After her hopes of getting pregnant were crushed, Caroline Van Den Heever turned to surrogacy to keep alive her dream of starting a family.
My house is full of noise and activity – shouting, laughter and colourful paintings pinned to the noticeboard. Not so long ago, it was deathly quiet and I hated it. That was before my husband Jan and I had our three amazing children, born through surrogacy and egg donation in a journey that took us across the world and to the limits of our emotions.
The number of babies born to surrogates is relatively small, given the thousands of women desperate to become mothers. ‘Each year, there are just 50 to 70 surrogate pregnancies in the UK,’ says Sabreena Mahroof, secretary of Surrogacy UK. ‘Others are undergone by women abroad for couples in the UK: we don’t know how many live births those amount to, but it is thought there are currently about 750 surrogate children in the UK.’ Surrogacy, where another woman carries the baby for the one who will become its mother, is used when a medical condition makes it impossible or dangerous to get pregnant and give birth, such as after repeated IVF failure, or cancer treatment, or because of a heart condition. ‘Surrogacy is the last resort,’ says Sabreena. ‘You have to prove through your GP that you have tried everything else, because we can’t risk a surrogate’s life by putting her through a pregnancy unnecessarily.’
When I met my husband Jan in 1998, I knew I wanted children with him, but it wasn’t until we’d been trying for several years that it became apparent that I was going to need to borrow another woman’s womb. As it turned out, I needed to use another woman’s eggs, too. We married in August 2000 (Jan is a quantity surveyor and I was an IT account manager for a bank) and as we were both 38, we tried for children straight away. But by November 2001 we still hadn’t conceived, and eventually tests revealed that my infertility – along with the painful periods I’d suffered from all my adult life – was caused by severe endometriosis, which meant pregnancy was unlikely without IVF and might not happen even then. Giving up the prospect of your own children is like a bereavement. Everyone I knew seemed to end up with their own genetic child I was turning 40 the week I got the diagnosis, and I felt empty and old. I had always thought I’d have lots of children: now I might have none. I was silent as Jan drove us home. He stopped to get some groceries and when he returned to the car he gave me a box with a heart necklace in it. This gesture said, ‘I love you and we will get through this together’ more than words ever could. We had three rounds of IVF in 2003, but they didn’t work because I was producing low numbers of poor-quality eggs. I was exhausted, and I didn’t know if I could face more unsuccessful cycles. We did some serious soul-searching and admitted with immense sadness that it was time to stop trying to use my eggs and womb, and consider other options.
Giving up the prospect of your own children is like a bereavement. Everyone I knew – even friends having IVF – seemed to end up with their own genetic child and here I was, turning my back on that. I felt devastated when I saw mums pushing prams, and I couldn’t attend a christening without feeling bereft. However, my drive to be a mother was too strong to give up. We couldn’t stop yet.
I started to look into adoption and surrogacy, talking to people and scouring the internet for information. The turning point came at Christmas in 2003. Jan is from South Africa, and we were visiting his parents in Cape Town when Jan’s mum showed us a magazine article about a family friend who’d had a child via a surrogate through a local clinic. We’d already looked into doing it in the UK, but we wanted to use a separate donor and surrogate (to avoid the risk of the surrogate becoming too attached to her own genetic child to give it up) and at that time very few UK clinics would work with a surrogate and an egg donor together, because surrogacy in the UK isn’t bound by law, but based on trust, so there’s a high risk of legal issues.
‘It’s a kind of gentleman’s agreement,’ says Sabreena, ‘which is why we emphasise the importance of developing the relationship between surrogate and commissioning parent.’ But the birth mother may still decide to keep the child in the end, whereas in South Africa lawyers are involved and the commissioning parent has more rights. We could also work with a social worker to manage the whole process for us. Within days we’d contacted the South African clinic and before we flew home, we’d seen specialists and contacted a social worker called Wilna who would help us find a surrogate and egg donors. We returned to the UK with hope.
I pored over lists of egg donors, looking for information about their personalities and examining pictures of them as children (the only pictures you’re allowed to see in an otherwise anonymous process). We finally found one that seemed suitable, and in May 2004 we got a call from Wilna saying she’d found us a surrogate. We flew out to meet her in July and it was the strangest meeting: I felt I had to try to impress her, to convince her to lend us her womb, even though we’d be paying her expenses. She agreed to do it, and we thought, ‘This is it – we’re going to be parents.’
But this is where we discovered that surrogate pregnancies are as vulnerable as any other to medical problems and the uncertainties of IVF. We had five IVF attempts with this surrogate, using fresh eggs from three different donors and Jan’s sperm, but each time the embryos failed to implant and we finally accepted that her womb wasn’t going to work for us.
By now, we’d paid for a total of eight IVF attempts. Every penny we could earn, save or put on the mortgage was going towards this. There w ere no holidays, no expensive dinners – we made cutbacks everywhere to finance our dream of a family. Then we heard that Wilna had found us another surrogate – Bronwyn, a 24-year-old single mum. This time our first attempt led to a positive test. The pregnancy didn’t last more than a day or two, but the intense elation Jan and I experienced for that short time was ground-breaking. We realised that even if it took 20 attempts, we’d do it.
My heart bursts with love for my children. They are a product of both nature and nurture
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Article: 21st August 2010 dailymail.co.uk
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