF and the host woman has the embryo implanted in her uterus at the right stage. Other surrogate mothers are straight; when the surrogate inseminates herself and uses her own egg. This can be done with or without medical intervention.
Gail and Pete’s search on the Internet led them to COTS. Childlessness Overcome Through Surrogacy is a not-for-profit organisation run by dedicated volunteers, where couples sign up for a fee of £800 in return for joining a waiting list to hopefully be matched to a surrogate.
Gail said, ‘It seemed like such a radical thing to do, and I wasn’t sure I’d be comfortable with it, but you chat to so many people on the message boards, that it all becomes ‘normal’ very quickly. You all share the same common bond of being childless and surrogacy being your only hope. It doesn’t take long to find you’ve made lots of good friends that you can talk freely to.’
After three months, Gail and Pete were matched with a surrogate named Cat. Cat Buxton from Ripley, Derbyshire, is 25 and a part time senior care assistant for the elderly. Her and her fiancé Michael, also 25, are proud parents to Rosie, age five and Megan, age two.
Gail told us about the very first time the two women met.
‘Cat came across as a super person, so warm. I couldn’t believe how lucky I felt for it suddenly seemed real that Pete and I may have our own baby after all, through the generosity of this woman.
‘I thought I may feel inadequate, and resent this woman for doing something for me that I couldn’t do for myself. But it’s not like that at all. I love Cat to bits.’
The feeling is clearly mutual. Cat read many applications before settling on Gail and Pete’s. I ask her why them?
‘Oh that’s easy. It was the photo of them that was enclosed. They were looking at each other with such love I knew the baby would be adored. Then the first time we met, Gail and Pete immediately sat on the floor to play with our girls. That was a little thing really but for me it had far bigger repercussions. Also, they wanted a host surrogate, and that’s the only surrogacy I could ever consider.’
Both women have reservations about straight surrogacy. Gail told us, ‘I find it hard to get my head around the fact that a woman can give her own baby up’, and Cat admits she couldn’t hand the baby over otherwise.
But for Cat being a host surrogate mum and handing the baby over is the most natural thing in the world. It is something that she has known she would do since she can remember.
She said, ‘Years ago, way before I had my own children, I knew deep down that I would consider being a surrogate. But it was when my youngest Megan was about six months old, that I started to think about it again; about giving the gift of a child to a couple who couldn’t have one.
‘A baby is all Pete and Gail want, why shouldn’t I help them? They should be able to have it all, from the heart wrenching to the heart warming: From the cuddles when they are poorly to the trips to the park when their faces light up. I want to give someone else the chance to experience what I’ve had with my girls.’
When I ask Cat what is possibly in it for her aside from the feel good factor, she shrugs it off telling me she will be paid expenses towards the pregnancy, time off work will be recompensated and that she will not be out of pocket with regards to doing anything for the couple. She is quick to add, that it’s not about the money, that you couldn’t do something like this for money; that you would have to be a very shallow person indeed.
Life insurance for the host mother, IVF at approximately £5,000 each time, blood tests and many other treatments, obviously all add up for the intended parents.
A typical host surrogacy arrangement costs in the region of £20,000 to £25,000 including all medical treatment. But to Gail and Pete, the cost is nothing compared to what they may receive in return. But that still seems a very long way off.
To get this far seems to have taken a long time. Months of counselling, meetings with the ethics committee at the hospital and numerous legal hoops result in a long road of red tape slowing the host surrogacy process. Gail and Cat feel this is only just and in the best interest of the child, even if at the time it feels frustrating.
COTS themselves are very thorough at every turn: from running security and health checks on all would-be intended parents and surrogates, through to facilitating the initial agreement meeting and supporting the eventual outcome. They are always there supporting both the host and intended parents when needed, usually for a total of 18 months.
Marina Bailey is that support for Gail and Cat and their partners. Marina, herself a surrogate, told Baby London, ‘We want to make sure they are okay, check on progress, counsel and at times offer mediation. (Should the couples ever have any issues with one another; it can happen).
‘We are there if it is a positive or negative pregnancy test result
and there to see it through until long after the baby is handed over.’
I ask how likely is it that a host surrogate may not be able to go through with giving the baby to the intended parents? Marina has obviously heard the question many times before. She tells me, ‘The point is they are not giving the intended parents something. They are returning something. It didn’t belong to them in first place. A surrogate mechanises the frame of mind to realise this is never going to be her own child, that from the outset this child was never created to remain with her.’
She added, ‘When the baby is first born the host mother is on a high but she will have the baby blues. Her hormones are not something she can control. She may well feel redundant and not needed anymore. As she is dealing with her emotions we try to reassure her they are all normal. It doesn’t last long, just usually while her hormones are rife.’
Those hormones are subject to a rollercoaster ride right from the start. Cat injected herself with hormonal drugs called Buserelin (oestrogen) and then Cyclogest (progesterone) to prepare her body for IVF. This took place when Cat’s womb lining measured the correct thickness and the recently thawed embryo of Gail’s could be transferred. It was then a case of wait and see.
A fraught time for everyone, all it would appear feeling equally vulnerable. Gail said, ‘After Cat had her transfer the two weeks of waiting was awful. We just wanted to know either way. The day she called us to tell us she was not pregnant was so sad.
‘Afterwards we talked it through and both Pete and I realise there has to come a time, when you accept what you can’t have and live your lives again. But we would be prepared, as Cat is, to give it another try and that is likely to be quite soon.
‘And whether we end up with a child or not, we will have come through an incredible experience. And met Cat and her family. Today’s society is a place where you really don’t trust anymore, and yet surrogacy is purely about trust. We have faith in someone to carry our child, that in itself is an astonishing journey to be on.’
Baby London magazine hopes to follow Gail and Cat’s story as it continues.
If you are interested in surrogacy or perhaps think you could be a surrogate, then the COTS website has details. To find out more visit: www.surrogacy.org.uk or contact them on email@example.com or call 01549 402777