"When you can't have a child and desperately want one, it's devastating. I'm a former surrogate mum myself and it's one of the best things I've ever done." We hear from Kim Cotton, the UK's first-ever surrogate mother and find out how - more than thirty years on - she's still help parenting dreams become a reality.
"Fertility is something that many people, especially many young mums, take for granted. But when you can't have a child - whether for fertility or other medical reasons - and desperately want one, it's devastating. I'm a former surrogate mum myself and it's one of the best things I have ever done in my life. So good, in fact, I did it twice."
So says Kim Cotton, who became the UK's first surrogate mother back in 1985 and found herself in the eye of a media storm. When it emerged that she'd been paid to carry the baby (by a foreign couple via an American agency who quickly left the country with their child once they were awarded custody) the outrage was so great that within months a law was introduced to make commercial surrogacy illegal.
Undeterred by this and spurred on by a desire to help others, Kim went on to start a non-profit service called COTS (Childlessness Overcome Through Surrogacy). Over the past three decades, in matching up intending parents with willing surrogates, the organisation has played its part in creating more than 1,063 surrogate babies.
It's an astonishing number, but Kim is still keen to continue to help further. "Now, as then, our objective is to help match intending parents with a surrogate mum," she says. "Every day, I talk to the most amazing people; would-be parents who have the devastating news that they may not be able to carry a child themselves."
In Kim's case, her ground-breaking baby was via 'traditional' surrogacy. "This is where the pregnancy is created using artificial insemination, and as a surrogate mother I was genetically the mother as well as the birth mother. More usual these days is gestational surrogacy, which involves the implantation of an in vitro embryo, whereby the surrogate mum is genetically unrelated to the baby, and the child is wholly the intending parents' genetic material."
In recent years, the awareness and acceptance of both surrogacy and surrogate parenting is greater than ever, and demand is growing, not least because of celebrities who have chosen this way to have their much-longed for children (such as Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, and Robbie Williams and Ayda Field), and changes in the law that have allowed same-sex couples and single-parents to become parents through surrogacy.
Understandably, the process involves plenty of concerns and queries for all concerned. Many intending parents wonder who would want to carry a baby for someone else - and why? As Kim Cotton knows, it's a complex matter both physically and emotionally. "As a surrogate mother, you are giving away part of yourself, so you do need to think about the implications very carefully. For me, it was the most rewarding experience of my life. To be able to help other people to achieve their dream in this way is an absolute privilege - and this is something that so many surrogate mums share."
In the UK and Ireland, surrogacy is allowed - but not on a commercial basis, and surrogates can only be paid reasonable expenses. In many European countries however - including France, Spain, Italy and Germany - any form of surrogacy is illegal. This, and a lack of available surrogates sees many desperate intending parents turn to commercial surrogacy, travelling to the likes of Ukraine, Russia and Georgia, as well as Canada and those states in the US where it is legal. In the Eastern European countries, surrogate mothers can be hired through agencies at a relatively inexpensive cost, a fraction of what it can cost in the US or Canada. Many query the ethical aspects of such transactions, especially where financial motivation is behind the decision to become a surrogate, with concerns about exploitation. These are so much so that countries such as India, Thailand, Nepal and Mexico have all banned foreign commercial surrogacy.
In England and Wales, the laws around surrogacy are under review, and although the commercial aspect is unlikely to be legalised, one of the main concerns on all sides is the fact that - unlike in some countries - the surrogate remains the child's legal parent until the court grants a Parental Order to the intending parents. This process can take many months, and many reformers want to see a Parental Order being applied at birth. This could reduce problems where, say, there are urgent medical decisions to be made, or other potential concerns over who will keep hold of the baby.
This, according to Kim Cotton, is where organisations like COTS play such an important role. "We have a team of advisers with vast experience advising on all aspects of surrogacy - from medical issues, legal and financial matters, support to same-sex intending parents and so on. We try to ensure that the journey feels as smooth as possible - and that would-be parents can - all being well - come out with a baby of their own at the end of the process. We also offer advice on becoming a surrogate yourself, which is of course such a vital part of it, as we have some wonderful intending parents just waiting for their 'angel' to help them have a child of their own and fulfil their dream."
Ultimately for her. even though she was financially rewarded for her first surrogate child, and would like to see surrogates paid for their services, she is a firm believer in the wonderful act of helping others achieve their dreams. "Some people regard surrogacy as something they could never do, but I feel that surrogacy is just like extreme babysitting! You incubate a child for nine months on behalf of your Intending parents and when the baby is born you hand the child to them to bring up as their own. I can't think of a more wonderful thing to do for someone else. It's such a lovely, lovely thing to do, and helping a childless couple is the most rewarding thing I have ever done."
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