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Monday, November 24, 2014

The potential minefield of gay parenthood

Gay parenthood can be joyful – or go disastrously wrong, as two recent news stories have shown. What are the dangers of surrogacy and co-parenting?

Two news stories in the past month have shown very different outcomes of gay parenting.

Last week, Daryl Lee and Luke Harris, from Surrey, told a newspaper that they were expecting three children by three different surrogate mothers in the space of just a few months. After meeting in 1999 and years of planning to have children, Lee, 41, said: “While it is unorthodox to have three surrogates at the same time, we couldn’t turn down what could be our only chance to have the big family we’d always dreamed of.”

The couple, who initially planned to adopt but started to research surrogacy after reading this was how Elton John had his son, are already extending their home to accommodate the new arrivals.
Lee’s parents are set to move in to help with childcare, both men are planning to work part time, and all three surrogate mothers say they are happy with the arrangement.

On the other hand, a court report from the start of November showed a gay couple in a bitter custody battle after entering into a co-parenting arrangement with lesbian friends.

The two couples had one child around 13 years ago and another a few years later, but fell out soon after – leading to a “bruising and distressing” rift which had “irredeemably harmed” the two children, according to the judge presiding over the case.

“The case illustrates all too clearly the immense difficulties which can be unleashed when families are created by known-donor fertilisation,” Mr Justice Cobb said, before ruling that the children should stay living with their mothers.

The two stories illustrate the advice that those who work in surrogacy and co-parenting support will always give potential gay parents: to know and trust the people they are getting involved with – and to have discussed every aspect of childrearing – long before conception.

“With surrogacy, you can’t have a contract that legally obliges the surrogate mother to give up the baby,” says Sarah Jones, chair of the support organisation Surrogacy UK. “That’s why there has to be a really strong friendship and a strong bond, so you can all trust each other.”

The surrogate mother has legal rights over the child from conception until six weeks after birth, at which point the couple can apply for a “parental order”, under which they both become the baby’s legal guardian.

In the UK it is illegal to actively advertise for surrogate mothers or pay them any more than expenses during pregnancy – though groups like Surrogacy UK can help introduce women hoping to be surrogate mothers to gay couples, or straight couples with fertility issues.

The group insists that all couples have a “getting to know you” period of at least three months with potential surrogate mothers before attempting conception, whether through host surrogacy – in which the egg is taken from a separate donor – or straight surrogacy, in which the egg used is the surrogate’s own.

“I’ve seen times when people have gone down the surrogacy route independently [of a support group] and things haven’t gone to plan,” says Jones. “You can meet someone and get on really well, but it’s sort of a honeymoon phase. By the time you realise you don’t actually get on that well, the surrogate might already be pregnant.
“I know of one time when the surrogate ended up keeping the baby. She had fallen out with the intended parents and felt more bonded with the baby, whereas in a surrogacy arrangement you should feel more bonded with the couple. If you decide you don’t like the couple, those maternal instincts are more likely to kick in. But in 12 years of following this it’s the only time I can think of that happening.”

The 37-year-old, who has three children of her own and has been a surrogate for three more – the first two being raised by heterosexual couples and the third by same-sex partners – says that helping gay men begin a family can be “a very joyous thing.”

She explains: “They haven’t had all the negative things that a straight couple will have had. They haven’t suffered miscarriages or still births; once they’ve decided they want a genetic child this is one of the only ways to go. It’s a much happier, more positive experience.”

Alan Coates, a London-based concert promoter who along with his same-sex partner is currently searching for a surrogate, echoes the importance of getting to know a potential surrogate properly before conception.

“You have to make sure you’re on exactly the same page,” says the 44-year-old, who is half of one of 240 couples hoping to find a surrogate mother through Surrogacy UK – though the organisation only has around 90 of them registered. In 2010, just 83 surrogate births took place in the country, though the number is expected to rise to 200 for this year. It is thought that thousands more pursue surrogacy abroad, but no official figures exist for this.

“It can be something as mundane as ‘Would you mind eating only organic good during the pregnancy?’ or ‘Do you plan on drinking during the pregnancy?’ which we would both be cool with, but others wouldn’t. But you also have to talk about those awful scenarios: what you would do if there are problems during pregnancy?”

Coates - who estimates the whole process will cost around £25,000, from fertility clinic to mother’s expenses - adds that he has received only positive reactions from friends and colleagues and says he feels confident that he and his partner will eventually “get the call” from a surrogate match.

One who went into it with a little less planning is Tim*, who was working in the media when he started researching co-parenting online five years ago. “I was about 26 and I was doing it for a number of different reasons,” he says. “It was partly that messiah moment, that I could give the gift of life, and partly that I’m quite a caring person, sensitive to the plight of others, and I wanted to help out a couple and help raise a child.

“I found a lesbian couple that were looking for sperm donors. I went in with the idea that I would want to be fully involved as a dad, but they didn’t see it that way. It wasn’t explored in the way that it should have been.”

Tim expected it would take the intended mother several months to get pregnant with his donated sperm, but in fact she conceived on the first attempt.

“I had this romantic idea that I would support them all the way through the pregnancy, but actually they moved from London to the north of England before the baby was born. They hadn’t told me anything about it because they didn’t realise I would want to be so involved.

“I was there for scans and there for the birth, but for the first two or three years after the birth of my son, contact was very difficult. There was a lot we didn’t discuss; being a co-parent is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Tim, who now has regular visits with his five-year-old son, says he wishes he and the lesbian couple had planned how they would raise a child more, but adds that starting a family is rarely straightforward.
“Everyone has different approaches to raising kids,” he says. “People pay more attention to gay parents and co-parents because it’s unusual, but there’s no such thing as a ‘normal family’.”


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