Her birth was cloaked in secrecy. It shocked the world and was mired in controversy. In 1978, when Louise Brown, the world’s first test tube baby was born, police officers packed the corridors of Oldham General Hospital in England.
The controversy was from religious leaders concerned about altering the “natural plan” to fears that science was constructing ‘Frankenbabies’. It was so bad Brown’s mother received hate mail and even a plastic foetus. Her birth changed the definition of baby-making.
Almost four decades on, that definition is still valid and an accepted norm in the annals of science and society.
According to 2013 statistics by European In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) Monitoring, more than five million babies have been born through IVF.
It paved the way for a further twist — surrogacy.
Was it worth carrying another person’s child, given the risks and considering that like any pregnancy, surrogacy could also lead to maternal and childbirth-related deaths?
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), every day, about 830 women die from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes. It was estimated that in 2015, about 303,000 women died during and following pregnancy and childbirth.
“With every pregnancy you always worry something might go wrong… but in a surrogate’s case, there are so many other people depending on the outcome,” says surrogate mother Shelley Fourie.
In some countries, depending on how you look at it, the risk may be worth it.
According to Families Through Surrogacy, a consumer-based non-profit surrogacy network, in the United States, surrogates are paid about $68,000, in Poland, $35,800, and in India $22,500.
In South Africa, commercial surrogacy is strictly prohibited and subject to criminal prosecution. A surrogate may only be reimbursed for her loss of earnings or any out-of-pocket expenses directly relating to the surrogacy process and pregnancy such as for vitamins, traveling costs and medical costs. Yet still, intended parents give surrogates money.
“It’s a very difficult thing. Let’s face it, what people will go through months of uncomfortable symptoms related to pregnancy for nothing,” says one parent who has a son through a surrogate.
According to another Cape Town-based surrogate, Rikki Walsh, the question of payment is a difficult one.
“On the one side, it is a great thing, because I feel it’s too easy to take someone hostage for money if payment was allowed. On the other side, often the couples feel guilty because they have no clue how to say thank you. I think a happy medium could be reached, with a set legal amount – as it is with egg donation,” she says.
In the pages that follow, FORBES WOMAN AFRICA speaks to three surrogates in South Africa who gave up a year of their lives to bring joy to couples struggling to have children.
There has to be a special place in heaven for people like 43-year-old Shelley Fourie.
Working at a fertility clinic in South Africa’s Mother City, Cape Town, exposed her to the deep pain of parents struggling to have children. She couldn’t bear it anymore.
In November 2015, her friend, also a surrogate, introduced her to a gay couple looking to have children. They had tried surrogacy and failed.
“Our biggest suspicion was, and still is, that our surrogate mom did not use her prescribed medicine, for a successful implant, diligently. My suspicion was that the side-effects of the medicine influenced her…” says couple Nelius and Mario Botha Ferreira in a letter to their unborn baby.
They were emotionally drained and took a break from trying.
“Our desire overpowered our losses, and this is why we are back in action and more motivated than ever. 2016, God-willing, will be the year our boy or girl (or both) will be born,” reads the letter.
After meeting with the couple and hearing their story, Fourie says she not only understood their pain but felt a close connection to them as if they were long-lost friends. It was her chance to help.
“My business partner and friend was a surrogate in 2015 and I was there with her every step of the way and was lucky enough to be at the hospital when her couple received their baby. The amount of happiness and joy I saw from that couple made me think, I could do this,” says Fourie.
Although surprised, her family and friends were supportive of her decision — even her 11-year-old son who has always wanted a sibling.
“I explained to him [that we couldn’t afford another baby] and told him that he would be my one and only. He was a bit worried he would no longer be my one and only. I explained to him that we would not keep the baby and I was helping someone else have their one and only.”
The result? A healthy four-kilogram baby boy born on March 29.
According to Fourie, for surrogacy to work, a good relationship needs to be formed between the surrogate and intended parents.
“You are going to be ‘married’ to them for a little over a year. You need both to be supportive and understanding of each other. We had a great combination of everything. As all great stories end, they lived happily ever after,” she says.
Fourie says she would do it again. If she does, many families will have their one and onlys.
It must rank as one of toughest but encouraging surrogate pregnancy stories South Africa has ever seen.
Previously, FORBES WOMAN AFRICA told the story of Theo and Christo Menelaou, a gay couple from Pretoria who struggled to adopt, only to have three children through a surrogate.
It was a tough pregnancy.
