Over the last couple of days there have been two surrogacy stories in the daily papers I come across. One, essentially benign, involving egg donation but with potential issues about boundaries and telling, and the other frankly shocking. The latter, reported in The Guardian as un-sensationally as is possible in such an extreme case, concerns a woman who forced her 14 year old adopted daughter to inseminate herself with donor sperm until she became pregnant. Her apparent reason for this appalling coercive behaviour, for which she is now serving a five year jail sentence, is that she was distraught at having been refused permission to adopt a fourth baby. Her daughter, having probably miscarried at 14, eventually gave birth age 16. The authorities were alerted when midwives were alarmed at the mother’s pushy and insensitive behaviour, trying to prevent her daughter breastfeeding the newborn, saying, “we don’t want any of that attachment thing.”
How did the mother get hold of the donor sperm? At first semen was provided by a donor who came to the house but latterly it was acquired from Cryos International, the huge sperm bank in Denmark. Most sperm banks will only export semen to doctors or fertility clinics, not to individuals. Cryos has always flouted this convention. I am aware that Cryos has long been exporting unofficially to the UK as, before I was thrown off Fertility Friends, I monitored a thread where single women were talking about importing sperm for personal use. There was a debate about how risky it was to do this as customs had confiscated one woman’s parcel, but another said that hers had got through.
Horrific cases like the one reported today are going to be rare, but it seems important for other reasons as well that imports like this should come under closer scrutiny. UK regulations are clear about the type of donors whose semen can be imported into this country. Like UK donors they must agree to be identifiable to children at age 18 and not be paid more than expenses. Their names will appear on the HFEA register. However, it is unclear that if semen is bypassing the official import system to clinics, whether the rules on identifiability are also being ignored. The details of these donors are unlikely to appear on the HFEA register so a parent or young person in the future would have to rely on contact with Cryos for further information. Whatever the situation, it would certainly appear that the HFEA should be investigating the loophole that seems to allow individuals in the UK to import from Cryos…whether this exists in the system of regulation or in the vigilance of customs officers.
The other surrogacy story was in the Sunday Times Mag. and took the form of the diary of a woman of 48 who carried a baby for her brother and his wife. The IVF took place in Greece using a local egg donor. Chillingly, when offered endless embryos to transfer, the surrogate said that she would accept selective reduction if necessary and went on to have three embryos put back. Thank goodness she only became pregnant with two. The diary goes on to give us a good insight into the complex emotions involved in carrying a baby for someone else whilst continuing to be a parent to ones own children who, of course, have to told that the babies in mummy’s tummy are for someone else. At the end of the pregnancy pre-eclampsia leads to an emergency caesarian section. Giving up the babies is tough and there is a lot of crying. The surrogate, who has remained anonymous throughout the story, is close to the children, to whom she is both aunt and surrogate mother but nowhere is there any discussion of what the babes are going to be told. And if they are to know of her role as ‘tummy mummy’, as seems likely, will be they told about the Greek egg donor as well? As with single women, when an egg as well as a sperm donor is involved, the egg donation part in surrogacy seems much harder to talk about. DC Network is beginning to get enquiries from couples where both surrogacy and egg donation have been contributors to family formation. I think the organisation is going to have to think hard about what it can offer these families. Oh dear, I can feel another publication coming on…..