Life Mothers & Babies

Saturday 23 August 2014

The big story: Two men and a baby

Last week Nicole Kidman thanked her 'gestational carrier', Hollywood speak for the fact that the actress' fourth child had been born to a surrogate mother. Now many indications suggest a rise in Irish couples who choose this route to parenthood. An Irish man and his Spanish husband who live in north county Dublin are expecting their first child by a surrogate mother based in California. Frieda Klotz spoke to the three parents

Published 23/01/2011 | 11:22

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PROUD DADS TO BE: Patrick O'Keeffe, left, and his Spanish husband Alvaro Gonzalez with the scan of their surrogate baby. Alvaro's parents in Spain mortgaged a holiday home to raise the tens of thousands needed to have a surrogate baby in the United States. Photo: David Conachy

THE kitchen is spruce, with lime-green walls and a white table. Eight champagne glasses stand on the counter, left over from Christmas and in early preparation for a 42nd birthday party in two weeks' time.

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Coffee, frothed up in a latte machine, is served in white designer mugs, with matching saucers that curve artistically. The three-storey house that Patrick O'Keeffe shares with his husband Alvaro Gonzalez in Swords is elegant and well-kept. In addition it is near two schools, close to a green space, and equipped with stair-gates -- in other words, perfect for children. Patrick and Alvaro have been together for nine years, and are preparing to have their first baby.

"When I talk to gay couples and tell them we're going to have a baby, the first reaction is always, 'Why are you going to do that to yourselves?!" says Alvaro, a soft-spoken 32-year-old from Madrid, whose fluent English has a slight Dublin lilt. But he always wanted children. And although Patrick, 41, had given up on the idea when he came out just over 17 years ago, he quickly changed his mind when he realised it would be possible through surrogacy. The couple have arranged for a woman in California to bear their child. Alvaro is the father, and the unborn baby (gender as yet unknown -- they want it to be a surprise) has been conceived for just 12 weeks.

These days, it's not just celebrity millionaires such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, or Elton John and David Furnish, who can have children through surrogacy (SJP had twins in 2009; Elton John and his partner became fathers last Christmas Day). Many indications suggest a rise in Irish couples who choose this route to parenthood. Although general statistics are not available, Marion Campbell, a family law solicitor in Dublin who specialises in surrogacy, says that over the past year she has had consultations with three new couples every month, one fifth of whom are gay. Surrogacy agencies abroad also report a rise in Irish clients: John Weltman, president of Circle Surrogacy, which held a seminar in Dublin last May, says that after years of having one or two enquiries from Ireland a year, he now sees "a barrage". Stephanie Scott, executive programme director at Simple Surrogacy, the agency that Patrick and Alvaro went to, says that in the past two years the number of Irish people using their services has risen.

Patrick never expected to be a father. "I always wanted children when I was younger," he explains "See, I had decided years ago that part of the package about being gay was not to have children. I had decided that's the way it was, gay people don't have children for obvious reasons."

Patrick grew up in Clonmel, Tipperary. His father worked in a factory and his mother was a housewife; he was the first from his family to attend college, studying construction at the Waterford Institute of Technology. Around the time he came out, it was still illegal to be gay (Ireland decriminalised homosexuality in 1993) but he says that over years of working on building sites, he never encountered any prejudice.

After a series of relationships, he grew tired of the gay scene in Dublin and wanted something more lasting. It was then that, on a personals website called Gaydar, he met Alvaro. Friends thought he was crazy when he booked a flight to Spain to visit someone he'd never met in person. "I said, Madrid's a lovely city, and if he turns out to be mad, I have a Visa card and I can book into a hotel," Patrick recalls. That didn't happen. Alvaro collected him at the airport, and they stayed in his family's house. Within a year, Alvaro had moved to Dublin, and he has remained here since, working first as a trainer and project manager for Paypal and now for a financial services firm.

Sitting on opposite sofas in their living room in Swords, they fill in different sides of the story and finish each other's sentences. The decision to get married, once Spain allowed it, was a natural one, which Alvaro was inspired to suggest after watching the nuptial-crazed rom-com Mamma Mia!. Their wedding was in Madrid, and it is now recognised in Ireland because of the Civil Partnership Bill. "It was easier for us as a gay couple," Patrick points out. "We don't have to worry about the wedding dress, and of course we don't have to worry about the church." They had already decided they would go on to have a child. "There's a Spanish saying, people who sleep in the same bed think the same way. As you build a relationship, your goals become common goals, your attitudes blend, you tend to think alike," Patrick says.

