The decision by Rosanna Davison and her husband to look for a surrogate to carry their baby shows the lengths to which some couples go to realise their dream, writes Sharon Ní Chonchúir.
ROSANNA Davison experienced one of the happiest moments of her life when her daughter Sophia was born on November 21 last year.
It was the culmination of what had been a difficult journey to parenthood for the 35-year-old nutritionist and former Miss World and her husband Wes Quirke.
In February 2018, following years of fertility testing, treatment and multiple miscarriages, the couple decided that gestational surrogacy was the only way for them to have a biological child of their own.
They travelled to Ukraine, the only country in Europe that allows for legal commercial surrogacy, where a clinic arranged for a surrogate to carry their baby.
Davison was as emotional and exhausted as any new mother when she spoke to Feelgood recently.
“Everything seems to take twice as long with a hungry newborn to feed around the clock, but motherhood has been amazing so far,” she said.
The memory of the birth is still fresh in her mind. “Watching Sophia being born and cutting her umbilical cord was the most overwhelming, emotional and terrifying experience. Our lives are all about her now.”
Davison isn’t the only celebrity who opted to use a surrogate as a solution to fertility problems. Nicole Kidman, Tyra Banks and Sarah Jessica Parker brought children into the world with the help of a surrogate.
And after suffering from complications during her second pregnancy, Kim Kardashian chose to use a gestational carrier for her third and fourth children with Kanye West.
In Ireland, surrogacy exists in a legislative vacuum. There is no legislation, which means it’s neither legal nor illegal.
This creates uncertainty for would-be parents, but it hasn’t stopped those who see surrogacy as their only chance of creating a family.
According to figures released by the Department of Foreign Affairs, 137 emergency travel certificates were issued to children born abroad as a result of surrogacy arrangements in the years between 2015 and 2019.
Surrogacy happens in Ireland too, although it’s much rarer. On a recent episode of The Late Late Show, Becky Loftus Dore from Co Westmeath spoke about her experience.
The mother of four offered to carry a baby for a couple who had struggled to have a child. This act of altruistic surrogacy resulted in a baby boy being born last April.
So, what exactly is surrogacy? Essentially, it’s where a woman bears a child for another woman or same-sex couple.
“An embryo is created using the man’s sperm and an egg,” says John Kennedy, medical director of the Sims Fertility Clinic in Dublin.
In traditional surrogacy, the surrogate carried a child conceived using her egg and sperm from the intended father. This meant the surrogate was genetically related to the child, which complicated matters.
Gestational surrogacy is now more common. This is where the surrogate carries a child conceived using the egg of the intended mother or other egg donor. The resulting child then has no biological link to the surrogate.
Surrogacy can also be altruistic or commercial. Loftus Dore offered to do it for her friends and no money changed hands.
In the case of Davison and the 25 or so couples who travel abroad every year, their surrogates are paid for their services.
Surrogacy’s success rates are high.
“They’re higher than IVF because it’s the quality of the eggs that determine success,” says Dr Kennedy. “Because so many donor eggs are used in surrogacy, the success rate is anything up to 80% depending on the clinic.”
Most Irish couples availing of surrogacy services abroad go to one of four countries: Ukraine, Cyprus, the US and Canada.
Cyprus has no regulation regarding surrogacy which means clinics here can transfer embryos to surrogates without technically breaking any law. The other jurisdictions have their own terms and conditions.
In Ukraine, surrogacy services cost approximately €40,000 but they are only available to married heterosexual couples who have medical proof that they haven’t been able to have children.
This means that same-sex couples have to travel to Canada or the US where surrogacy services can cost up to €150,000.
Cost is just one of the complicating factors. Tracy Horan is one of four family law solicitors specialising in surrogacy law. She believes the entire system needs to be overhauled.
“People have most likely been through an incredibly difficult time trying to conceive before deciding to have a baby through surrogacy,” she says. “We need to make things more open and transparent for them.”
Establishing parentage is one of the main hurdles under current Irish law. As it stands, the woman who gives birth to a child is the mother, regardless of who supplied the egg. This means the surrogate is the child’s legal parent and guardian.
If the surrogate is married, her husband automatically becomes the child’s legal father. This can be disproven using DNA testing, which has to be done before the Department of Foreign Affairs will issue an emergency travel certificate, which, combined with other legal documentation, will allow the intending parents to bring their baby home to Ireland.
