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Ashburton’s Surrogacy Sisterhood group, back row left to right: Courtney George, Hannah Leslie, Jenna White, Donna Topham. Front row left to right: Clare Harden, Millie Jones, Sonya Dunlea, Maisy Dunlea, Vicky Jones.

There are moments in all our personal lives that we will remember forever. The meeting of a significant partner, a major illness, the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child. For Jenna White from Ashburton, hearing that she had no uterus and only one functioning ovary was one of these moments. At 16 she was diagnosed with a rare condition known as Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome (named after the four doctors who discovered it), which meant although she felt very maternal and was desperate to have a family, she could never birth her own child. So what options are available to women such as Jenna? Is surrogacy thriving in New Zealand today? Does it still hold the difficult moral, social and legal issues that it previously did? Does it still remain controversial?

While it may seem like a relatively new concept, the process of surrogacy goes back many hundreds, or even thousands of years, with the first known case being written about in the Bible with Abraham and his infertile wife Sarah using a surrogate mother. However, it was not until the late 1970s that surrogacy became a viable and more acceptable method for child-bearing.

‘Gestational’ surrogacy is the most common practice in New Zealand today, whereby the fertilisation of an egg and sperm takes place in a laboratory before being placed into the surrogate mother’s uterus. ‘Traditional’ surrogacy, by comparison, happens when the surrogate mother’s egg is used and the father’s sperm is injected into the surrogate’s uterus.

New Zealand is in somewhat of an antiquated position in terms of the legal stance on surrogacy. The Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act 2004 makes provision for surrogacy but it states it is purely to be carried out on an altruistic basis (the Act specifically criminalises ‘commercial’ surrogacy, meaning surrogates are paid for their carrying of the child), and even when the intended mother and father have supplied their own healthy egg and sperm, the Act states that the child is not legally theirs if the mother has not physically birthed the child herself. Gestational surrogacies need the approval of the Ethics Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ECART), a division of the Ministry of Health. Traditional surrogacies are completely private but parents will still need to complete an adoption order. As if finding a surrogate was not hard enough, the intending parents then have to begin a legal process to adopt their own child. As with all adoptions this involves being approved as suitable adoptive parents, meeting with social workers, providing references, police checks and various other such information.

This is exactly the process that Sonya Dunlea of Ashburton had to endure. After she and her husband Matt had found a surrogate, they had to jump through the legal hoops to pass the ECART criteria. For Sonya, her journey prior to considering surrogacy consisted of multiple miscarriages, countless specialist tests and in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatments alongside several operations, all of which failed to result in a full-term pregnancy. The reasons for this, says Sonya, are still unknown. Surrogacy was her last resort. So why do women volunteer to become a surrogate? What drives them to act in such an altruistic and selfless way that not only takes its physical toll on their bodies, but also can be emotionally extremely challenging? This is the question I asked Clare Harden, who was surrogate to Sonya and Matt’s baby, Maisy. After witnessing Sonya miscarry, Clare, from Staveley, who is a friend of Sonya’s through their work at the CanInspire Charitable Trust, first started considering it as an option. Having already had two children of her own with problem-free pregnancies and quick and relatively easy births, Clare talked to husband Brad, who was very supportive, and then started the conversations with Sonya and Matt. ‘You know what,’ Clare tells me in a very matter-of-fact tone, ‘it’s nine months of my life. It can’t be that hard and the gift I’m giving them [Sonya and Matt] is life-lasting.’ And so the process began. There was one year of compulsory counselling, medical checks, and legal paperwork before the real work of carrying and growing an unborn child could commence. ‘I admit the morning sickness was bad,’ explains Clare. What she doesn’t explain, but I later found out from Sonya, is the huge personal sacrifice that she endured: being hospitalised with severe morning sickness, losing 10 kg in the process, and birthing a baby that was not biologically hers. When quizzed about this enormous act of kindness, Clare responds philosophically. ‘You drive in your car every day. To me, that’s a bigger risk than what I did for Sonya and Matt. Yes, it was a tough seven weeks with the morning sickness, but the benefit [for them] far outweighs the risk [to me].’ And so in April 2017, beautiful baby Maisy was born.

Clare felt no maternal urges after the birth of Maisy and would happily do it again if it weren’t for the morning sickness. ‘I don’t think I’d medically be allowed to do it again. But it was also thanks to my incredibly supportive husband that we could keep our family going through those tough weeks. I would certainly encourage others to consider being a surrogate.’

