Family / Family-building

Gay Men Creating Families Through Surrogacy

Men Having Babies Surrogacy WorkshopOn Sunday, November 2nd, Men Having Babies hosted its 10th annual workshop in New York City in an effort to bring together prospective parents, service providers, and experts on the subject of surrogacy. I spoke with a number of participants and attendees who agreed that surrogacy is becoming a more accessible and normative option for gay men looking to start families. Still, surrogacy in the United States presents the kind of obstacles Odysseus faced on his return to Ithaca after the fall of Troy. Men Having Babies tries to take the Sirens and Cyclops out of the equation by hosting these surrogacy workshops, which prove to be an oasis of information and resources. The gods were definitely with everyone that day, providing a safer passage on rocky seas.

“We started 15 years ago. It was literally just a handful of men at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center who really wanted to gather as much information as we could,” explained Anthony Brown, Chairman of the board at Men Having Babies. “We invited service providers in and basically anybody who could answer the questions that we had. We did it in the form of monthly workshops which we still have the 2nd Wednesday of every month, 6:30-8PM here at the JCC (in New York City), and people can also go online at menhavingbabies.org to events, workshops for information on the whole schedule.”

While surrogacy provides an option for infertile straight couples, Men Having Babies structures panels and break-out sessions specifically for gay men. The speakers at the conference dealt with many of the issues gay men face on their surrogacy journey. Costs are very high. Surrogacy laws and LGBT discrimination laws vary from state to state and can be prohibitive. Surrogacy is unregulated, which means that participants are vulnerable to unethical practices. Fortunately, the prospective parents at Men Having Babies workshop benefit from the knowledge and experience of those who have gone down this path previously and were able to speak to the issues at hand.

THE PRICE TAG

Adding up the cost of egg donors, surrogates, agency fees, legal costs, and trips to visit surrogates, a couple could face a bill close to $150,000, not to mention the emotional costs that accompany the process. Finding the right surrogate and negotiating the kind of relationship a couple wants to have with her can be tricky not to mention the reality of failed transfers or failed pregnancies.

International surrogacy is much less expensive at about one-third of the cost of domestic surrogacy. However, while the financial stresses may be alleviated, some agencies may not act as ethically as others, exploiting poor women for their own economic gain. It is important for prospective parents to do their homework in sourcing agencies who work with surrogates who are financially stable.

I spoke with Ralph, a New Jersey father of three via two different surrogates in the United States. He said, “Neither of our surrogates needed the money. They were solidly middle class. They wanted to do it, and that was important to us. In general, the better agencies wouldn’t allow a woman to come into the program if it was a life and death situation for her.”

Men Having Babies, which is a nonprofit organization, recognized the economic barrier of surrogacy and started a financial relief service, Gay Parent Assistance Program (GPAP). Funding comes from surrogacy agencies that contribute to the GPAP program. Those agencies then receive discounts on the fees to participate in Men Having Babies events. Agencies benefit from partnering with Men Having Babies seminars in major markets such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Tel Aviv, and Brussels.

THE WILD WEST AND NO SHERIFF IN TOWN

A major obstacle for egg donors, surrogates, and gay men is that surrogacy is unregulated in the United States. There is no licensing body, and there are no requirements requiring agencies to know anything about the law or psychology or insurance or anything else that may support or protect parties from embarking on this journey. Because surrogacy laws are handled at the state level, there is no opportunity for the federal government to enforce laws to protect surrogates and hopeful parents. Recommendations and track records are important factors when shopping for providers.

Egg donors and surrogates face a significant amount of risk if they do not have sufficient support. There are no requirements to educate women about the physical tolls that result from donating eggs and carrying babies. Ralph echoed the opinion of many dads at the workshop when he said, “It shouldn’t be easy for young women to donate a zillion times and risk their health and fertility.”

Unfortunately, for some surrogacy agencies, money is more important than providing would-be parents with a family. Attendant and hopeful father Doron said, “I have dealt with a few agencies, some better than others. This is an industry. It’s a business. There are good people and bad people, and I landed with some bad people.”

Doron and his partner are determined to have a family via surrogacy despite three failed attempts thus far. When I asked him why he hasn’t chosen to pursue a different path to parenthood, he explained that he wanted his own children in the same way that straight couples want their own. I hadn’t considered the fact that we don’t ask straight couples why they are not adopting. If a straight couple wants to have children with their DNA, we do not question why they choose to spend all kinds of money and endure medicated, invasive procedures to do so.

SURROGACY LEGISLATION

I was surprised to learn that New York’s surrogacy laws are the most restrictive in the country thanks to a little girl referred to as Baby M. In 1986, Mary Beth Whitehead sued William and Elizabeth Stern for custody of the biological baby she carried for the Sterns. The baby was the product of traditional surrogacy where the egg donor and surrogate mother are one in the same. While there was a surrogacy contract in place and a fee paid of $10,000, Mary Beth changed her mind upon the birth of Baby M. This was the first contested surrogacy case in the United States, and states passed laws to ensure that it would be the last. They were not prepared for debates surrounding the ethics of reproduction.

New Jersey courts awarded William Stern and his wife Elizabeth custody of Baby M, but after that ruling, New Jersey Supreme Court declared the surrogacy contract void and said that surrogacy was “illegal, perhaps criminal, and potentially degrading to women.” Mary Beth Whitehead did not get full-custody, but she did win visitation rights and influenced legislation in New Jersey and many other states prohibiting surrogacy for pay. As a result of the Baby M case, New York is one of most prohibitive states. Anyone engaging in contractual surrogacy is subject to a criminal penalty.