Once they get home, they must start proceedings for a declaration of parentage. “This can take up to 18 months,” says Ms Horan.
“But it only relates to the father. The mother can only apply to become the child’s guardian after two years of residing with the child if she is married to the father or after three years if they are cohabiting.”
The entire process can cost up to €15,000 and there are many potential pitfalls.
“The mother is in a risky situation,” says Dr Kennedy.
“There’s a small chance the surrogate could come looking for the child. There could also be an acrimonious separation that turns ugly and the child could suffer as a result. It hasn’t happened yet in Ireland but it’s only a matter of time.”
John Waterstone, medical director of the Waterstone Fertility Clinic in Cork, agrees.
“In the US, states that are pro-surrogacy have pre-birth orders giving everyone black and white legal rights and making the intending parents the legal parents from before the child is born,” he says.
“This protects everyone, including the surrogate. There was a case in 2014 when an Australian couple abandoned their baby when he was born with Down syndrome to a surrogate mother in Thailand. That wouldn’t happen if the law was clearcut from the beginning.”
Because the surrogacy process is so complicated, legal support is recommended from the very beginning. Psychological support may be needed too.
According to the National Infertility Support and Information Group, surrogacy can take a significant emotional toll.
“People can feel at a loss as to where to turn and often will not even confide in family or friends,” says Gillian Keegan, spokesperson for the group.
John Duffy, 45 and from Co Louth, was one such person. After five years of failed IVF treatments, he and his wife Catriona had their son through surrogacy in 2014.
“Those IVF treatments took a huge financial and psychological toll, but we still wanted to have a baby and we knew our only option was surrogacy,” he says.
They chose a clinic in India. “We went over on a medical visa, had IVF, and met our surrogate,” says Duffy.
They found the process strange.
“It was weird meeting her, knowing she was going to do something so intimate for us when she was a virtual stranger. Then we had to come home and endure the dreaded two-week wait, which as anyone who has had IVF treatment will know is torturous.
“When we got news of a pregnancy, we were over the moon and from then on, we were kept informed with scans and updates sent by email.
“We weren’t there when he was born but we were in India within 24 hours of the birth, so I have to say it was a very detached pregnancy.”
This didn’t detract from the pleasure he took in first setting eyes on his son.
“It was a magical moment, all the more so because it had been such a long time coming,” he says.
Parents who are considering embarking on similar surrogacy journeys may be interested in attending a conference in Dublin on March 22, run by international organisation Growing Families.
It’s not the first such conference in Ireland. “At our first event in 2015, we expected 60 attendees and over 130 came, all desperate for an answer to their family-building problems,” says Sam Everingham, global director of Growing Families.
“Since then, the demand for information and support has been massive.”
There is an immediate need for surrogacy legislation in Ireland. “We’re currently working off guidelines issued in 2012 but we need clear legislation,” says Ms Horan.
The Government is seeking to provide this in the Assisted Human Reproduction Bill 2017, which is working its way through the Oireachtas. However, there are concerns about the proposed legislation.
“It only covers altruistic surrogacy in Ireland,” says Dr Kennedy.
Dr Waterstone was president of the Irish Fertility Society in 2018 when it was asked to give feedback to the Oireachtas on the proposed legislation.
“We felt it was so restrictive that it amounted to a practical ban on surrogacy,” he says.
“If implemented, it will make it illegal for couples to go abroad or advertise for surrogates in Ireland. It will penalise medical and legal professionals who advise couples on what to do and where to go, with potential fines of up to €100,000 and custodial sentences of up to five years.
“The surrogate birth mother will still be recognised as the legal mother in the first instance and her partner will be presumed to be the father. As a medical professional, I believe it will infringe my duty to help people.”
Horan believes the legislation in its current format will make things worse.
“If it comes into law, it will drive surrogacy underground again, which is not what we want in modern Ireland,” she says.
Dr Kennedy believes we need to have this conversation as a society, not just in the Dáil.
“The more people become aware, the more pressure that will be brought to bear on government to come up with real solutions that will help people,” he says.
In the meantime, couples such as Rosanna Davison and Wes Quirke continue to overcome medical, legal and emotional hurdles that block their path to parenthood.
“We decided to share our story to give hope to others in our position and to show that surrogacy is a feasible route to parenthood,” says Rosanna.
“Our surrogate was an incredible, strong lady and we feel immense gratitude to her for giving us the most amazing gift of all,” she says.