Surrogacy is a notoriously fraught procedure, with hurdles appearing at almost every stage. And it's expensive. Patrick and Alvaro took out a loan from Alvaro's parents, who mortgaged a holiday home in Spain to raise the approximately $80,000-100,000 (?59,000-?74,000) that it takes to have a surrogate baby in America (their bill so far is $50,000 [?37,000]). Alvaro spent hours doing research, poring over forums and websites. They selected their agency through an online search. The agency, in turn, matched them with a surrogate mother, a 34-year-old married woman living in Northern California. The agency was based in Texas, which has liberal surrogacy laws, but for them the mother had to come from California -- a state that allows two dads to be on the birth certificate. "It's not about who the biological parents are," Patrick explains. "It's who's going to parent the child."

A bewildering array of websites offer to guide people along this road to parenthood. It is online that the surrogacy community flourishes -- a world of its own, with its own vocabulary and etiquette. Third-party reproduction is a term for the whole procedure, and an intended parent is an IP. Traditional surrogacy occurs when the surrogate mother donates her own egg, while in gestational surrogacy the eggs come from another woman donor. For the women who carry them, sons and daughters are surro-sons and surro-daughters, embryos are embies; mothers are, of course, surro-moms. When you meet the right IPs, you are "matched".

In forums, such as surro momsonline.com, women post detailed medical questions about pregnancy, and share information, tips, stories of happy outcomes, occasional warnings about fake or exploitative IPs (or fellow surrogates) alongside thoughts about their own relationships. Another site, surrogate mother.com, is more sophisticated, a Ning network (a bit like Facebook), where women set up their own profiles, advertise for IPs, befriend each other, blog about their experiences, and chat through instant messaging; it has 6,650 members.

There are sites for intended parents too. Dozens of agencies in the US alone extend a helping hand to eager prospective parents: enter "surrogacy USA" in Google and the list of search results continues for pages. Near the top is Circle Surrogacy, with "the world's first 'Guaranteed Baby' plan". Not far below is the "Center for Surrogate Parenting Inc," whose website states that it is "proud to have helped David Furnish and Elton John become the proud parents of a baby boy".

A lawyer advised Patrick and Alvaro to choose gestational surrogacy because it is less emotionally (and legally) complicated, as the surrogate mother has no biological link -- one woman donates the egg and another bears the child -- but after difficulties arose with an egg donor, their surrogate offered to provide her own.

Not just anyone can become a surrogate mother for a respected agency in the US -- the criteria are strict. Simple Surrogacy lists 20, including the following: "must be height-weight proportionate; be in a stable living situation; have given birth to a child of your own; have the support of your spouse or partner (where applicable); not be on public assistance; enjoy pregnancy and be motivated by the wish to help others create or add to their family". The question remains: why would a woman choose to be pregnant for nine months and give birth to a baby that's not her own? The monetary compensation -- her share of the fee will be about $25,000 (?18,000) -- is substantial, but not extraordinary. Stephanie Scott, of Simple Surrogacy, has been a surrogate mother herself. "It's the most rewarding experience you ever have in your life," she says, describing how some parents may have tried for years to have children, or have had a child of their own die. "To create a family for someone who couldn't do it on their own; to be able to get pregnant for them, carry their child for nine months and seeing their faces when you hand that baby to them in the delivery room is something you'll never forget," she says.

Still there are risks, for all parties concerned. "A lot of intended parents who spent their life savings and the surrogate never was pregnant, and they've lost all their money," Scott says.

"It's very risky, especially for international intended parents." She says that her agency runs criminal checks and ensures the woman is who she says she is, verifying her address, marital status, medical records, and running psychological tests. "There's a lot that goes into it; and a lot of intended parents don't know to check these things," she says.

The women in her agency come from various backgrounds and sectors: stay-at-home moms, college students, career women, nurses, and women in law school. Scott says she gets about 75 applicants every week from prospective surrogate mothers, and about 10 of those get through. She matches them with parents based on a range of mutual preferences, including how much contact each party wishes to have during pregnancy and after birth.

For intended parents, one of the risks of the process is whether the surrogate mother will change her mind -- she has the right to be on the birth certificate after all. Patrick and Alvaro say they are not worried about their surrogate. For one thing, she already has four children of her own.

