With one in six couples experiencing problems with conception, surrogacy is an option for many yearning to become parents. We meet mothers who give them hope and families who have received the greatest gift of all
NICOLA SWADDLE's fifth child was more carefully planned than any of the others, desired with an intensity few of us could probably understand. For nine months she nurtured her precious cargo. She took fewer risks, got more rest. Every twinge caused her to worry. "It was like I was carrying the crown jewels," she says. "This baby was so precious, so special." In 2006, she gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy by Caesarian section. Then she calmly handed him over to his new parents and went home alone.
Swaddle is one of a tiny number of surrogate mothers in the UK. There are thought to be between just seven and ten at any one time, despite the fact that as many as one in six couples suffers some problem with conceiving. But how did a 36-year-old from Fife come to a place where she was able to give up her baby to a virtual stranger?
Her journey began many years before, when she was watching a documentary about Jill Hawkins, one of Britain's most prolific surrogate mothers. "I remember thinking it was a fantastic thing to do. I could picture myself doing that. But at the time I was busy having my own children."
She filed the information away in her head and got on with life. But over the next few years, she found herself repeatedly drawn to programmes and articles about surrogacy. "I'd watch them with fascination," she says. "I completely admired these women. I was really quite taken by the fact that they could put themselves out and do that for someone else."
In 2000, she had a stillborn baby at 24 weeks, then in 2001 her youngest child was born. "I think the still-birth spurred me on because I really empathised with people who had lost a child," she says. "Now that I'd finished my own family (her 44-year-old husband Derek had a vasectomy – 'he was quite keen to have his wings clipped'] – I started looking into the idea of being a surrogate mother more seriously."
She admits that she enjoys the experience of being pregnant, and "thought it would be nice to help someone else who can't have children", but it wasn't until 2005 that she joined an American internet message board, hoping to find out more about others' experiences. "That was where I met my intended parents," she says. "We hit it off right away."
The couple, also from Scotland, had been trying for a baby for eight years. After two unsuccessful courses of IVF, surrogacy was their last chance at having a family of their own. But the fact that Swaddle liked them was absolutely vital for the arrangement to go ahead. "It's such a huge, intense journey, I couldn't imagine how stressful it would be if you didn't get on. In fact, I wouldn't have agreed to go ahead with it if I didn't like them. It's important that they got on with my husband and my children as well."
Derek was "fantastic", she says, though she admits he was a little concerned to begin with. "The only worry I had was the obvious one," he says. "Are you going to be able to detach yourself from the baby at the end of this? But we talked about it a lot and, having four children already, you wouldn't really want any more.
"I'm quite a laid-back character. I'm not one of these real macho guys. My main concern was that Nicola was going to be okay – if there had ever been any problems and it had been a case of either Nicola or the baby, there would have been no contest. But apart from that, I didn't have any problems with the idea whatsoever.
"The thing with Nicola," he adds, "is that she's a very caring person. For as long as I've known her, she has always been able to take people's problems on board and help them through. In a way, this was almost the ultimate way of helping someone get what they've wanted for a long, long time."
The next person she had to tell was her father, who took a little more convincing. "With him being of an older generation, he had a bit of trouble understanding it," says Swaddle. "But when he realised I was doing it for the right reasons, he was very supportive. That's all you can hope for. You can't expect everyone to agree with you wholeheartedly, but to be supported was important to me."
All her children were fully involved from the outset too – even the youngest, who was four at the time. "I said, 'Mummy's going to be having a baby for this lady because her tummy's broken and she can't have a baby.' They all took it in; they didn't have any trouble accepting it and knew the baby wouldn't be coming home."
She did get some "silly comments" from people, though. "They'd say: 'Oh, I could never give a baby up' and I'd say, 'It's just as well you're not being asked, then.' There is such a huge shortage of surrogates, and I understand it's not for everyone. You have to be immensely strong. But most people don't have any idea about surrogacy. What they do think they know is largely from negative stories in the media."
Undeterred, and with the family on board, she set to work with a home insemination kit. She became pregnant on the third attempt. "It was my egg and the intended father's sperm," she says. "The children are genetically related to me and, obviously, to my children."
Known as 'straight surrogacy', this is the most common arrangement. And while an alternative method (gestational surrogacy) involves using the egg of the intended mother, the sperm of her husband or a donor and the services of an IVF clinic, this is a lot more time-consuming and carries a much smaller chance of success.
