‘The both of us are his daddies’: Three surrogacy stories
Legal uncertainty in Ireland has not stopped couples going abroad to create longed-for families
Andrew Millar and Neil McDonagh with their 14-week-old baby Oisín. The couple used a surrogate mother in Britain. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Three families, three very different stories but one common thread – each couple has used a surrogate mother to give birth to their children.
Surrogacy is neither legal nor illegal in Ireland because it is not yet addressed in legislation. But that has not deterred an increasing number of couples who see it as the only way to create their longed-for family. While lawmakers here have deliberated for at least 10 years over the ramifications of surrogacy, these couples can’t wait and mostly go abroad to a country that has legislated for it.
There are undoubtedly legal and moral issues to be debated around surrogacy. But here, in the run-up to a Dublin conference hosted by the international not-for-profit Families Through Surrogacy, three couples tell how they moved beyond the abstract to make surrogacy part of their life story.
Neil McDonagh (28), Andrew Millar (27) and 14-week-old Oisín Millar-McDonagh live in Belfast
Partners for nine years, Neil McDonagh and Andrew Millar used to imagine what it would be like to raise a child – “like as if it was never going to happen”, says McDonagh.
But five years ago they began to think seriously about the “what if”. At the time, as a gay couple, adoption was not an option for them in the North so they looked into the possibility of being assessed in England for approval to adopt.
Not only was the process daunting but they were also keen to adopt a baby, and it was mostly older children who were being placed. They started to consider surrogacy.
They had just settled on doing it in Thailand when that country closed its programme to foreigners. That is the thing with international surrogacy, says McDonagh, “it is so fluid – one minute it’s okay and the next minute it’s not”. They considered Cambodia and Nepal but no sooner had they decided on the latter than the Himalayan country abruptly shut its surrogacy programme in September 2015.
“That really did set us back – it is an emotional roller coaster,” says McDonagh, originally from Dublin. They began to ask themselves should they accept that surrogacy wasn’t for them. However, their thoughts turned back to the UK where altruistic surrogacy is permitted.
When researching the possibility, they became part of an online network of parents and surrogates. They got to know a woman who had carried a baby for another couple and asked her if she was intending to do it again, would she consider them as parents? Three months later she said she was open to the idea and suggested the three of them meet.
It was the most intense moment waiting to hear the heartbeat
“We got on really well,” says McDonagh. They spoke to her at length about her motivation, as a married woman with children, for doing it and why she thought they were the right couple to help.
They made arrangements for the IVF, using donor eggs and sperm from one of them. After medical tests, the couple decided which of them would be the biological father but it is not information they share.
“At the end of the day the both of us are his daddies – whether he’s mine or he’s Andrew’s that’s irrelevant,” says McDonagh.
Two embryos were transferred into their surrogate in Norwich, and “we found out just over a week later that we were pregnant” is how he puts it. At five weeks they lost one of the twins.
“It was devastating,” says McDonagh, but a scan showed that there was still one sac there. Two weeks later the couple were with the surrogate for another scan. “It was the most intense moment waiting to hear the heartbeat,” he recalls. It was there.
The surrogate had told the couple that they could go to as few or many of her hospital appointments as they wanted. “From our perspective, we wanted to go, just to experience it.”
Both men were at the birth too, on November 14th last. Oisín’s birth was registered with the surrogate as mother – she is not allowed to sign an affidavit relinquishing her parental rights until six weeks after the birth, in case she changes her mind – and the biological father.
Less than a week later the couple flew home to Belfast with Oisín, along with Millar’s mother who had come over for the birth. Being an internal UK flight, no passport was necessary.
Oisín was registered with the health service on their return for the same home visits any new baby receives. As new parents through surrogacy, they are entitled to adoption leave (similar to maternity leave) – unlike their counterparts across the Border. They could share it but McDonagh is taking it.
The couple are now applying for a parental order, which will result in a new birth certificate naming them both as Oisín’s parents. Meanwhile, they keep in contact with the surrogate and they are sure that all four of them will meet up again. They estimate the whole process cost them about £40,000.
What would they say to people who believe that as a gay couple they have no right to a baby? “What defines a right to have a child?,” McDonagh replies. “There are no set guidelines for people to have children – it is an evolving world.”
It would be a lie, he adds, to say that they didn’t consider what people might think about them using a surrogate, “but we believe we can give our child a safe and happy home and we can provide all the necessities . That’s all anyone can ask of us.”
Una (44), Mark (45) and four-month-old Evan live in Co Wicklow
Una and Mark met “later in life” and started trying for a baby seven years ago. Then, towards the end of 2011, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
At the time, what really devastated Una was being robbed of the prospect of pregnancy. It was only when the 10 months of treatment was nearing completion that it truly dawned on her that she had had a life-threatening illness.
They looked into adoption and fostering but it turned out they weren’t eligible for consideration until Una was five years clear of cancer and then there would be only a short period before they would be ruled out on age grounds.
“You try to convince yourself that you can have a full life without having kids,” she says. They could travel the world but “in that amazing scenery there are families everywhere. You know you are not going to get past this. You want to live your life, rather than live the aftermath in the shadow of cancer.”
Surrogacy was their only chance for a child but, until they went to a London conference in 2015 run by Families Through Surrogacy, they didn’t really know how it worked. The comprehensive information given at the conference was fantastic, says Mark, and they met people who had been through it – both parents and surrogates.
Beforehand, Una would have felt a bit that people using surrogates were taking advantage of somebody. But when you talk to surrogates, “they say ‘why are you judging me and the decision I make for my family?’ It put another perspective on it.”
The couple decided to pursue the option in Ukraine, where surrogacy is legislated for and there’s excellent medical care. But it was still a “leap of faith” says Mark to sign up with the New Life agency that had been recommended and start the process.