The criteria for being a surrogate as set down by ECART are strict. Understandably, the committee needs to be sure that the surrogacy arrangement is in the best interests of the child. The carrying mother must have ideally completed her own family, the surrogate’s partner must be fully on board with the decision and be committed to participating in counselling. Ōranga Tamariki, Ministry for Children, is very clear on its website around the lack of rights for the intending parents, stating ‘You will not have any legal parental rights unless you adopt the child [through the New Zealand Family Court]. To be a legal parent, the [surrogate’s] partner must have consented to the surrogacy arrangement.’

Jenna and husband Alastair are still on this rollercoaster journey. And they’ve been close. After finding a surrogate in New Plymouth in March 2017 it took them a further nine months to get approval from ECART. They started the IVF process as soon as the box had been ticked, only to be stalled at the next hurdle when sadly their surrogate developed a complication of a pre-existing endometriosis, resulting in an emergency operation to have a full hysterectomy and all hopes of being a surrogate for Jenna and Alastair gone. I asked Jenna how she copes with the waiting and the uncertainty of the whole situation. ‘I just do what’s within my control. Sonya and I have set up a coffee group, Surrogacy Sisterhood, as a support group for people in my situation and I want to raise people’s awareness of surrogacy and try to normalise it as much as possible,’ she explains. In a small town like Ashburton it is heartening to see the now seven members come together to share their stages of the journey. Jenna’s hopes now lie in being more open with her story and trusting that the right woman will come along to support them in their journey.

Facebook groups have come and gone. And we have seen a handful of high profile cases such as that of Auckland gay couple Mark Edwards and Christian Newman, who posted under ‘Baby Daddies looking for Kiwi Surrogate’ in early 2016 and successfully found a surrogate who birthed their son Francis in June 2018. The rules changed to allow gay couples and single men to use IVF surrogacy in December 2013 when formerly only women with reproductive difficulty were allowed to use the technology.

Broadcaster Toni Street has also been on the case to update adoption laws after she revealed her difficulties in adopting her biological son, born via a surrogate. She was lucky enough to have the affirmation of the prime minister when Jacinda Ardern stated on Instagram that ‘The adoption act is well over 50 years old and definitely needs fixing. It’s on our work programme!’ Certainly positive news for all those seeking to get their names as intending parents on the birth certificate of the child from the day the child is born.

For Jenna and Alastair they courageously decided to continue with their IVF process after one failed attempt and in March 2018 Jenna had seven eggs collected, three of which were successfully fertilised with Alastair’s sperm and made it to the crucial five-day ‘blastocysts’ stage. These remain on ice at a fertility clinic in Christchurch.

I spoke with one such clinic, Genea Oxford Fertility. Tanya Harris, Embryologist and Laboratory Director says they see only a few surrogacy cases each year and suggests there are probably only around 10 cycles per year in New Zealand. The majority of her workload is predominantly IVF treatments and procedures. So although it’s a relatively rare course of action, Tanya sees the current legal situation of being vetted to adopt your own child as ‘utterly demoralising’ and is supportive of intending parents and surrogates. From the clinic’s point of view, the pressure is taken off them to a large extent, due to the stringent criteria of the Ethics Committee. ‘Decision-making is made above our heads, we are simply carrying out medical wishes once they have been approved by the powers that be. Our focus is on providing medical and emotional support throughout the whole process.’

So it appears the moral and psychological issues are still very present. As they need to be, considering the complexity of relationships and emotions involved.

Fertility New Zealand is a not-for-profit organisation which aims to support, advocate and educate those who face these infertility challenges. On their website they provide over 20 downloadable leaflets on subjects such as IVF, polycystic ovary syndrome, natural fertility and miscarriage, but none on surrogacy. NZ-Surrogacy.com claims to have 138 members and seeks to provide online support to New Zealanders interested in surrogacy. Amanda MacLeod, a representative of NZ-Surrogacy.com told me her support group supported six surrogate pregnancies in the last 12 months.

So although it appears that surrogacy arrangements in New Zealand are still relatively rare, one thing is for sure: those that enter into a surrogacy arrangement do so with great courage and faith, and it’s thanks to some incredibly selfless and devoted women that couples can reach their goal of having a family.

A moment to remember, but a gift that lasts a lifetime.

[ WORDS Kathy Catton, IMAGES Ange Cushnie ]