In 1988, IVF allowed a woman to carry another woman’s egg and act as a gestational surrogate with absolutely no genetic connection to the baby. But even with the advances in technology that draw clearer genetic boundaries, the laws in many states remain the same.

The restrictions did not prevent couples from using surrogates, however. They were simply forced out of state. A couple in New York is, in fact, able to have a baby via contractual surrogacy as long as that baby is born in a state where surrogacy is legal. In addition to surrogacy laws, gay men must consider LGBT rights in each state, as well.

As more couples, straight and gay, create families via gestational surrogates, the more reform is needed. Currently, there is a bill in Albany called the Child-Parent Security Act that would legalize contractual surrogacy. Should that law pass, perhaps other states will follow suit. Until then, gay men must educate themselves about surrogacy laws and LGBT discrimination laws in each state.

At the same time organizations such as Empire State Pride are pushing for the Child-Parent Security Act, researchers like Dr. Susan Golombok are providing metrics that consistently prove that surrogate families are just other families. Dr. Golombok initially began studying gay families after responding to an article in a British feminist magazine in 1976 about lesbian women losing custody of their children after they divorced their husbands. A group called Action for Lesbian Parents needed a neutral party to study their children and submit results in court during custody cases. Dr. Golombok answered the call and has been conducting studies about non-traditional families ever since.

“One thing we find more and more is that family structure makes very little difference to children in terms of relationship within the family,” Golombok said. “And that’s why when I moved from studying lesbian mothers to different types of artificial reproduction, it all came together to show really strongly that family structure in itself doesn’t make a difference and what really matters is the quality of relationships within families. This research and research like it really changes basic child psychology theories that have always assumed the nuclear family was the best and actually it doesn’t make much difference.”

Dr. Golombok is currently conducting research in the U.S. on behalf of the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research. This study incorporates many different family structures and will “finally put these questions to bed,” Golombok said. If you and your partner have a child, 3 to 9 years old, who was conceived through assisted reproduction, please consider participating in Dr. Golombok’s study. Her research has been used to change legislation in the UK and elsewhere. Also, she is offering a $75 Amazon gift card to eligible participants. If interested, please email families@hermes.cam.ac.uk.

ARE YOU DIZZY YET?

Many men attending the conference for the fist time were overwhelmed by all the information presented. Joe and his partner Richard were first-timers, and Joe was visibly shaken by all the seemingly disconnected elements related to surrogacy.

“Quite frankly, there are a lot of things that are involved in this process,” he shared. “There’s finding the right agency, lawyer, IVF clinic, reproductive endocrinologist, and then there’s egg donor. Is there a one-stop shop? Some agencies have their own egg donors, or should we find our own? What’s the best path? And everyone is kind of angling for their part of the pie.”

Joe was not entirely discouraged, however. The more he spoke with service providers and fathers, the more convinced he was that managing this particular project was well worth the effort. It is worth preparing any prospective couple, however, that it is best to do your homework, and there is quite a lot of homework to do.

EVOLUTION TOWARDS ACCEPTANCE

In spite of all the hoops through which gay men must jeté, the result of a successful surrogacy is impossibly rewarding. All of the administrative and financial and emotional hurdles seem almost negligible once a child transforms a couple into parents. What was impossible for gay men is now a reality, and what once was a quiet path to parenthood is now accepted and even celebrated.

More than one service provider at the workshop told me that surrogates are specifically requesting to carry babies for gay male couples. When I asked why they thought that was the case, they guessed that there is often less baggage with gay men because there are no emotional issues surrounding infertility. Furthermore, it is highly likely that a couple and a surrogate and her family become very close throughout the process and beyond. Surrogates may feel that relationship lines can become blurry with a heterosexual couple.

I was most struck by the panel of fathers and surrogates who shared their stories. It was the surrogates who spoke directly to me as a woman and a mother. Their experiences were life changing in the most unexpected ways, and they treasured the relationships they now had with the fathers and their babies.

Not every couple chooses to maintain a relationship with their surrogates after birth, and not every surrogate is interested either, but for those who do, there is an undeniable bond – a chosen extended family born from the desire to enable couples to have children. I was so moved by their stories that I found myself grateful to be past prime childbearing age so that I would not have to decide whether or not to volunteer right then and there.

SUCCESS

At the end of a very long day chock full of information, it seemed that most everyone was more encouraged than dissuaded. If there is a will (and some cash), there’s a way. And surrogacy can be a profoundly satisfying way to create a family.

Joe admitted that after the conference, he was ready to take the next step. “I think that it gives me hope. And I know that as complicated as it is, it feels doable and feasible. Everyone talks about it like if you make the decision, and you have the money, it’s absolutely going to happen. Maybe my sense was that it was hard to find a surrogate willing to have a baby with a same sex couple. But as overwhelming as it is, there’s a sense of relief that it’s even possible.”

Because surrogacy is unregulated, we do not know how many babies have been born through surrogacy. It is clear, however, that more and more couples are creating families through surrogacy, and luckily there are organizations like Men Having Babies guiding the way.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

If you have participated in the surrogacy process in any way, please consider sharing your stories on VillageQ. Contact us at admin@villageq.com.

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