As straightforward as the conception was, however, she admits this pregnancy was different from her previous ones. "It is stressful and you are far more cautious carrying someone else's child. I was essentially a pre-natal nanny. My intended parents had waited eight years for this baby."
Still, there was never any question in her mind that, at the end of the nine months, she would hand the child over and walk away. "From the outset, you prepare yourself mentally. And because the intended parents are so involved – they came to all the scans, they were at the birth – and you get so excited for them, in a way you're focusing on them rather than yourself anyway. There was never any chance that I wouldn't hand the baby over. I was always 110% sure.
"And it has been a fantastic thing to do. It was wonderful. To see the parents' faces when that baby was lifted out was amazing. I just knew this was why I'd done it – to see them holding this newborn baby."
Her experience echoes that of other surrogate mothers across the UK. In a 2002 survey, the first of its kind to be carried out in the country, not only were surrogates found to have no problem handing over babies, but the families receiving the child were found to be warmer, happier and more caring than traditional ones.
Vasanti Jadva, who led the research at London's City University, says, "All of the women were happy with the decision reached about when to hand over the baby, and none of them experienced any doubts or difficulties when handing over the baby. One woman said she didn't see it as handing over the child, but as handing back the child."
Swaddle's experience wasn't entirely without problems. "The hormones do kick in, and I wasn't really prepared for it. You go from anticipating the birth and suddenly, boom! It's over. Your milk starts to flow and, two or three weeks afterwards, I was really quite hormonal. I'd nowhere to go but down, after being on such a high. It was a difficult time."
Not that she had much of a chance to wallow on her sofa eating ice-cream and watching re-runs of Friends. She had already agreed to have another child for the same couple and became pregnant almost immediately. But this pregnancy was more complicated. After four Caesarian sections, Swaddle's womb was thinning, and she was taken into hospital early amid concerns for her health.
A daughter was born in 2007 – "This time I had the baby in the room with me, and that was better. I spent time with her and was able to say goodbye" – but Swaddle's obstetrician strongly recommended she undergo sterilisation to prevent further stress to her damaged body. "It has taken its toll and I can't have any more babies now," she says sadly. "But I have no regrets."
And although she is no longer able to carry children, she is hoping to donate her eggs to another childless couple. "Childbirth has always been very important to me, and donating eggs is the next best thing."
As with those questioned in the City University study – which found that most families had kept in touch with the surrogate, 70% seeing her at least once every two months – Swaddle has maintained contact with the children and their family. "We're all really quite close, and my children see the family's two children as their half-siblings.
"I do love them," she says, "but I love them as an aunt would. I'm not their mother. I'm their birth mother, obviously, but their mother is the person who looks after them and brings them up."
She adds, "I think any surrogate who says she doesn't feel anything for her baby is probably lying. Personally, I think it's impossible not to feel anything."
In fact, although Hawkins, the surrogate who inspired her to help childless women in this way, is single and has no children of her own, Swaddle believes anyone considering the option should be a mother already. "On the whole, I wouldn't advise anyone who hasn't been through pregnancy and childbirth – who hadn't had a child themselves – to even consider being a surrogate. You can't possibly know what you're letting yourself in for otherwise."
"It takes a special kind of person," agrees her husband. "I have nothing but total respect and admiration for what Nicola has done because she really has made a difference to someone else's life. Surrogacy gets a bad name but, really, you're just helping someone, and there can't be anything wrong with that, can there?" Although commercial surrogacy is illegal in the UK, surrogates can be paid 'reasonable' expenses, which can range from 7,000 to around 15,000. "I was compensated for anything relating to the surrogacy," says Swaddle. "Clothes, any kind of medication, childcare. My back was killing me and I really needed a new mattress for the bed, so my intended parents paid for that."
Now, though, she is concentrating her energies on changing attitudes towards surrogacy – her newest baby is her website, a support network, message board and information resource for intended parents and surrogates. "There's such a taboo, and it has to change," she says. "There are so many childless couples out there who have given up on ever having a family, and surrogacy could be a very realistic option for them if people were better educated."
For further details, see www.fertility4life.com and www.uksurrogatefamiliesonline.co.uk
Elisabeth Slaven's story
SINCE the age of 18, Elisabeth Slaven, from Inverness, has known she couldn't have children. Now 38, she has a three-year-old daughter called Amy.