At seven weeks, the surrogate was told she was expecting twins. A mere two weeks later, a 4D scan revealed she was carrying triplets. One of the eggs had split into two. She was carrying identical twin girls and a boy.
That’s not all. At 10 weeks, she found out fluids were being transferred from one twin to the other causing the one twin to grow well and the other to lag behind. The doctor advised her and the intended parents to terminate the pregnancy. They didn’t. Instead, they went to a specialist to help them carry all three babies to term.
It wasn’t the end of the battle. At 18 weeks, more bad news came. One of the twins had a heart condition. Still, they waited in hope the triplets could be carried to term. At 29 weeks, the surrogate started feeling uncomfortable and had to be admitted. Two days short of 32 weeks, she gave birth to identical twins, Zoe and Kate, and their brother Joshua.
We meet the surrogate who made it all possible, 34-year-old Jacqui Burns, a petite woman who welcomes us with a big smile.
“My sister knew Theo and Christo wanted to have babies and were thinking about surrogacy. My sister said ‘you are crazy enough to do something like this’ I don’t think she realized how crazy I actually am. My husband and I had been talking about it for a while so I made contact to help and I was in it for the whole way,” says Burns.
The mother of three says she had very uncomplicated pregnancies so there was no reason for her to worry.
“Everyone should experience the gift of children and the joy it brings,” she says.
According to Burns, there are many misconceptions about surrogacy and the most commonly asked question is, ‘How do you give up your children’.
“From the get go, I know they are not my children. I am just an incubator helping them grow so they can grow. Every other issue that may arise is also taken care of under the law and the surrogacy contract.”
Her husband Victor has always been supportive.
“It became easy after meeting Theo and Christo. Surrogacy is not an easy process for the intended parents and the surrogate but I will support her no matter what she chooses,” he says.
He was so supportive they would joke about it.
“He would say, my wife is pregnant, but it’s not mine. It would shock everyone,” says Burns, laughing.
Victor says it was tough for his wife and their own children when she had to be admitted to the hospital but they didn’t worry much as they had a good medical team.
To make it easy for their children, they had some explaining to do.
“Our children knew that they weren’t getting siblings and the babies weren’t ours. When the second one asked ‘where do babies come from’, I told them that God comes and puts a little seed in mommy’s tummy… we told them uncle Christo and uncle Theo don’t have a mommy in their house so they asked God to put their seeds in mommy’s tummy so they could have children… that helped them understand better,” says Burns.
Although Burns says the South African law has done well on regulating the industry, she says there are a few things that can be improved.
“If it was not regulated we could have an India on our hands but I think if it was legally allowed to pay a certain amount of money, there would be more surrogates. Right now, there is a long list of people looking for a surrogate… Also, there are so many couples struggling to have children but this process is too expensive,” she says.
But she has proven that where there is a will, there is a way.
Rikki Walsh wanted to be a surrogate before she even had children.
“I was told I would feel differently once I did,” she says.
It wasn’t true.
In South Africa, you have to have a child of your own before being a surrogate for another family. So, first, Walsh donated eggs six times, worked at a fertility clinic and when she finally had children and her youngest of two was two years old, she took the leap of faith.
“I was talking with one of our donor couples who was looking for a new surrogate and felt like giving in and I knew this was the right time to offer, which I did,” she says.
She went home to tell her husband. According to Walsh, his response was “there is nothing to talk about. This is something you want to do and I will support you”. It meant everything for Walsh.
“This meant even more because he also had to go for psychological evaluations, to social workers, and lawyers not to mention put up with a pregnant wife.”
Sadly, she miscarried the first time they tried.
“I felt a huge amount of guilt. I had lost someone else’s child. I think the pressure weighs on you even more, because you know the emotions, costs, everything, on behalf of someone else, that you are carrying. Each scan, you are terrified until you see the heartbeat. It’s easier once the baby is moving though. At least there is daily ‘proof of life’,” she says.
To ensure everything goes well, first Walsh and the intended parents had to be on the same page.
“The most important thing with a surrogacy is that all parties are on the same page. [Make sure] that you want the same out of the journey. I personally feel that perhaps the intended parents and the surrogates need to be matched via personality. Because surrogates are few and far between, I think there is often a ‘we need to take her as soon as possible’ [mentality] regardless of you getting along on a personal level. This is a journey that will be at minimum a year, there needs to be at the very least a good feel between them,” says Walsh.
Without any problems, Walsh gave birth to a baby girl in the next attempt.
“The looks on her parents’ faces when they saw her for the first time was one of the most magical moments of my life… I would be happy to do it again.”