Their Pea, Her Pod: Surrogate Parenting in Portsmouth

Local mother and writer Sue Roome investigates the issue of surrogacy in light of recent reforms that allow surrogate parents to take adoption leave and pay for up to 52 weeks, providing they obtain a Parental Order under the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Act 2008.

Whenever mothers gather, at some point the conversation will turn to childbirth. Whether these stories are told for the purpose of advice, entertainment or caution, I’m not sure. Personally, I just like to rub it in as to how easy the whole thing is, having given birth twice – to a 10lb 3oz boy and a 9lb 13oz girl. They were both born in the morning and home by teatime.

At one such gathering a friend explained that she didn’t feel like a “proper mother” due to having had two caesarean sections. In both cases, the medical staff decided this was the best option due to complications with the birth. She felt that she had failed in some way as she hadn’t given birth “properly”. I couldn’t believe that, in this modern age, there are still these antiquated views of motherhood – and surrogacy.

There are two methods of surrogacy, what are termed traditional and host. In the traditional method, the surrogate mother uses an insemination kit to become pregnant using the intended father’s semen. The baby is therefore conceived using the surrogate’s egg. Host surrogacy is when IVF is used, either with the eggs of the intended mother, or with donor eggs.

Surrogacy is not illegal in the UK, although it is illegal to pay a woman to have your child. The law states that a surrogate mother can request ‘reasonable compensation’ for the time she is pregnant yet offers no parameters as to what is considered reasonable. With celebrities such as Sir Elton John, Michael Jackson, Sarah Jessica Parker and Nicole Kidman all using surrogates there is an assumption that you need to have a large bank account to cover these “reasonable” costs.

I spoke with a Portsmouth couple currently going through the surrogacy process. Jenny and David are both in their early forties and have been trying for a child for the last ten years. They both work in the service industry and are well below the income bracket of Michael Jackson, Sarah Jessica Parker and Nicole Kidman. Jenny and David have tried various methods to conceive including several rounds of IVF.

When we discussed the cost of surrogacy Jenny commented, ‘It can cost anything from zero to £15,000. Although I know some less favourable do ask for more. Only the surrogate can decide what expenses they need, and then you decide if you can afford to pay them’.

This uncertainty around cost could lead to the desperate paying a higher rate to become parents.

Why the need to have a child with your DNA? Surely we are past the times of requiring an “heir and a spare” to continue our bloodline. Why not just adopt?

Jenny and David, like many aspiring parents feel, ‘adoption and fostering were never going to fill the baby void’. They will however look to adoption should they want more children in the future.

The main problem in Jenny and David’s surrogacy experience was statutory maternity leave. Under the law, a surrogate mother is entitled to the full fifty-two weeks offered by the government. Should you choose to adopt you also receive fifty-two weeks. However, Jenny was entitled to no maternity leave whatsoever because she did not personally give birth to her son. Even David, as the father of a surrogate baby, was allowed to take two weeks’ paid leave.

A parent like Jenny, who has worked and paid taxes all her adult life, was deprived of the same rights as, for example, a parent who may have lived her whole life on benefits and then decides to adopt or give birth to a surrogate child.

The long-awaited changes mentioned above will go some way to making the system fairer.

The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has called on businesses to embrace the new law. ‘It’s bizarre,’ he said, ‘that in the twenty-first century, employees are still restricted by Edwardian rules when it comes to juggling their work and family lives.’

So why the need for such a long period of leave? We all know childbirth as being physically and emotionally demanding, but do people really need up to a year off work? Numerous psychologists have found that the early months are crucial to the development of bonds between children and parents – especially the mother.

Dr Susan Golombok of the University of Cambridge argues there is, ‘greater parental psychological well-being and greater adaptation to parenthood by mothers and fathers of children born through surrogacy than by the natural conception parents.’ Although Dr Golombok reported no difference in cognitive or psychological development between a surrogate and non-surrogate child, surrogate parents tended to have more, ‘positive parent-child relationships’ and demonstrated ‘higher levels of joy and competence, and lower levels of anger and guilt when compared to mothers with a naturally conceived child.’

Diane, a Portsmouth midwife, explains further: ‘For a healthy and happy child to grow and develop there needs to be a solid foundation. This is created in the first few months of a child’s life. The bond between parent and child is the foundation all other relationships are built on.’

What motivates a woman to become a surrogate? Pregnancy is not plain sailing, after all. The backache, swollen ankles, indigestion and sleepless nights are just a few common ailments. So why undergo all this hassle for someone else? A surrogate mother from Wales explains: ‘I do not have the brains or ability to do something like doctor or nurse or any job to change people’s lives for the better. But I can get pregnant and carry a child for someone and create that ripple. I have made two people parents, four people grandparents, countless aunts and uncles. I helped change those people’s lives for the better and I am very proud of what I have done’.

When asked if it was hard to give up a child she had carried for nine months and cared for all that time, her response was, ‘when I look after my friend’s daughter it is with the same love and care I have for my own children. But she isn’t mine and never was.’

Given her positive attitude to surrogacy, why does our society generally take a negative view? Diane argues, ‘for hundreds of years women have been judged on their worth solely based on whether they can procreate or not; it’s unfair. It is difficult to change that level of ingrained thinking.’ She goes on to say, ‘women who cannot give birth are seen as worthless, and anyone who is willing to give up a child is ostracised. Just because you can’t do one part of the parenting process doesn’t mean you cannot offer a loving, safe, healthy environment for a child.’

The media must also take some responsibility for the way surrogacy is portrayed. TV personality Robert Kilroy-Silk questioned the morals of Kim Cotton, Britain’s first surrogate mother, back in 1985. He called her a ‘baby making machine’ and asserted that she was only doing it for the ‘easy money.’ The media continues to sensationalise the rare cases in which the surrogate mother decided to keep the child, which only feeds the bad feelings towards surrogacy.

We respect a woman’s right to choose not to be pregnant. Why can’t we respect a woman’s choice about her method of pregnancy? In the end, a wanted child will be loved and cared for no matter the circumstances of its birth.


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Photography by Sarah Cheverton.