Monday 20 November 2017

Our beautiful Ava was born to a surrogate mum in India

My beautiful baby:
Caroline O'Flaherty
with little Ava
My beautiful baby: Caroline O'Flaherty with little Ava

Gemma O’Doherty

Their lives may be trapped by negative equity. Some have lost their jobs. Others have demolished their savings. But for many infertile Irish couples, the dream of having a child of their own is simply unquenchable and they are willing to go to the other side of the world to make it happen.

In this brave new world of baby-making, India is fast becoming their destination of choice. The poorest democracy on the planet is now known as the surrogacy capital of the world with an infertility industry worth more than €3bn a year.

Fuelling this boom is a large supply of local women willing to carry babies for infertile couples in exchange for a sum of money that will change their lives forever.

Typically, they earn a one-off payment of about €6,000, roughly 10 times the average national income. For their Western counterparts, there are financial benefits too, with the cost of treatment up to five times cheaper than they might pay at home.

But this week, there were claims that Indian surrogate mothers are being exploited by First World demand for artificially conceived babies.

A British newspaper report described cramped conditions in a hostel where surrogate mothers live during their pregnancies, and claimed they are forced to stay away from their husbands and children.

It also quoted research from the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research that suggests high percentages of surrogate mothers are shunned when they return to their communities.

But for one Irish woman, who was given a final chance to have a baby of her own by an Indian surrogate, the reality is utterly different.

In her first Irish interview, Caroline O'Flaherty describes how the experience gave her the greatest gift in her life, but also transformed the life of an Indian woman and her family.

At 27, the Dublin medical secretary was diagnosed with a potentially life threatening illness. Invasive treatment restored her to full health but limited her chances of carrying a baby to full term.

After almost 15 years of frustration, exploring different infertility treatments, she and her husband Niall thought all hope was lost until they saw a documentary about an infertility centre in India.

The Akanksha Clinic in the western city of Anand is run by one of Asia's gurus of artificial reproduction, Dr Nayna Patel, whose success rates earned her a slot on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

More than 40pc of her patients, who travel from as far as the US, Canada, Germany and Israel, board their flight home with a baby in their arms.

As part of the surrogacy programme, which costs €17,500 excluding travel, they extract eggs from the mother. Then, with sperm from the father, embryos are created which are implanted into the surrogate. Within a matter of days, the clinic can establish if new life is taking hold.

In 2010, Caroline and Niall made an appointment with the clinic, which today receives queries from about eight infertile Irish couples every week. Within a matter of months, the O'Flaherty's lives had been turned around. Next week, their beautiful baby girl Ava will celebrate her first birthday.

"We have a lovely healthy child whom we waited so long for," says Caroline. "But we will never forget the kindness and professionalism of everybody we met when we were in India and we can't wait to take Ava back.

"But unfortunately, there are so many misconceptions about surrogacy. It's very easy for people who have no clue about it to cast stones and say 'oh, you went to a Third World country'. But from what we witnessed over a long period with our own eyes, stories of exploitation couldn't be further from the truth.

"We did a huge amount of research before we went and while we were there. There was a difference in cost, but that wasn't our reason for choosing India. I knew the women were healthier, they look after themselves, and they don't tend to smoke. The city was based in a dry state so that meant no alcohol.

"There is a misperception put out that these women are the poorest of the poor, out working in the fields all day or plucked off the streets. That is total nonsense. Most of them have completed secondary education and they want to get more qualifications.

"When I met my surrogate mother Ana (not her real name) for the first time, I didn't know what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. She was standing there in her lovely sari and gold jewellery. Her children were dressed immaculately. Her husband was the same.

"The women all apply for the surrogacy themselves, are given counselling and screening, and sign all legal documents in front of an attorney with their husband present."

Although Caroline spent most of the pregnancy at home in Ireland, two months before Ava was due, she travelled back to India to spend time with the surrogate mother.

"I got to know her really well, and her husband. Some days I'd go off with her children. I spent hours every day in the surrogate house chatting with all the women.

"It was really, really lovely. I would have happily moved in. They stay in the house so they can rest, and have their nutritional and medical needs met. They are looked after so well. Their families can come and go, as can they any time they like.

"Whenever I was there, they were all sitting around chatting and drinking tea with their mothers and kids and husbands. They have TVs in their rooms and everything is spotless. It was just a wonderful, happy place to be.

"People who claim they are locked up behind bars don't understand Indian life. Yes, you might see bars on the windows but that is the norm in India. My hotel windows had bars. They are there because it is so hot and you can leave the windows open at night. When you start to understand the culture, you realise these things are just part of normal life.

"One of the best things is the surrogate mothers get educated while they are there. They can learn computers, English or sewing. Even when they have given birth, they can go back to the classes for as long as they want to further their education.

"Our surrogate wanted to make clothes and sell them so she could send her kids to college. She was delighted because she wouldn't have got the opportunity otherwise. With the money she got from our pregnancy, she was able to buy a new house with furniture. She will never have to work again if she doesn't want to. Her plan is to continue with her education."

But while the woman who carried Ava was given the chance of a new life for herself and her family, was Caroline ever concerned that she might form a bond with the baby in her womb and find it hard to hand over the baby after birth?

"Not for one second. That is another total misunderstanding. There is absolutely no biological attachment between the surrogate and the baby. She is literally just a host. Yes, of course, women form emotional attachments to their own babies in the womb, but Indian culture has a totally different way of looking at that. For an Indian woman, the greatest gift that she can give is the gift of life to somebody else.

"Ana had given birth before for another couple and she said she was just so happy that she could make someone else happy.

"I often asked her if she thought about the children and she said they weren't hers, so no she didn't. It's just work to her."

After Ava was born in April 2011, she went to ICU because she arrived a month early. Caroline waited outside during her delivery.

"After Ava went to ICU, I went straight to see Ana. I wanted to make sure she was OK. We will always feel close to her. If I could, I would take Ava back to India for her first birthday next week but she is too young to make that journey again just yet. But I've got a package ready to post to the clinic for the surrogate mother with pictures and letters.

"In a couple of years we will go back to see everybody again. I might even do it again though you have to be happy with what you have and we are so lucky to have a lovely healthy baby. India will always hold a very special place in our hearts."

'Baby Ava -- An Irish Surrogacy Story' will be published by Liberties Press this autumn

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