Written by Michael Johnson-Ellis – Co.Founder My Surrogacy Journey
Trigger warning; Contains information on Infertility, Birth and IVF Failure.
I’m Michael and I’m married to Wes. We met by complete chance in June 2012 at Birmingham Pride no less, both single and not looking for a relationship. Pretty much from our first meeting I knew I’d met someone that was going to take my life in a direction that I’d been waiting for. Four months later (I know, right!) we were engaged and in August 2014 we married in front of all our friends and family.
We’re Dads to our two children, Talulah is 4, and Duke is almost 2. Wes also has a 16-year-old daughter named Katie, she also lives with us and is an amazing big sister to our children.
I guess we’re a little different from most families, but the one thing we have in common was the desire to create a family, the love we hold for our children and the dreams we strive to make happen for them. We’d do anything for them, just like any other parent would do for theirs.
Surrogacy in the UK
Our family was created via surrogacy, from the beginning this was our preferred way to family build. We often get asked ‘why didn’t you just adopt?’ to which we occasionally and politely respond with, ‘why didn’t you?’. Telling our story of how we became parents helps others understand the lengths the LGBTQ community often has to go to, whether that’s adoption, co-parenting, fostering, IVF, IUI or surrogacy. It’s also important to say that Surrogacy isn’t just reserved for the LGBTQ community. It’s a route to parenthood for those struggling with infertility such as PCOS, MRKH, Ashermans Syndrome and those women and people who may have had cancer.
Surrogacy in the UK is perfectly legal, however commercial surrogacy is not – therefore UK surrogacy is altruistic. Which means a surrogate is reimbursed ‘reasonable expenses’ (which varies from £0 to £20,000) with the average around £12,000 for carrying a pregnancy. There are a number of strict laws around how surrogacy must be carried out. Several organisations in the UK can help intended parents navigate their way through the varying options. Expect to pay a membership fee for their services and depending on the organisation be prepared to wait to become a member, as waitlists can be up to 18 months to fully sign up. Or you can opt to embark on an independent journey which involves working without any professional, structured support, these are free to access and are usually all online. We’d always recommend seeking legal advice, just so you understand the law, and Silver Cross are not associated in any way with my recommendation.
There are two types of surrogacy, traditional or straight surrogacy. This is when the surrogate would use her own eggs and therefore have a genetic link to the child. The other is gestational or host surrogacy, this involves IVF and also donor eggs and/or sperm.
The current law in the UK originated from The Surrogacy Arrangements Act 1985, it’s desperately waiting for an overhaul – more on that later. The laws state that any woman who gives birth is classed as the child’s legal mother. If she is married, then her wife or husband is classed as its other parent. So, despite not being biologically linked to the child potentially, our surrogate and her husband are our child’s legal parents. Crazy, isn’t it? We would have to apply for something called a Parental Order. So once the child is six weeks old, we submit our application to the court and go to court to change the legal parentage – straightforward enough, but so unnecessary. Thankfully there is overwhelming support to ensure this is changed in the new bill which is being drafted in 2022 hopefully.
Desire to parent
I had always had a desire to have a biological child, no different from most people. The way in which I had to embark on that journey though was a little different. Being two men, we needed two vital ingredients to complete our family: An egg donor and a surrogate. Therefore, we embarked on a gestational surrogacy journey.
The outlook was positive but also daunting. Finding all the relevant information was exhausting. It took months to compile and the materials often conflicted. We began an independent journey as all of the not-for-profit surrogacy organisations either had their registration books closed or had 1–2-year waitlists. We immersed ourselves into the Surrogacy world, made of tonnes of friends too. In all, we spent around three years researching our options as we knew very little about UK surrogacy, and in the beginning, we explored all the international options too – but the UK just felt right.
Advice for other same-sex and gay parents
As Wes already had a daughter, choosing who ‘should go first’ wasn’t an issue for us, whereas some couples often have a battle making this important decision. It’s a conversation I’d suggest that you have in the early days as it can create some friction and even resentment, and so discussing this early on prepares you for the journey better. Being the non-biological parent, for example, may take some getting used to (pre-birth) or require additional counselling. Personally, leaving it up to the scientists seems the more sensible option: Use your best embryo first would be my advice, meaning having both intended fathers create embryos, as most like to, and then seeing which embryo has the best chance to become a live birth.
We joined a number of networking forums where surrogates and intended parents chat online (Facebook groups) and over time build relationships/friendships. We couldn’t believe of this new world we’d discovered.
