Natalie Akoorie is a reporter at the NZ Herald based in Hamilton.

Baby heartache: Couple's frantic search for surrogate

Irene Higgins and fiance Thomas Robinson are searching for a gestational surrogate to help them have a baby. Photo / Supplied
Irene Higgins and fiance Thomas Robinson are searching for a gestational surrogate to help them have a baby. Photo / Supplied

Irene Higgins is desperate to find a surrogate.

The South Island woman and her fiancé Thomas Robinson have been trying to have a baby for six years through in-vitro fertilisation (IVF).

Now Higgins has been told the fibroid growths in her uterus are so big she has to have a hysterectomy.

So she and Robinson, a farmer, are searching for a surrogate to give their last three embryos a chance at life.

"I've only got three precious ones left. I have these massive fibroids so it's not viable [to carry a pregnancy]. I have to go to a surrogate. It's my last chance."

Under New Zealand law surrogates cannot be paid. Instead gestational surrogacy here is altruistic, meaning Higgins and Robinson have to find someone willing to carry their biological child.

"It's just a heartache. If they just would open up the laws and get rid of this prehistoric law that you can't pay a surrogate we'd have people lining up wanting to do it to help someone, but also make it worthwhile for them."

The law is the same in Australia, the United Kingdom and most other western nations.

In the United States and a handful of other countries including India and the Ukraine, commercial surrogacy is thriving, although India is now considering a ban.

In the past decade, India has emerged as one of the top fertility tourism destinations where childless couples from around the world pay women to give birth to a child for them.

But India's Government has cleared the way for a measure that would ban all commercial surrogacy in the country, allowing only close family relatives to become surrogate mothers.

The Surrogacy Bill 2016, which would be a blow to the $400 million unregulated "rent-a-womb" industry that many activists say is exploiting poor women, will be presented to India's Parliament for approval in the next session.

It comes two years after Thailand clamped down on paid surrogacy following the abandoning of Down syndrome baby "Gammy" by his Australian parents.

Following that debacle in which the couple took home Gammy's healthy twin sister, Thai authorities said they would only allow paid surrogacy if the intended parents were medically infertile and if a blood relation was asked to carry the child.

It is estimated about 10 New Zealand couples a year are involved in commercial surrogacy in countries where it is legal.

Higgins said the couple have ruled out international surrogacy even though their embryos are stored in California, not because of the thousands it costs to hire a surrogate, but because of associated medical costs in America.

"Say for instance you pay for a surrogate over there, that's about $20,000, but that's not the main cost. Most of the cost is the medical. You would pay up to $100,000 for medical bills over there."

The couple, who live in a small farming community near Wanaka during winter and in Auckland over summer, have already racked up tens of thousands in fertility treatment with the clinic in Los Angeles where their embryos are stored.

The cost includes attempts to implant 10 embryos, all unsuccessful.

Higgins had her eggs frozen at the clinic in her early 30s during a visit to friends who lived in Beverly Hills, before she met Robinson.

Back then frozen eggs could not be thawed in New Zealand and as someone who dreamed of having children but who didn't have a partner, Higgins wanted to take precautions for the future.

"I've always wanted children. I've always loved children and I can offer a child a great home."

Irene Higgins and Thomas Robinson are desperate to find a surrogate to help them have a baby. Photo / Supplied
Irene Higgins and Thomas Robinson are desperate to find a surrogate to help them have a baby. Photo / Supplied

Last year the pair began making enquiries about surrogacy and searched a website and Facebook page but could not find anyone suitable.

Higgins said the couple's infertility journey was all-consuming.

"It's been gruelling. It takes over your life. It consumes you from dawn to dark."

Under New Zealand law couples can be fined up to $100,000 and face a year in prison if convicted of commercial surrogacy.

Advertising for a surrogate is also illegal, despite it being okay to advertise for egg and sperm donors.

Fertility Associates group manager of science Dr John Peek said Kiwi surrogates were usually friends or family of the couple, meaning the couple had to be open about their infertility, which was not always easy.

"It's based on the laws around not selling tissue. But when you think about what people go through for surrogacy and the fact that you can get a nanny to look after your children once they're born and pay her well but you can't pay for someone to look after your children before they're born, it does seem a bit out of kilter."

In March last year the Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (Acart) made recommendations to the Minister of Health Jonathan Coleman to increase the reimbursements for egg donors and surrogates.

A spokeswoman for the Minister said the Ministry of Health was working on advice on the recommendations which would go to the Associate Minister of Health Peter Dunne at the end of this year for consideration.

Currently reimbursements provided by Fertility Associates to egg donors or surrogates includes up to $400 for travel costs.

But Peek said the intention was to give something more generous, similar to in the United Kingdom where 750 pounds ($NZ1350) was provided.

Labour spokeswoman for health Annette King said while she would be guided by Acart's guidelines she supported a move for higher reimbursements for surrogates, but not for commercial surrogacy.

"A recommendation for some reimbursement would not be out of line. But the full commercialisation I think most people would say that's too far."

King said as with organ donation, where the idea of reimbursing donors was currently before the Health Select Committee, surrogates deserved to recoup costs such as time taken off work.

However she said commercial surrogacy should not become a market in New Zealand, even if it meant some couples missed out on having children.

"Personally it's a step too far. This is a gift that people are prepared to do but I'd hate to see it become a market, just as we don't pay people for their organs.

"These are issues where people through their generosity make a donation and helping to recover those costs is very worthy of consideration by the Government."

She said couples desperate to become parents might have to turn to fostering or adoption instead.

What is surrogacy?

Surrogacy is where a woman, who cannot carry a baby, uses another woman to bear the child. An embryo, created using IVF, is transferred to the surrogate.

Egg and sperm donors provide their gametes to couples or fertility clinics which can be used to create embryos for people who cannot produce their own eggs or sperm.

Commercial surrogacy, where women are paid to carry and deliver someone else's baby, is only available in a handful of countries including the United States.

Surrogacy is available in NZ but the time and cost to gain ethics committee approval, and the limited number of surrogates, mean some parents choose to pay an overseas surrogate.

In 2011-2012, there were eight applications for surrogacy in New Zealand, seven of which were approved.

Between 2005 and 2011, surrogacy applications approved by NZ's ethics committee resulted in 33 births.

With NZ surrogacy, the baby must be adopted by the commissioning parents following birth.

- Herald on Sunday

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