"I was born without a womb," she says, "but I always thought I'd adopt. In the end, though, we felt that route wasn't right for us. Nowadays adoption is not about having a child you couldn't have, it's about taking on a child who has problems of its own. You don't get a baby, you get a child with a troubled history. From a slightly selfish point of view, we wanted to do the family thing like everybody else does, and make our own mistakes.
"I found a website where surrogacy was clearly explained, and it looked more realistic than we thought at first it would be."
Tentatively exploring their options over the internet, she and her husband Jim attended a Surrogacy UK get-together. It was there that they met Margaret. "We just got chatting and hit it off right away," says Elisabeth. "No plans were made then, though – we met again and got to know each other before we decided anything. Then, after three months, Margaret said she'd like to help us, using Jim's sperm and one of her eggs. We were elated."
With 150 miles between them, however, trying to get pregnant was as much a physical journey as an emotional one. "There was lots of travelling, and it was really stressful," she says. "Every month we were waiting for the little blue line on the pregnancy test. It was a real rollercoaster. To start with, we'd say, 'Oh, well, it's early days,' but as time wore on we began to think it maybe wasn't going to happen. Financially and emotionally, it was really quite hard for us and the surrogate."
Margaret and Elisabeth talked most evenings over the internet, and after eight months of trying to get pregnant, Margaret finally felt she might have good news. "She said she hadn't tested yet but was feeling positive. She was just a day late. I sat up all night. It was my husband's birthday the next day, and when Margaret phoned and said she'd tested positive, it was the most fantastic birthday present we could have hoped for."
Throughout the pregnancy, she says there was never a moment when she did not consider the baby hers. "From the minute Margaret got pregnant, I felt it was my baby, and she always talked about it as being our baby. Her children knew as well – one of them told her friends that 'Mummy had Liz and Jim's baby inside her tummy'."
Both intended parents attended antenatal appointments and were present at the birth. "That was magical," says Elisabeth. "Normally they would deliver on to the mother's chest, but they delivered Amy on to my chest, and I had skin-to-skin contact with her straight away. Then Jim gave her her first bottle and Margaret had a wee cuddle. I felt a maternal bond immediately. Amy felt totally our child."
Amy now is three and Margaret is referred to as her "tummy mummy". The couple say they are determined to be completely open with their daughter about how she was conceived. "It's important that Amy knows her beginnings," says Elisabeth. "When she starts asking questions, we'll answer them."
As for Margaret, "she feels like family; she has become like a sister. There's no way of explaining how I feel about what she has done; it's absolutely amazing."
How the law stands
ALTHOUGH commercial surrogacy is illegal in the UK, it is permissible to pay a surro-gates expenses. For the arrangement to be above board in the eyes of the law, the intended parents must apply for a parental order. To do so they must be over 18, be married to each other, live in the UK and at least one must be genetically related to the child. But the law states that the surrogate is the legal mother and has sole parental rights over the child unless the father is named on the birth certificate, so if she decides to keep the child she has the right to do so.
In 1986, a custody battle for Baby M took place in the United States between a surrogate mother and the intended parents. In the end, the judge found in favour of the father. The child, Mary Beth Whitehead, later wrote a book called A Mothers Story about the background to the case.
After four miscarriages and three failed attempts at IVF, singer Sinitta turned to surrogacy in 2005. The surrogate miscarried three times but, happily, Sinitta is now the mother of two adopted children.
Tony Barlow and Barrie Drewitt are the first gay British couple to father surrogate children twins Saffron and Aspen.
A baby factory is said to have opened in Poland. Home to 37 young women, who are given a thorough medical and who sign a contract not to smoke or drink during pregnancy, the centre offers surrogate services for 11,000.
Carole Horlock is thought to be Britains most prolific surrogate mother. In March, she gave birth to triplets, bringing her total to 12.
A baby born this month in India could become the first surrogate orphan, after the intended parents divorced and the surrogate mother refused to take custody.
In the current series of Ugly Betty, Wilhelmina decides to have a baby using her dead lover's sperm with Christina as the surrogate mother.
Claire Horners story
IT HAS been a long, sometimes heartbreaking, journey that has brought Claire Horner (right, with her son Jack), a magistrate and part-time practice nurse, to Cyprus, where she is hoping a surrogate will soon become pregnant with her longed-for second child.