We met our surrogate after around six weeks of being active in the surrogacy groups, and we hit it off immediately. We were delighted, and we also realised we were very lucky – meeting someone this quickly who you just ‘click’ with is rare, but it worked.
Our surrogate, Caroline, was married and had never been a surrogate before. She had four children of her own and had always yearned to help make another family.
Over the next six months we built on our friendship, we met with Caroline and her husband regularly, went out for meals, weekends away, and spent time with all her family. The nerves in the early days had long gone by now, and they were replaced with excitement.
Finding an egg donor
The exciting next step was finding a clinic that worked for us all. We chose one that had a great LGBTQ surrogacy programme and with a team that made us feel at ease. The next mission was asking the clinic to source us an egg donor that met our criteria. Most clinics have a waiting list for eggs, dependent on your criteria. Some over 8-10 months, so it’s good to bear this in mind.
Wes and I asked each other ‘If we could have children naturally, what would they look like?’ So, as we were using my gametes (sperm) first, we asked the clinic to match the donor to Wes. I’m dark, olive-skinned, and have hazel eyes. Wes has fair skin, blue eyes, and blonde/brown hair, so that was our criteria. We specified taller too, as we’re not so blessed in that area.
Here in the UK, egg and sperm donation is regulated by the HFEA and it’s classed as ‘non-anonymous’, which essentially means we don’t see photographs of our donor, nor do we know who they are. At the point of donation in the UK it’s completely anonymous. We only get non-identifiable details such as eye, hair, skin tone, and BMI (body mass index) as a marker. When our children turn 18, they can request full details of the donor, should they want to. This law came into effect in 2005, therefore no children conceived have yet turned 18 years old.
During this process, it inspired me to also become a sperm donor as it only felt right. Someone was helping us create our family by donating their cells, so why wouldn’t I do the same? So, I did.
Getting closer and closer to our dream
After 6 months an egg donor was found. We were so excited – our journey was getting closer and closer – our dreams were now starting to materialise. Our surrogate began hormone treatment, all our blood and semen analysis tests were completed, as was our counselling, which is a vital part of the process.
Our egg donor’s cycle was being stimulated by medication, and when her eggs were ready to be retrieved in the clinic I was invited to fertilise them and provide my sample. That fact that we were both in the clinic at the same time was crazy! Both anonymous to each other, we sat in different areas and our appointments were carefully timed.
Our donor didn’t produce many eggs, but this was expected. We were assured that the quality was excellent. We retrieved five eggs, my sperm was mixed with them, I was free to go home, and we’d then receive a daily call to hear how the fertilization process was progressing.
The lab updated us on the progress each morning, which was both nerve-racking and exciting. We had fertilised five eggs in the lab and by day five of them being cultured, three were viable and excellent blastocysts which is a day five embryo. We were happy with that result. Next was transfer.
Congratulations, you’re going to be Daddies!
One fresh embryo was transferred on the 13th of February 2016. What is meant to follow is two agonising weeks or the 2WW (two weeks wait). On day 10 our surrogate took a pregnancy test and messaged us asking if we could speak. We were concerned as she sounded urgent. We answered the call, and she simply said ‘Congratulations, you’re going to be Daddies! We cried, we hugged, and we cried some more. We were pregnant!
Talulah’s birth was the best experience of my life. As intended parents via surrogacy you may have to make sacrifices along the way due to the current surrogacy law and NHS policies for some trusts. During our entire pregnancy our surrogate opted for a c-section for medical reasons. From the beginning of our pregnancy it was explained that for the procedure her husband would be with her in theatre and not us, due to a one-person rule. He would comfort her and ensure she was safe, calm and OK. It was obviously the right thing to do, and we supported this. We would be in our side room on the maternity ward, where we agreed he would bring us our baby and break the news what the sex was. However, just at the eleventh hour, her husband ran into our side ward with no baby. ’Is everything OK!? I panicked. ’Is Caroline OK?’ Wes asked. Her husband urgently said, ’I’ve been told to come and get you, they don’t want you to miss the birth of your child!’ My eyes filled. ’Get some scrubs on quick!’ He said. We threw on a mismatch of scrubs and ran into theatre.
We watched the entire operation and saw our daughter, Talulah entered the world at 6am exactly weighing a healthy 8lb. Tears streamed down all over our faces, it was the best day of our life together. Holding her and seeing her gaze into our eyes was incredible, the intensity of the bond was immediate. I’ve never experienced love and a feeling like it ever. Nothing prepares you for the wave of emotion and overwhelming love. I remember in the car driving back with her in the car seat, just crying, totally overwhelmed that we’d finally created this beautiful tiny human. Surrogacy did this.
