THE GIFT OF A CHILD

When you are des­per­ate for a baby but your body won’t co-op­er­ate, seek a sur­ro­gate mother. Nicky Pel­le­grino dis­cov­ers the re­al­ity is not as easy as it sounds.

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS - MIS­SION TO MOTH­ER­HOOD, BY AMIRA MIKHAIL (CAL­ICO PUB­LISH­ING, $40).

When you are des­per­ate for a baby but your body won’t co-op­er­ate, seek a sur­ro­gate mother. Nicky Pel­le­grino dis­cov­ers the re­al­ity is not as easy as it sounds.

Some­times when Amira Mikhail is caught up in the chaos of every­day life, get­ting her two young sons ready and out the door, she has to pause and re­mind her­self what it took to be where she is to­day. For while Mikhail al­ways longed to have a fam­ily, her body was never on-board with the plan. Be­com­ing a mother has in­volved years of med­i­cal pro­ce­dures, set­backs and heartache and, through it all, she held on to her dream, fiercely de­ter­mined to see it re­alised.

“Hon­estly I didn’t have a plan B,” ad­mits the Christchurch vet. “I just could not imag­ine not hav­ing kids. There was nowhere in my mind where I grew old and had no chil­dren.”

The prob­lem? Mikhail’s uterus was a dis­as­ter zone — fi­broids, ovar­ian cysts, painful en­dometrio­sis. She needed med­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion sim­ply to lead a nor­mal life, so a suc­cess­ful preg­nancy was al­ways go­ing to be a chal­lenge. She gave it her very best shot.

“I’ve al­ways been a re­ally de­ter­mined per­son,” she ex­plains. “My par­ents brought me up to be­lieve I could do what­ever I wanted so long as I put some ef­fort into it and if I failed the first time, then I should try again.”

Born in Canada, Mikhail has called New Zealand home since grad­u­at­ing from vet­eri­nary school in 2006 and com­ing here to take up an internship. She was in her early 30s when

I was so des­per­ate to get to the fin­ish line that I put blin­ders on. I thought I could han­dle any­thing that was com­ing so long as there was a baby. Amira Mikhail

doc­tors ad­vised her to hurry up and get preg­nant, oth­er­wise it would never hap­pen. So be­gan her at­tempts to con­ceive, first nat­u­rally, then when that didn’t work, with the help of IVF. By the time she reached the top of the wait­ing list for funded treat­ment, her re­la­tion­ship had fallen apart. Know­ing it was now or never, Mikhail car­ried on with donor sperm.

In her book, Mis­sion To Moth­er­hood, she de­scribes the roller coaster of hope and de­spair as she went through seven rounds of fer­til­ity treat­ment, the joy of fi­nally con­ceiv­ing a baby, fol­lowed by the heart­break of los­ing her longed-for daugh­ter Vi­enna to mis­car­riage when she was 12 weeks preg­nant.

“That was the hard­est mo­ment of my jour­ney, the tough­est part of my life so far,” says Mikhail. “Af­ter all the years of try­ing, it fi­nally felt like it was hap­pen­ing and then it was ripped away from me in a mo­ment.”

It doesn’t mat­ter how far along a preg­nancy is, she points out. In your head you have al­ready pic­tured your baby and planned a life with it. To lose all that and be left with noth­ing is dev­as­tat­ing. For Mikhail the de­spair was com­pounded by the re­al­i­sa­tion she was never go­ing to be able to bear her own chil­dren. A spe­cial­ist had told her the best op­tion was to look into hav­ing a baby us­ing a sur­ro­gate.

“I’d never heard of any­one in New Zealand do­ing surrogacy,” she says. “I didn’t know where to start.”

Now, when her 4-year-old son Kairo asks where he and his younger brother Toren came from, Mikhail tells him that Mummy’s tummy was bro­ken so they both had to be in some­one else’s tummy to be born. Per­haps when he gets older she will share the full story of how hard the jour­ney was, with ob­sta­cles ev­ery step of the way.

IN NEW Zealand com­mer­cial surrogacy isn’t per­mit­ted, although Mikhail reck­ons pay­ments do hap­pen un­der the ta­ble. Those that are ar­ranged by a fer­til­ity clinic have to be ap­proved by ECART (Ethics Com­mit­tee on As­sisted Re­pro­duc­tive Tech­nol­ogy) and the sur­ro­gate and in­tended par­ents must have a his­tor­i­cal re­la­tion­ship — like broad­caster Toni Street whose best friend, So­phie Brag­gins, car­ried her new baby son, Lachie.

How­ever, Mikhail didn’t have any fam­ily in this coun­try and her close friends were still busy hav­ing their own fam­i­lies. “I had zero op­tions as far as I could see.”

