A single piece of paper held the key to their lives, their future, and now it was being questioned.
As the couple and their two children lined up to clear immigration at the New Delhi airport last Saturday, they handed their documents to the officer — Canadian passports for themselves and their daughter, an entry visa for their son.
The next few hours were a blur as immigration officers examined the paper while others bombarded the couple with questions. Why didn’t the boy have a passport? Why just an entry visa? Who was he? Who, indeed.
Their story began in 2005 when they travelled to India to hire a surrogate after years of unsuccessful fertility treatments. The eggs were donated by an unknown woman and fertilized by the man’s sperm. Soon, the surrogate was pregnant with twins. In March 2006, the babies, a boy and a girl, were born.
The couple went to the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi to apply for Canadian citizenship for the twins to bring them home. DNA tests were requested. To the couple’s horror, the boy was found to be genetically unrelated, suggesting a mix-up at the Indian fertility lab. They faced the choice of returning to Canada with their daughter and leaving their son behind, or remaining in India.
At the airport, they were finally cleared. As they settled in their seats and the plane took off for Toronto, the couple shed some tears, laughed a bit. “We dreamed of this day every day but never thought it would happen,” the man says. On Sunday, the family of four arrived at Pearson airport. They were finally home.
The couple’s misadventure in the uncharted territory of commercial surrogacy, unmatched DNA and lost children is gut-wrenching but not unique. Canada’s Assisted Human Reproduction Act makes it illegal to pay sperm donors, egg donors or surrogates.
When the act was passed in 2004, experts worried it would force Canadians to travel abroad to pay for those services, resulting in complications — like the one the Toronto couple became caught in. If a child born through surrogacy has a genetic link to one Canadian parent, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) grants citizenship. If a genetic link cannot be confirmed, the child is not automatically a Canadian citizen. There is no policy to address a situation where an error has occurred.
Sherry Levitan, a Toronto lawyer specializing in fertility law for the past 20 years, says she has heard heartbreaking stories. “Reproduction tourism is very hot,” she says. “If Canadian couples are going abroad, what are the Canadian requirements to bring babies back . . . Should there be a policy change?” Candice Malcolm, a CIC spokeswoman, says she doesn’t foresee any change to the policy. Meanwhile, families continue to pay a heavy price.
In April 2010, the Star wrote about another Canadian couple, both doctors, who travelled to western India in search of a surrogate. She bore them twins. When the couple went to the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi for travel documents, DNA tests showed both babies were unrelated to either the couple or the birth mother. They were the product of fertilized eggs from an unknown couple. The doctors left India devastated. The twins most likely went to an orphanage. Stories like these are not uncommon from India, where about 350 fertility clinics flourish.
Nothing surprises Nancy Lam, a Toronto lawyer specializing in fertility. She advises clients not to go abroad for surrogacy. “It’s hard to deal with complications if they are in another country,” she says. “Unless you have family there, I say don’t go.” But Lam acknowledges when couples want children, they just want children. “They’ll go anywhere, do anything.”
Lawyers Kelly Jordan and Michael Battista remember the first time they spoke to the couple stranded in India. “He was calling from a phone booth, the connection wasn’t the best,” says Jordan. “You could hear the traffic in the background but the desperation in his voice was unmistakable.” That was last summer.
The lawyers filed numerous court applications and had discussions with government lawyers. Nothing happened for almost a year. Then in May, Ottawa issued a citizenship card to the girl, who is biologically related to the couple, and travel papers to the other child. To date, Battista doesn’t know what triggered the turnaround. In India, the couple reacted with disbelief. They were overjoyed and hoped to return soon, Battista told the Star at the time. (The family had to wait for exit visas from the Indian government to return to Canada.)
Now Battista will file an application on humanitarian and compassionate grounds for the non-biological child and then a citizenship application. He says the government has agreed to complete the paperwork within months. This week, the family finally met Jordan and Battista. It was an emotional meeting — the adults shook hands and hugged, the children sucked candy and looked on in bemusement. “This is all because of them,” says the man, referring to Battista and Jordan. “We had been there for more than six years. They saved us, all of us.” (Before Battista, the couple had two other lawyers but their case went nowhere.)
The man, sitting in the lawyers’ boardroom, is of medium height, thin and frequently prefixes his sentences with “excuse me.” His wife, a quiet, small woman with flowing black hair tied in a ponytail, sits next to him. The twins, in identical red T-shirts and denim shorts, tear around the office. The couple, in their 50s, is adamant about keeping their identities secret due to the stigma attached to surrogacy. They also worry about the impact on the twins if they were to discover the circumstances of their birth. “We could have never thought it would be like this,” says the man. “It was a nightmare.”
The couple, who quit their jobs before they left for India and sold their house in Toronto’s east-end to pay for fertility and living expenses there, say they resided in a one-bedroom apartment without furniture, bedevilled by small armies of mosquitoes. Their living conditions were awful, they say. Often there was no electricity, sometimes the sewer system was blocked and their basic means of transportation was a rickety bicycle. Except for school, the twins were not allowed out because the couple feared they would be discovered to be living illegally.
“I couldn’t work and if we had to go to the hospital, I had to pretend to speak the local language so that they (officials) didn’t suspect anything,” says the man. They could have returned with their daughter but were adamant about not leaving their son behind — even if he wasn’t theirs genetically. The thought never crossed their minds, says the man. “While eating, sleeping . . . all we could think of was how to take both the kids back,” says the man.
Big smiles on their faces, the couple says they haven’t even begun to think about starting life over again. They are living with extended family and the children seem to be adapting well. “They are almost like new immigrants,” says Battista. “They have to begin all over again.”
Article: 20th August 2011 www.thestar.com
Read more about surrogacy within the UK