Fertility professionals and advocacy groups say surrogacy is experiencing a quiet boom in Australia, even after several Asian countries banned foreigners from paying women to carry babies for them.
Whilst there have been no prosecutions under Australian surrogacy laws in the last 10 years, it’s clear they are still being flouted and the reasons are complex and raise deep ethical questions for all parties.
Seated on a sofa in the lounge room of their humble adobe in Seaholme, WAH recently met with same-sex couple Andre Ling and Cameron Sutherland, dubbed the ‘Hobsons Bay Double Dads’, to discuss their journey to fatherhood.
It was a 40-degree Valentine’s Day when Ling (40) and Sutherland (43) met in January 2014, though witnessing them finish each other’s sentences throughout the interview, we could comfortably say that they could have been together a lifetime.
By November 2014, the Double Dads were living together in Geelong and in September of 2017, they moved to Seaholme.
“We wanted to buy in Williamstown, but we want a house and we hadn’t found anything that we liked, somewhere with a big backyard, so we thought we would start living in Seaholme.” said Ling.
“Seaholme is quaint, quiet and very friendly. We have very friendly neighbours and it’s a really nice area,” added Sutherland.
Having children was one of those things that the couple discussed early on in their relationship, but the legalities and logistics of how to achieve their dream of fatherhood was also something that played on their minds from the outset, until they decided to actively talk about it and start researching in early 2016.
“Back then the world of surrogacy was very different from now. Much less rules, much less red tape, much less media coverage. Even same-sex couples could do it in Thailand and India, but through the years they cut down because of the negativity that came out of media coverage,” said Ling.
“The media would report more on the negatives than the positives most of the time and people started to concentrate on that, so the laws began to tighten. But it never stopped the surrogacy process, in fact it’s available in a lot more other countries now.
“Surrogacy has always been big in the US and so their laws have always been strong and very pro surrogacy and they are very commercial. The surrogates and egg donors receive financial compensation. There are other countries that do surrogacy, but not many support same-sex couples.
“In Canada, their laws are strong but still not as strong and firm as the US. The difference between the US and Canada is that surrogacy in Canada is altruistic, which means that the surrogates do not get any financial compensation. The same goes with the egg donors as well. Whatever they do comes from their own goodwill and their own heart. Whereas in the US, they get paid for everything. For the rental of the womb they could get paid around US$50,000 for the entire pregnancy. We felt that the Canadians, being the provider of altruistic surrogacy, have more of a bigger heart, and we will be 100% sure that the surrogates and egg donors are doing it because they truly want us to have a family.”
So with Canada chosen as the birth country, the Double Dads needed to find an IVF clinic, egg donor agency and surrogate agency to work with.
“We did our first consultations with about 5 or 6 agencies then we had to decide on what we heard, what we saw and what they presented to us. (name removed) made us feel the most comfortable. They also have a sister company (name removed) and as a male same-sex couple we obviously needed the eggs as well so we wanted to go with someone that would give us access to both,” said Ling.
“Our process has happened relatively quickly because when we were speaking to all these agencies they pre-warned us that our journey to get a surrogate is a 12-18 month process. There is a shortage of them. It’s not like the US model because being altruistic, they’ve got to want to do it and express interest to the agencies,” said Ling.
“Ultimately in November 2016 we selected our agency that we were going to work with and they told us it would be about 12-18 months before we would have a surrogate, but then a week before Christmas we were matched with a surrogate and also an egg donor of our choice.”
“Finding an egg donor can be easy and difficult. If somebody is there on the database that you like at the same time, you can get matched very easily and very quickly. They are either anonymous or known egg donors. There are egg donors that don’t meet your conditions or what you are looking for in terms of features and background (race, religion, culture, general appearance, etc.) said Ling.
“The whole egg donor searching makes us feel slightly superficial. As we look into the egg donor database we are presented with their photos first before we click through for more details, so it’s quite interesting,” he said.
“Egg donor goes through medication to stimulate ovaries to harvest more eggs. Eggs are retrieved to create embryos. You could have 13-20 eggs retrieved which is a great number, but you could only end up with 8 good quality eggs. Then you get to fertilisation and it can drop again to result to only 3 good quality embryos. If the transferred embryo does not stick to the uterus the transfer is deemed unsuccessful, you have to wait and then try with another good quality embryo. If you run out of eggs all together you have start the egg retrieval process again and that is when you will have to think about whether you want to use the same egg donor or look for another one. Though it may not be the problem with the embryos, it could be the surrogate,” added Ling.
