There can surely be no greater gift than the gift of life, a precious donation nurtured and then handed over by hundreds of surrogate mothers in the UK every year.
The unselfish generosity of surrogates, who under UK law can only be paid expenses, has created many families that could otherwise never have existed.
However, their valuable gift is far from a simple donation, and now the surrogates and intended parents’ organisation Surrogacy UK has published a report calling for legal reform on UK surrogacy, and dispelling myths about the practice, including beliefs that some surrogates want to keep the baby after birth.
Surrogacy UK trustee Natalie Smith, 34, herself a mum to twin girls born to a surrogate, says: “Surrogates aren’t doing this to have children - they never see them as their children, they’re merely babysitting them.
“At the moment, people feel really proud about surrogacy, but the law makes them feel ashamed and that’s just not right.”
She explains that problems with the law include the intended parents not being able to apply for legal responsibility for their own child until after the surrogate’s given birth, and single people not being allowed to apply for that responsibility at all.
It’s unclear how many surrogacy arrangements are made in the UK every year, although there are plenty of well-publicised surrogate births abroad, including Sarah Jessica Parker’s twins, one of Caprice Bourret’s two sons, and Elton John’s two sons.
While surrogate births are usually far more discreet on this side of the pond, most estimates suggest that the number of such births has been increasing in recent years. Perhaps the most accurate figures come from the number of applications for parental orders, which give legal responsibility for the child born to a surrogate mother to its intended parents.
In 2013, a total of 205 parental orders were registered in the UK, of which 130 were for children born in the UK and 75 for babies born abroad, where surrogates can often charge a hefty fee. The number of British people arranging surrogacy abroad is far smaller than was thought, stresses Surrogacy UK.
While surrogacy isn’t commercial in this country, UK surrogacy law needs reforming urgently, says Surrogacy UK.
Smith points out that the Surrogacy UK report found 75% of surrogates and intended parents want to remove the legal uncertainty over parenthood at birth, and says: “It’s so clear that the current law is at odds with what’s in the best interests and welfare of the children, and it creates a huge amount of anxiety and stress.
“It doesn’t recognise the right of people as parents, it doesn’t give any certainty, and a lot of people are excluded. We want positive change that will make surrogacy fairer, more accessible and easier.”
People turn to surrogacy because they can’t have children naturally themselves, perhaps because of a medical condition, as a result of cancer treatment, or because they’re gay. Sometimes friends or family volunteer to carry a baby for them, or intended parents may find a surrogate through an organisation like Surrogacy UK.
Smith was unable to carry a baby because she has a condition called MRKH, which means she was born without a womb . Her twins were born to surrogate Jenny French, who she and her husband Jonathan met through Surrogacy UK and became firm friends with.
French had two of the Smith’s embryos transferred to her womb, and the twins were born by caesarian section nearly five years ago.
“When the babies were born, I was the first one to give them a cuddle,” says Smith.
“Jenny was lying right next to me and she saw that moment that I became a mum, and that was everything she was looking for, and what she wanted to achieve in her life.”
But the twins didn’t become the Smiths’ legal responsibility for well over a year.
“Parental orders can take a long time - we were caring for our own biological children for 15 months before we had any legal rights over them, which is wrong,” says Smith.
“There’s a huge amount of risk for everyone involved, but we had a very strong relationship with our surrogate, which is how we mitigated that risk.”
In the UK, surrogates can only be paid expenses for carrying a child for someone else, and the Surrogacy UK report shows widespread rejection of any move towards commercialisation of the process. The organisation stresses that the overwhelming majority of surrogacy in the UK is altruistic, with most UK surrogates receiving less than £15,000 for expenses. These might include travel costs to antenatal appointments, maternity clothes and childcare costs for a surrogate’s own children while attending appointments.
Another perceived risk with surrogacy is that the surrogate mother wants to keep the baby after it’s born. But that just doesn’t happen, stresses Smith.
Indeed, Surrogacy UK’s report found that 69% of surrogates are opposed to being able to change their mind about giving a baby back to its intended parents, and only 5% believe that a surrogate should be able to change her mind at any point.
Smith says: “We’ve never had a case at Surrogacy UK where the surrogate hasn’t handed the baby back. It’s extremely rare.
“The pregnancy and the birth doesn’t make the surrogate the mother.”
• Surrogacy UK are urging people to write to their MP to ask for legal reform. For more information, visit www.surrogacyuk.org