Mark and Una were happy that they knew why the surrogate chosen for them at the Kiev clinic was doing it.
“She was 33, she had a 17-year-old daughter and she wanted the money to give the daughter the chance she never had to go to college. It made the whole thing palatable,” says Mark, who did medical tests in Dublin before travelling to Kiev for the IVF.
Six of the fertilised eggs made it to blastocysts; two were implanted and the other four frozen. Within weeks, a single pregnancy was confirmed.
Una went to Ukraine at four months and they both went at six months, “to be part of the process”, before travelling over again 10 days before the due date last October. Una attended the birth, at the wishes of the surrogate.
Although there is an enforceable contract in place before the birth, unlike in the UK, there is always a fear that the woman will change her mind and try to keep the baby, says Una. But, as the agency pointed out, the surrogate has an equally strong fear that she might be left with the baby.
Una was allowed to hold Evan for 10 minutes after his birth before he had to go into an incubator for a couple of hours. But from then on he was with Una all the time, as both she and the surrogate had their own rooms in the hospital.
In Ukraine, the birth certificate is issued in the names of the commissioning parents. It was then a matter of organising an emergency travel document for Evan so they could bring him back to Ireland.
Once an approved paternity test proved Mark’s biological link to Evan, a representative in the Irish Consulate in Kiev could issue a travel document. Mark had to sign an affidavit declaring he would seek a parental order before the courts on his return.
The Department of Foreign Affairs “is a joy to deal with”, he says, as it has a “brilliant” woman co-ordinating dealings with Irish citizens in surrogacy programmes around the world.
They were home within three weeks of the birth but Mark is still seeking a parental order. They can’t travel at the moment with Evan who is temporarily “stateless”.
“If he is having a grumpy day, we call him Ukrainian – he’s got a Ukrainian lip,” they joke, as Una jiggles the chubby-cheeked baby peeping out from his front carrier.
Under the new Family Law Act, Una, as full-time carer, can apply for guardianship after two years. They estimate the whole process has cost them roughly €55,000 of which about €38,000 was spent in Ukraine, most of the rest on “disgusting” legal fees here.
Una and Mark have the option to engage in another surrogate programme in the Ukraine and gestate one of the remaining frozen embryos, which would provide a full genetic sibling to Evan.
“Nobody chooses to do to this – Una didn’t choose to have cancer – but most people want to have a family,” adds Mark. “We have a fantastic baby and the surrogate has a better life than she would otherwise – there are no losers in it.”
Sharon (47), Francis (45) and twins Alex and Mark (2) O’Leary live in Galway
When Sharon O’Leary discovered in her mid-30s that the reason she was not getting pregnant was because of premature menopause, she knew they were going to have to use donor eggs to start a family.
But after two unsuccessful rounds of IVF at a clinic in Valencia, “I kind of lost heart,” she says. Another five years passed before they decided to go for surrogacy, having initially ruled out doing it in the US where it was going to cost at least $100,000 at the time.
In the back of your head you are always thinking she is doing it just for the mone
“In a typically Irish way, my sister-in-law bumped into somebody whose sister had just come back from Ukraine and had had twin boys, and she was, ‘Will your sister talk to my brother?’.” The O’Learys went out to the couple’s house to hear about their experiences. “In the car on the way home we said, ‘Yes, let’s do it’.”
Within days they had contacted the Intersono clinic in Lviv. In the Ukraine you not only have to be a married heterosexual couple but also prove you haven’t been able to have children.
Perusing the clinic’s database to choose an egg donor, where there were photos of them as children, Sharon’s first priority was to find one that looked a bit like her. “I would have been blonde when I was younger, blue eyes.” But being only five foot one herself, she also scanned their adult profiles for a taller woman.
The O’Learys went out to Ukraine for the IVF programme in early 2014. Before the transfer of two embryos they had met their surrogate, Albina, twice, which Sharon found “very emotional”. She was 22, with a three-year-old child and a partner she called her husband although they weren’t married.
Did they ask her why she was doing it? “She had a sister who couldn’t have children. In the back of your head you are always thinking she is doing it just for the money,” says Sharon, who reckons she might have got about €10,000. However she believes her sister’s plight was a genuine motivation.
The pregnancy was confirmed in March, and in April they got another email saying: “double congratulations – it’s twins”. The O’Learys were sent regular scans and they also talked to Albina through Skype when she was attending the clinic, which had got them to record nursery rhymes for her to play so that the babies would get use to their voices.
Since it was twins, the couple went out well before the due date. But within days of arriving in Lviv the boys were delivered by Caesarean section on October 30th, 2014, because of concern about Albina’s blood pressure. It was five more days before they saw the boys, as they had to be transferred to another hospital before being discharged.
Albina “came down holding these two bundles that were so swaddled and wrapped up, it was just unbelievable. They handed over the babies to us and we had a hug and probably a little cry.”
They spent five weeks over there after the birth doing the paperwork and having to travel 500km to the Irish Consulate in Kiev. When they did get home, there was no problem registering the boys with the HSE. Francis has established guardianship and the boys have Irish passports; Sharon is yet to apply for guardianship.
As the boys grow, the means of their coming into the world is “irrelevant”, says Sharon – that is not to say they aren’t open about it. And they still send Albina photos and videos.
Meanwhile, Sharon loves being their Mum, “well, 99 per cent of the time and the odd time it’s ‘Where’s that off switch?’,” she jokes.
All three couples will talk at the Families Through Surrogacy conference on Sunday, March 12th in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin. For more information see: familiesthrusurrogacy.com/ireland-consumer-conference-12-mar-2017/