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'We took on officialdom to bring our baby home'

A couple's struggle to become parents began in earnest after their child was born abroad, writes Emily Hourican

A year-and-a-half ago, when Queen Elizabeth made her first state visit to Ireland, most of the country was self-congratulating on our new maturity, our ability to finally put old wrongs and grievances aside, and look to a future of generosity and tolerance. For Niall O'Flaherty, however, that visit coincided with a sharp lesson in the intractibility of Irish bureaucracy.

Niall's wife Caroline and their baby daughter Ava, barely a week old -- a child they had longed for through many difficult years -- were in India, in the west Indian state of Gujarat, waiting for Niall to join them with a passport for Ava, so that they could come home. Because Ava was born to a surrogate mother, despite being the biological child of her Irish parents, the process of getting a passport was transformed from a tedious but productive couple of days, into a kind of blurred, Kafka-esque nightmare in which no official figure was prepared to explain exactly what the problem was, but neither would they produce a travel document. Doors were closed and barriers raised, though without any clear reasons why, or possible solutions. "In the main, my pleas to official Ireland fell on deaf ears," writes Niall in Baby Ava, the book the couple have written about their experiences. "They were too busy opening schools or envelopes or meeting the Queen or President Obama or God knows what!"

"Nobody in the Government would help. Everybody promised the sun, moon and stars, but did nothing," Caroline, a medical receptionist, says now, from her mother's house in Palmerstown. Ava, 18 months old, a gorgeous child with glossy black curls and long black lashes, pushes her new buggy as we chat.

"At one stage, it looked as if the British Government were more likely to step in and allow us there to stay with my brother, Philip, who lives there, than our own Government. All around me, parents were coming to the surrogacy clinic, meeting their babies and, after a few days, going home. And I was stuck, not knowing when or even if, I would ever get Ava back. So many people in India said to me, 'I don't know what sort of country you live in'."

Add in the trauma of an early delivery for Ava, followed by several days in ICU, the crippling heat of an Indian summer, language barriers, and the steady count-down of Caroline's three-month visa, and its easy to get the measure of the ordeal. Once her visa expired, she would have been legally required to leave the country. Only as that day drew near, did she fully understand the advice offered to the couple by an Irish solicitor they contacted in the months before Ava's birth.

"She advised us to find a good orphanage in India, and get ready to leave our child there." Even now, Caroline's generally vivacious tones take on a hint of steel at the memory. "Can you imagine? That was never going to happen."

A final, stunning blow was added by the killing of Osama Bin Laden a week after Ava was born by American Special Forces, across the border in Pakistan. The atmosphere in Anand changed immediately as security was stepped up. Caroline, by then used to being taken for an American by the local people and rarely bothering to correct them, had suddenly to say, "no, no Irish. Ireland." "Ah, England?" Even that didn't seem very safe. "No, Ireland. Another place," she emphasised. Her brother phoned the British Foreign Office and was told that Caroline should change her hotel room every couple of days, should not enter any public areas of the hotel she was staying in, and to limit any trips she took to the local shop unless absolutely necessary.

"Hearing that was cold comfort indeed," says Niall, who is self-employed running a facilities maintenance company, adds in Baby Ava.

"But at least the Commonwealth Office were concerned enough to ring her and check that she was okay and offer further advice. It was more than could be said for the Irish embassy in India."

It should all have been so much easier. The end to a long, difficult journey, the moment when the many years spent desperately hoping for a baby, finally came to a joyous conclusion. In 1998, when she was just 27, Caroline was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was given a radical trachelectomy -- an experimental form of surgery that tries to save the womb, instead of just removing it. She was only the second person to have such surgery in Ireland.

"Will I be able to have a baby?" were her first words after coming round from the anaesthetic. The answer was fudged. It was possible, but no one could say more. "My heart's desire -- to be a mother -- had been taken away from me," she says now. "Not that they ever said so straight out. They never said, 'it's not going to happen.' It was always 'if' and 'maybe'."

Recovery was long and difficult, and despite her loving family's constant care and vigilance. Throughout though, the consciousness of how lucky, despite everything, she had been, kept her going. "My diagnosis was early stage cancer, spreading fast into the deeper layers of my cervix. If they hadn't got it when they did, well, I dread to think ... "

The other good thing in her life during this miserable time was Niall. "I knew him from work, but after I got out of hospital, he was one of the first to visit me." Removed from the need for any self-conscious posturing or the distractions of a wider social life, the couple fell in love. "I suppose I learnt that if someone is there for you during your darkest hours, they get to know you pretty well," Caroline says with a slight laugh. "They see you at your worst but are still prepared to stick by you. There was no pretence or playing games with Niall, we could just be ourselves. He knew me, he really knew me."