It became a waiting game for the Double Dads. They were advised to have their semen deposits with their selected IVF clinic in Canada to prepare for egg fertilisation when eggs are eventually retrieved.
“We made our semen deposits in June 2017. It’s not a particularly glamorous process. We could have flown to Canada to deposit there, although we chose the option of doing it here and having it shipped. Let’s just say that in itself is not a cheap process,” added Sutherland.
“The local IVF clinic doesn’t want to know why we’re doing it. We would say ‘we’d like to book in for this and we would like to arrange for the deposits to be shipped to Canada’ and they say ‘please don’t tell us why you’re doing it, but we’ll happily do what you need to do’ which is kind of sad when you look at it like that.”
With the safe arrival of their specimens at the IVF clinic in Canada, Ling and Sutherland started waiting for the matched egg donor to be medically cleared so her medications could begin.
For Ling and Sutherland, it all seemed too good to be true, which proved correct in August, when the Double Dads posted an update on Instagram, announcing that their egg donor had fallen through.
“It was a bad couple of days in August. We got the egg donor and the she was a university student. They had to go through the initial medical screening, which she’d done, then there was a delay when she was completing exams, then the agency couldn’t get onto her and it turns out her boyfriend had taken on a surprise trip to Cuba and that caused complications because Cuba is a Zika virus country so when she came back she had to go into a six-week quarantine period before she could be retested. We waited out the quarantine period which ended in August, that was when she got cold feet and dropped us,” said Sutherland.
The disappointing news of losing their egg donor saw their surrogacy journey come to a screeching halt when they had to make the decision not to proceed with their surrogate.
“After a couple of days of dealing with the loss of the egg donor we decided to let the surrogate know about it and she started to become very angry about it and it got a little bit out of hand. We don’t want to disclose further details about her background and how she handled the situation, but all we can say is that it was a stressful period,” said Ling.
“Our surrogate took a very long time to get medically cleared and her profile that was sent to us initially was pretty basic. Throughout the 8-9 months when we were matched with her, we were discovering more about her. She was a bit like an onion. More layers got peeled away as we got to know her better and there were a few things that we were not comfortable with. We knew we had to let her go, even though we still know she is a wonderful person who wanted to help us in our journey,” added Sutherland.
“When you have a surrogate it’s a bit like a new relationship. We are constantly talking with her and getting to know her over that entire journey. It’s like long distance dating and when we were overseas we would always send her photos and say where we were and we would chat away. We would probably talk almost every single day.”
“A surrogate will always be in your life because of that special relationship and we have to be really comfortable and really open with the surrogate,” added Ling.
Their journey to fatherhood was back to the beginning, but the Double Dads were not going to give up easily, with Sutherland admitting that first attempts armed them with a lot more knowledge to continue on their journey.
“It’s been a very good learning curve for us to date, that we probably rushed in some respects, we were very keen ‘we must take this one’. I think if anything especially when it comes to the surrogate, we want to be very sure, because they say things happen for reasons. I think there could be some merit in this case,” he said.
“We know what we want now and how we go about doing it. Now is like a second chance, but it’s been quite tiring,” added Ling.
There are no surrogacy agencies in Australia so seeking out a surrogate locally might seem daunting for those looking at surrogacy locally. The support networks that the Australian surrogacy community currently have appearing like the only avenue to draw the different parties together.
“In each state, there is a little group that meets. There is one in Victoria that we have attended and met a few wonderful people at, but most of them are doing them in Australia where the rules are different and the process is different. It is also altruistic surrogacy in Australia too. The way surrogacy process goes is the same, but just the way you go about it is different. It’s a good mix of same-sex and heterosexual couples at these groups,” added Ling
“You can meet potential surrogates, egg donors and other people who are also looking to start a family through surrogacy. We get to have a chat with them and find out more about where in their journeys they are at, and also what experiences that may have to share. Of course we do share our experiences as Intended Parents having our journey overseas. At the end of the day, we all have the same goal,” said Sutherland.
“I am very pro educating people on the surrogacy process. It makes me feel so much closer to it and I just want to tell people and advise them if they are stuck or if they don’t really know what to do. As Intended Parents we are always grateful for any assistance we can get and we are always going to look at surrogates and egg donors as beautiful, selfless and generous women who are opening themselves to embark on the journey with us to help us achieve our dreams of having a family,” said Ling.
WAH certainly learned a lot more about surrogacy in our conversation with Andre Ling and Cameron Sutherland, with the Hobsons Bay Double Dads revealing more about a rigorously regulated reality that both same-sex couples and heterosexual couples face in Australia today.
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