Her fertility was destroyed by cancer. I have had breast cancer three times, she says. Because Im a bit older (she doesnt want to give her age, to avoid negative stereotyping], I wasnt getting pregnant through IVF, so we had our little boy Jack, who is now two and a half, through anonymous egg donation. Then, when I was 30 weeks pregnant, my cancer returned.
Once Jack was born, Horner was advised not to become pregnant again, even though her cancer was in remission. So she and her husband looked into using a surrogate to carry their one remaining embryo, frozen following the egg donation. We had a bad experience with our first surrogate, she says. We felt exploited: it seemed to me she had no boundaries shed want to come and stay all the time. I felt emotionally manipulated.
In the end, that attempt failed, which is what brought the couple to Cyprus to try again. I think surrogacy in the UK is very difficult because there are not many clinics that will do it, she says. And although most arrangements here are through straight surrogacy, Horner feels strongly that surrogates should not use their own eggs. The emotional involvement is just too great.
However, it has left a big hole in the couples bank balance: having Jack cost around 10,000, while they will have spent 18,000 by the time their surrogate is 12 weeks pregnant.
The surrogate is on medication just now, our egg donor has been co-ordinating with her, and my husband should be flying out in about two weeks. We should know by the end of September if shes pregnant, and if not she has agreed with us that shes in for the long haul.
The cycle of hope and disappointment has taken its toll emotionally. I have been put on antidepressants, and Im finding it incredibly difficult. A couple of friends have said, Surely if you have one child its not so difficult if you cant have any more, but thats not the case at all. The cruel irony is that the more pleasure you get from parenting, the more distressing secondary infertility is. We just adore being parents, its the most amazing thing.
And to those who ask why she doesnt consider adoption, she says, Were not allowed to adopt. We would have gone for it because I was four years clear of cancer, but I was told it would have to be five years.
Of course, there are no guarantees her cancer wont come back. My husband and I have had the conversation What would happen if I did die? Would you have wanted more children? and he is very much of the opinion, Yes, I would.
Being a surrogate, she says, is the most giving thing a woman can do for another woman, and she is determined to be completely open with her child about how he or she was conceived. I want to be able to say, You were so wanted. I still look at Jack and think, This is amazing, this is a child we might never have had, and he is so precious to us. When you have really had to struggle for something, the joy you feel when you get that thing is just incredible. Any baby we have will be such a blessing.
Morag Rivas story
MORAG RIVA, 47, lives in the Borders and has been a surrogate eight times, once with twins. It was never my intention to do it as often as I did, she says. I really quite liked being pregnant. Id had a very easy time with both my daughters, but didnt want any more kids of my own, so I thought I could be a surrogate.
I talked it over with my husband, who thought I was completely round the bend, but he said, Well, its your body. Then I told my parents, who also thought I was mad.
As for most of the other people in their lives, they simply didnt bother telling them. We tended to find that, although people would look at me and think, Shes pregnant, most of them wouldnt actually say anything. And afterwards, when I was obviously not pregnant any more, very few people would ask because they were frightened something had gone wrong, so basically we just ignored it.
The pregnancy was no hassle at all, and my whole life was geared up to the day after the birth, when I could get back to normal, she says. I was totally detached from it. I really didnt want any more children so I never had a problem handing the baby over.
However, she still keeps in touch with all the children. I had three babies for the first couple I worked with, and we used to meet up several times a year for weekends away together. But as the children have grown up, the demands of life mean we cant do that any more, though we still keep in contact with letters and photos.
And she insists she has never felt the children were hers. Theyve always felt like a friends children. If they ever needed help, I would do it, of course, just as I would for any friends child.
The first three were never actually adopted, meaning she is still legally their mother. The reason for this was that neither of the parents had family, so if anything had happened to them, Id have been the childrens legal guardian, so they would have had somebody. I did have a few sleepless nights wondering, Oh no, what if they all end up on my doorstep? But that was the logical way to go with that one. All the others have been officially adopted.
In 1999 she had what she thought was her final child, then a year later found she was pregnant with her own little boy. I thought, This is still really easy, I can still do this. So two more babies followed, in 2006 and 2007. She is happy now to get on with her life, but her daughter Jenny, 24, says she might carry on the legacy. Although she doesnt intend starting a family of her own until shes 30 and I would never advise anyone to be a surrogate before theyd their own family she has grown up with me being a surrogate. If she found her own pregnancies as easy as mine, she might do it.
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