Within four months they were engaged, and, in 2002, married. By that stage Caroline's hospital check-ups had dwindled to six-monthly from every three months. At each visit her doctor, highly conscious of how much Caroline longed to be pregnant, would say cheerfully: "Next time, I'll see you in the baby clinic." But it never happened. "If I did one pregnancy test, I did a million," Caroline says. "Until I couldn't because they were only upsetting me more."

IVF was the logical next step, but Caroline's medical history made her very cautious of taking it. Even though the doctors told her that taking fertility drugs "probably" wouldn't reactivate her cancer, she couldn't square the small possibility in her mind. Plus, she was told that even if she did get pregnant, there was a 90 per cent chance of miscarriage. To someone who had already survived such trauma, whose family had been through the emotional mangle at her side, the prospect wasn't bearable. "Everyone was worried that I wouldn't be able to take having a miscarriage after cancer."

Caroline alternated between bouts of despair and periods of dogged acceptance.

She says: "You grieve every day. You cry for a loss, for the baby you will never have. The baby that is so real to you that you can actually feel their weight in your arms. There were times when I could just plod along and let things go by, and say, 'it'll happen.' I was never going to give up on having a child."

She can laugh now, secure in the delight of having an adorable 18-month-old at her side, but the pain of those years is right there, behind the laugh. And her anger at the Irish adoption system, with whom they were registered for six years before finally giving up on it, is still very much to the fore. "They want you to answer everything from their manual, and they won't take anything else. I would have tried to give them what they wanted, but Niall couldn't. He could only be honest."

As the doors closed one by one, Caroline became increasingly heartbroken but she was determined to keep trying. A chance viewing of a documentary on TV3 about an infertility clinic in India run by Dr Nayna Patel, set her on what was to be the final road of her quest. Commercial surrogacy is legal in India since 2002 -- where it costs far less than in US -- around $15,000 (€11,801), rather than $70,000 (€55,072) or $100,000 (€78,674) -- and a business now worth some $2.3bn (€1.8bn) a year. Caroline sent an email to Dr Patel, and in reply, for the very first time, was told, "Yes, we can help."

Surrogacy is a controversial and highly emotive subject, carrying with it accusations of developed countries exploiting women in poverty and issues regarding the rights of the unborn child. Caroline insists that she was able to square her own conscience. "I'm an ordinary person," she insists. "Someone who wanted a baby for so long. If I thought someone was forced into this, I couldn't live with myself. I couldn't go home with my child if I thought another woman had been hurt. My sister-in-law, Bina, is Indian. I wasn't going to exploit any Indian person. When I went and met Dr Patel, I just knew this was right."

And so despite knowing that their path home with any baby would be far from easy, she and Niall went ahead. They chose as their surrogate Nita -- a woman who had a husband and two children of her own, and one previous, successful surrogacy. The money involved, for women like Nita, means the ability to educate her children, buy a home, elevate a family from poverty to something better. "People asked, did I not fear that once I went over, she wouldn't want to give the baby to us. I never feared that. It's not her child.

"There is no biological connection, and the women are all counselled beforehand."

Knowing what was in front of them, only Caroline travelled to India for the birth. One person needed to stay behind and do battle with Official Ireland. Once Ava arrived, Niall swang into action. The couple had two plans, A and B; one simple, one less so. Plan A was to take Ava's birth cert, issued by the Indian authorities, into the Passport Office, along with her application form, as a child born overseas to Irish parents, in full accordance with the letter of the law. Despite a number of dry runs, in which he and Caroline queued up at the office to say, "our daughter will be born in India, what must we do to get her a passport?" in which they were told just to follow the normal procedures, once the day came and Niall was armed with the foreign-looking birth cert, he was told it was not that simple. And so to Plan B, involving a solicitor and barrister.

For nearly a month the case dragged, with Caroline ringing frantically every day for news while Niall pretended events were running more smoothly than they were. Finally, a judge ruled that a passport be issued immediately. So after five fraught weeks, Niall got to meet his baby daughter for the first time. And yes, that moment was every bit as beautiful as he had imagined.

And the case has established a precedent that has already benefited other couples. Meanwhile, the couple's legal team suggested they write a book. "I said, 'no, let's just let Ava live her life,'" says Caroline, "but then I thought, what if there had been something out there to help me? There was nothing, but I would have loved something. Even if it helps one other couple, I'm happy."

Caroline and Niall's story is one of great hardship, and also great luck. A quest pursued doggedly despite intense discouragement, that has ended in intense joy. "After this, I believe in fate without a shadow of doubt," Caroline says. "Bina, my sister-in-law, used to always say to me, 'what's for you won't pass you by,' and I used to be so mad at her, because when I was sick I couldn't believe her. But now, I do believe there is a path in life for everyone, I really do."

'Baby Ava, An Irish Surrogacy Story', by Caroline and Niall O'Flaherty is out now, published by Liberties Press, €14.99.

Sunday Independent