Patrick says the mother told them that if she wanted more children she could have them with her husband. He adds she was "quite adamant" that she did not want to grow her family.

Still, the procedure is nerve-wracking. "We're excited and I hope it happens. I'm so scared," says Patrick. "It's hard not to get emotional but you're just frightened to get so involved and put your whole heart into it. We're afraid sometimes. We do say, if the baby comes, if the baby comes. It's scary, you just don't know"

Their surrogate is of Irish extraction while her husband is Hispanic; he works in construction, the same as Patrick, and she's a stay-at-home mother. Right away, Patrick and Alvaro clicked with her. "She's as bad as me, she chats away," Patrick says. "When we first spoke to the lady at the agency she said usually she has to come in and get the conversation going. With us, she just zoomed in every so often and zoomed back out again, just carried on working and listened in the background." Now they speak to the surrogate on the phone once a week and exchange emails every few days. They wanted to have contact with her because she would be the mother of their child. "A lot of people don't want contact at all," Alvaro says, citing a Spanish gay dads' forum where he has seen men objecting to the use of the term "mother" for the woman who carries the child. Patrick continues, "We felt, let's get some reality here, you know, the child sooner or later is going to come back and ask, 'Who's my mother?' Because obviously we have to explain, because we're two men, someone's had to have the child, so at the end of the day there's going to be questions."

They have made a deliberate effort to establish a good relationship. "We want to have some bond. We want to have a cousin or something," Patrick says. "An interaction, so that if her children decide to come to Europe they would come by us." Her children are aware that she is pregnant but they know that the baby she bears will not be their sister or brother.

Her husband, meanwhile, is helpful and supportive. In the lengthy legal contract Patrick, Alvaro and the surrogate signed, he was also a signatory. "They're a married couple and he has to be in there somewhere," says Patrick, adding that otherwise, he could technically claim to be the father of the child, though in the long-term that could be disproven. But marriage is a contract too. "They're married," he says, with a laugh. "So she can't just go off and do this."

Because no laws exist to govern the practice in Ireland, many couples face a legal quagmire after their babies are born. For those who have chosen cheaper options (such as travelling to the Ukraine, where surrogacy costs between $20,000 to $30,000), the complications can be especially daunting. "There's no legislation on the ground here. Everybody is losing out on this," Marion Campbell says, adding, "When it comes to family life and children we're very behind the times. They [the government] don't want to touch it."

The legal uncertainty has serious implications for parents and for children. When a surrogate baby is born in the Ukraine, the names on the birth certificate are those of the intended parents rather than the surrogate mother. This means the baby will not receive a Ukrainian passport, but Ireland may not grant a passport either. The result is what Campbell describes as "a stateless baby" in Ukraine -- it might or might not be possible to return to Ireland with emergency travel documents, but the child will still be without proper identification and nationality, and for the parents, the prospect of costly court cases looms.

Patrick and Alvaro were able to sidestep these issues because of Alvaro's Spanish citizenship. The baby will have a Spanish passport, something Spanish laws make much easier than Irish ones. The child will be an EU citizen. "Technically within the EU you're allowed free travel," Patrick says. "So technically speaking we'll be a Spanish family relocating to Ireland, even though we're here. We're legally a family in Spain and we're going to become legally a family in Ireland." Once they're in Ireland, he says, he does expect to have problems, but they'll deal with those as they arise.

They are not yet sure if they'd prefer a girl or a boy, though Patrick thinks a girl might be better because parents would feel more relaxed about letting her friends visit the house. On the other hand, he recently read that it can go the other way too: that a mother had issues letting her daughter visit when there were two men in the house. With six months to go before birth, the future still seems a long way off. They are sure of some things though. Alvaro says the child won't attend a Catholic school. "For me it's extremely important. I'm not anti -- it's just it would be a bit cynical."

Both men have families that happily accepted their homosexuality. They are hopeful about their child's experience, as a kid with two dads. "I know it's not going to be normal, but then again, it comes back to education and how you raise your child," Alvaro says. "There shouldn't be any problem." Patrick points out that kids can be bullied regardless of who their parents are. "All parents can have problems," he says. "I think if there's a bully and they want to pick on you, they'll just find a reason."

Alvaro is optimistic. "I'm sure there'll be issues but by the time the child has to go to school, it's going to be in six, seven years' time." He adds, "Things can change so much in six, seven years."

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