So when, fol­low­ing her mis­car­riage, an ac­quain­tance turned up on her doorstep and of­fered to carry a baby for her, she leapt at the chance. Even­tu­ally it be­came clear this woman (re­ferred to as Sharon in the book) was not an ideal can­di­date but Mikhail was des­per­ate.

“I would have done any­thing, paid any­thing,” she says. “That’s the rea­son I didn’t back out from surrogacy with Sharon, even though there were red flags along the way. I was so des­per­ate to get to the fin­ish line that I put blin­ders on. I thought I could han­dle any­thing that was com­ing so long as there was a baby.”

By then Mikhail had a new part­ner, Si­mon McMur­trie, so us­ing his sperm and her eggs, moved for­ward with plans for a sur­ro­gate preg­nancy. As the sit­u­a­tion with Sharon grew more stress­ful, Mikhail ad­mits they were walk­ing on eggshells, al­most to the point of be­ing afraid of her. When the preg­nancy failed, with an early em­bry­onic loss, Sharon pulled out of be­ing in­volved in any fu­ture at­tempts. Their sad­ness was mixed with a mea­sure of re­lief, be­cause it was ob­vi­ous there was so much po­ten­tial for things to go wrong.

The sit­u­a­tion around surrogacy in New Zealand is a com­plex one and, like many in­fer­tile women, Mikhail has found her­self be­com­ing an ex­pert in sev­eral pieces of leg­is­la­tion that cover it. These in­clude the Hu­man As­sisted Tech­nol­ogy (HART) Act, the Sta­tus of Chil­dren Act and the Adop­tion Act. It is the lat­ter that is cre­at­ing the most angst as it dates from 1955, decades be­fore any­one imag­ined mod­ern-day fer­til­ity tech­niques, and means no mat­ter whose genes a baby car­ries, the woman who gives birth is its le­gal mother for the first 10 days of its life.

Only af­ter that is she al­lowed to put the baby up for adop­tion and the in­tended par­ents able to take their child home (so long as they have passed med­i­cal ex­ams and po­lice checks, pro­vided char­ac­ter ref­er­ences and had the suit­abil­ity of their home as­sessed by a so­cial worker).

Surrogacy ar­range­ments aren’t legally en­force­able in New Zealand, which cre­ates a lot of in­se­cu­rity. “It’s not what any­body go­ing into one wants,” says Mikhail.

With their six re­main­ing frozen em­bryos, she and McMur­trie de­cided it would be wiser to set their sights over­seas. Given Mikhail’s roots in Canada, it was the first place they looked.

Im­me­di­ately it be­came eas­ier to find out clear in­for­ma­tion about surrogacy and no longer did Mikhail feel as if she was blindly stum­bling along. Very soon she had con­tacted an agency and through friends found a woman pre­pared to be a sur­ro­gate — Natalya, a mother of young twins.

“At first I was pretty guarded with her,” ad­mits Mikhail, who was ner­vous about what might lie ahead. “I couldn’t let my­self get ex­cited. But Natalya was amaz­ing. Right from the get-go she was so open and she never fal­tered, there was no weird­ness, no sur­prises.”

There was one last hur­dle though. As they were trans­ferred from Christchurch to Ot­tawa, their six pre­cious frozen em­bryos went astray and there was a pan­icked few days be­fore they turned up safe and sound at a fer­til­ity clinic in Ja­pan.

From then on, ev­ery­thing went with­out a hitch. The cou­ple had a com­pre­hen­sive agree­ment that every­one had signed cov­er­ing all even­tu­al­i­ties and de­tail­ing the fi­nan­cial com­pen­sa­tion al­lowed, as well as a healthy preg­nant sur­ro­gate who seemed as ex­cited as they were.

Ar­riv­ing in Canada for the birth of their son, they found them­selves feel­ing pretty ner­vous. “I’ve al­ways been an op­ti­mistic per­son but I was so para­noid some­thing was go­ing to go wrong,” says Mikhail.

Thank­fully Kairo’s ar­rival went smoothly and the cou­ple were present when he was de­liv­ered via Cae­sarean sec­tion by Mikhail’s best friend, Lynn, an ob­ste­tri­cian at the hospi­tal.

“See­ing him for the first time was such an amaz­ing mo­ment.”

Mikhail calls Kairo her an­gel baby. He was soon sleep­ing through the night, was never col­icky and has grown into a quiet, sweet lit­tle boy. But she wasn’t fin­ished with surrogacy. Both she and McMur­trie wanted a sib­ling for their son and be­sides they still had those five frozen em­bryos.

“When you know what your em­bryos can pro­duce, what do you do with the ones you have left over?” asks Mikhail. “When they’re just a con­cept you can do­nate them to science or an­other cou­ple, or maybe just de­stroy them. But once we had Kairo we knew we had to keep try­ing un­til there were none left.