The sibling journey and getting back on track
Two and a half years later we began treatment again. We’d always spoken about a sibling journey with our surrogate and she was also ready to begin treatment again.
First of all, we needed to find an egg donor as our previous donor couldn’t donate again for us, due to health complications. We wished we’d both fertilised the eggs back in 2016 – but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
The clinic found us a new donor this time matching my physical characteristics. , but this donor had unproven fertility, meaning they hadn’t worked with her previously.
In June 2018 we had a failed transfer, which was heart-breaking. We hadn’t prepared ourselves for it not working. We’d just assumed we’d be lucky again and naively just expected it to work, which we know now is not always the case. That said, with same-sex surrogacy almost all of the time you’re not dealing with infertility issues – eggs are under 35 years old, both men are fertile, and the surrogate has a proven history of being able to carry safely. So, transfers working the first time are quite common and we just expected it again.
At this point, we had a little break to get our thoughts and emotions on track. Furthermore, we had to save for a new round of treatment. It hit us harder than we thought, and we just needed to connect again, as fertility treatment is so consuming.
This time we took a slightly different route. A friend offered to donate her eggs to us. She was also a fertility nurse and a real ambassador for surrogacy too. I had worked with her on several law reform projects and policy improvement projects. We were both committed to surrogacy and worked hard to help change local and government policy. We were beyond thrilled and because of her, we started treatment again in December 2018.
We managed to get eight eggs retrieved this time, and by day five we had six blastocysts which we feel was an amazing result. We transferred a single embryo in mid-December, and on the 31st of December our two-week wait was up and our incredible surrogate tested again for us…we were pregnant! We were over the moon and could celebrate New Year knowing we had one hurdle completed. We were ready to take on 2019 and growing our tribe a little more.
This time, our incredible, selfless surrogate was carrying Wes’ biological child who would turn out to be our incredible son. Again, the pregnancy moved along without any major issues, which we were grateful of. We had a planned c-section booked so we knew the date he’d be born on. We had our care at the same hospital and since our last pregnancy the NHS Trust had re-written its surrogacy policy with our help. This also meant that intended parents are both invited into theatre to witness the birth of their child. A proud moment and something that many other NHS Trusts have now implemented.
We entered the cool, chilled theatre, brightly lit room ablaze with staff and technology a bleeping sound. I counted 16 staff from our incredible Consultant who championed our journey right from the beginning to Anaesthetics, Theatre Practitioners, several Midwives, a PICU Nurse and a
number of junior doctors and other healthcare professionals. Caroline lay there calm, screen down (as this time she wanted to see the baby being born), looking calm and beaming. Her husband went straight over to her, kissed her on the head and Wes and I gave her a wink and blew her a kiss too. At 09:14 ‘knife to skin’ was recorded on the large white board, at 09:15 ‘uterine incision’ was made, and then at
09:16, as if by magic, friendship, love and science our baby entered the world, crying, with more hair than me andWes put together, and not looking happy with us all.
Duke was born on the 20th of August 2019, at 9:16 am weighing 7.2 lbs. Again, I cried more happy tears.
Similar to Talulah’s birth we were discharged within eight ours, Caroline would stay another night.
Before we left the hospital, we all spent time in the same room, looking back on how far we’ve all come. The friendship we’ve built, the love we’ve created.
‘I’m really proud of myself’ Caroline said – ‘This is what I wanted to achieve; and today it’s all made sense, I’ve completed a family – it’s one of my biggest achievements’ Needless to say, I cried again.
Along our journey building our family we blogged about our experience. We’ve now dedicated our lives to helping other gay parents via our website and Instagram page, TwoDadsUK. In our spare time, whilst juggling family and work we’ve helped over 300 people become parents, surrogacy became our life. We were asked to visit the Houses of Parliament in 2018 to provide evidence of our route to parenthood and offer ideas how the law could be improved. We worked with the Law Commissioners and All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Surrogacy Law Reform and in October 2019 the Law Commissioners consultation period ended, with a view to suggest a bill for a new law to be implemented in the next few years.
In February 2021, after three years in the making we launched the UK’s latest not-for-profit organisation called My Surrogacy Journey. Supporting everyone (LGBTQ or heterosexual) on a surrogacy journey.
All views and statements are those of My Surrogacy Journey and do not represent the position NUA Fertility, especially the section Surrogacy Law.