There were four more at­tempts at preg­nancy with Natalya that failed. With one last re­main­ing em­bryo, their sur­ro­gate in­tro­duced the cou­ple to a

friend who agreed to take over.

“I thought it couldn’t pos­si­bly go as well as it had with Natalya but it did,” says Mikhail.

Sec­ond son Toren is now 9 months old and Mikhail (40) says their fam­ily is com­plete. But if things hadn’t worked out she knows she would still be try­ing.

“My next plan was to go back to Canada to try and adopt be­cause it’s eas­ier than here. I’d prob­a­bly be sin­gle again be­cause I don’t think Si­mon would have put up with too much more. He joined in half­way through the process, just be­fore my mis­car­riage, and he’s been in­cred­i­ble. Not many guys would have stuck around when their part­ner was try­ing to have a baby with donor sperm. But I think if I’d said we’re mov­ing to Canada so I can go through the adop­tion process, he would have drawn the line there.”

Sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion is Mikhail’s su­per­power. She is the kind of per­son who hates be­ing told she can’t do some­thing and isn’t used to fail­ing. Those char­ac­ter­is­tics have helped in the bat­tle for moth­er­hood. But it shouldn’t be such a bat­tle, she ar­gues. The surrogacy process in this coun­try could be made so much eas­ier.

“At the mo­ment it’s so con­fus­ing and leaves peo­ple re­ally vul­ner­a­ble.”

WHEN SURROGACY clients come to see Mar­garet Casey QC, she gives them a flow chart so they can bet­ter un­der­stand how to pick their way through the process. Casey is a lead­ing author­ity on surrogacy and part of an in­ter­na­tional panel of ex­perts that meets in The Hague to con­sider the is­sues around it.

Gen­er­ally she is pos­i­tive about what she sees hap­pen­ing in New Zealand com­pared to other coun­tries, in par­tic­u­lar places where the process is fully com­mer­cialised. Surrogacy is more com­mon these days, she says, with every­one fa­mil­iar with the process of plait­ing to­gether the sep­a­rate pieces of leg­is­la­tion so it goes smoothly.

In the past 18 months Casey has dealt with 50 ba­bies born via surrogacy — only 11 of these were do­mes­tic ar­range­ments and in the other cases the in­fer­tile cou­ples had to go off­shore. If she had a magic wand this is one thing she would change.

“I would make it eas­ier for peo­ple to find sur­ro­gates in New Zealand,” says Casey. “I would al­low us to pay sur­ro­gates some­thing that would com­pen­sate for their costs. And I would al­low us to im­port eggs be­cause we don’t have enough donors.”

If it were a re­ally big magic wand, Casey might even draft a piece of leg­is­la­tion — she cites one in Tas­ma­nia that cov­ers al­tru­is­tic surrogacy as a good model — and also im­prove birth cer­tifi­cates so they pro­vided more in­for­ma­tion for the ba­bies of sur­ro­gates later on in life.

“That’s the kind of stuff be­ing talked about at an in­ter­na­tional level. A coun­try like New Zealand could do it be­cause we’re small. But I’m not hold­ing my breath,” says Casey, who doesn’t ex­pect change any time soon. “And in the

mean­time, these ba­bies keep com­ing.”

Waikato aca­demic Ruth Walker would like to see a pro­fes­sional model with a reg­u­la­tory body to main­tain a reg­is­ter of sur­ro­gates, plus de­ter­mine a fair rate of com­pen­sa­tion and pro­tect the rights of every­one in­volved. Along with her col­league, Liezyl van Zyl, the ethi­cist has pub­lished a book, To­wards A Pro­fes­sional Model of Sur­ro­gate

Moth­er­hood and con­ducted a re­search study in­volv­ing 13 par­tic­i­pants.

She views the cur­rent process as both time­con­sum­ing and nerve-rack­ing. “We feel that surrogacy is tol­er­ated rather than sup­ported. It’s a very grudg­ing ‘if you must’ ap­proval and that’s out of touch with the way peo­ple feel which is that it should be an­other form of as­sisted re­pro­duc­tive tech­nol­ogy,” says Walker.

As for Mikhail, she has her two much-loved boys — cau­tious, shy Kairo and her nois­ier, more de­mand­ing new son, Toren.

“They couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent even though they’re from the same batch of frozen em­bryos, born three and a half years apart, which is kind of mind-blow­ing.”

It has cost around $85,000 to cre­ate a fam­ily but Mikhail doesn’t re­gret a cent of it. What she went through feels un­real now, al­most as if it hap­pened to a dif­fer­ent per­son.

“In this new chap­ter of moth­er­hood now I’m just nor­mal, like ev­ery­body else,” she says.

Christchurch mother Amira Mikhail with her baby, Toren.

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