Gay and lesbian couples are using surrogacy and IVF to produce designer babies
Barrie Drewitt-Barlow is passionate about fatherhood and speaks lovingly of his five children. But he is no ordinary dad. Barrie and his partner of 11 years, Tony, were determined to start a family despite the obvious difficulties.
The couple, both wealthy businessmen, realised their dream ten years ago with the birth of twins Aspen and Saffron. The babies were a product of the sperm of both men, an egg donor and a surrogate mother. Since then, the Drewitt-Barlows (the men merged both of their second names) have added another three children to their brood and have spent at least £700,000 doing so. The couple has pioneered a growing and ethically questionable trend among gay men and lesbians — using surrogates and other fertility procedures to produce designer babies.
Today, the “Gaybe” revolution is booming. Although surrogacy and related fertility services are still accessed mainly by heterosexual couples, gay men are increasingly demanding equity.
Known by some critics as “reproductive trafficking”, surrogacy is an ethical minefield. Heterosexuals will use their own eggs and sperm but will rent a womb for the gestation, whereas gay men will need to use in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and the eggs from a donor in order to impregnate the surrogate.
Prior to the Drewitt-Barlows’ pioneering act, gay men accepted that having their own children as couples was impossible. In the past, lesbian couples would decide which one would carry the child and then ask a male friend to donate sperm and then self-inseminate. Today, they are more likely to use one of Britain’s commercial sperm banks.
While children’s homes are full to bursting with abused, neglected and unwanted children, increasing numbers of lesbians and gay men are making their own, often spending huge amounts of money in order to conceive.
IVF was developed in the 1970s as a response to infertility, with the first so-called test-tube baby being born in 1978. None of the major religions had, in 1978, an official policy on artificial insemination but the Roman Catholic Church raised the strongest objections at the time.
There is no law to prevent surrogacy in Britain but it is illegal for surrogates to advertise as they do in the US. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulates infertility and IVF clinics in Britain, says that any offer of such treatment using a surrogate mother would be governed by strict guidelines.
I ask Barrie what gave him and Tony the idea to have babies using surrogacy. “We just wanted a child back then and if we could have, we would have fostered or adopted,” says Barrie. “Lesbians have proved for years that kids of same-sex couples can grow up fine, but we still get prejudice. Lots of people think we must be a couple of paedophiles.”
To create Saffron and Aspen, both men’s sperm was extracted and separated so that Tony would father the male children and Barrie the females. These samples were mixed with the egg donor’s eggs to form embryos. Two embryos were implanted into the surrogate resulting in twins.
Four years later, the men decided to have another child and defrosted the last surviving original embryo. This was implanted in a different surrogate resulting in Orlando. But this embryo had originally split from Aspen’s, which means that Aspen and Orlando are biological twins despite the age gap and share exactly the same DNA.
With no embryos left, and the original egg donor being considered too old to donate, the couple chose a 25-year-old model as a replacement from the catalogue supplied by the surrogacy service. They decided that this time they did not mind who was the biological father and both gave sperm samples. Two embryos were implanted in the same surrogate they had used to carry Orlando.
After their first set of twins was born, the Drewitt-Barlows successfully challenged the American authorities to become the first gay couple to have both their names on their children’s birth certificates.
”People said to us we should just accept the fact that it is unnatural for two men to have kids, but neither is growing a new liver, so we refused to give up. And why shouldn’t we have our own children?” Barrie is clear, however, that having the children and challenging the law was not something they did for gay emancipation, but was a “completely selfish desire to be parents”.
To find the egg donors, the couple spent hours looking through catalogues, commenting on their appearances in a way not dissimilar to choosing a new set of curtains.
Did they consider adopting children once the law changed to allow gay men to do so? “It’s a bit like giving blood. I won’t do it now because it used to be rejected [as a result of the assumption that gay men were more likely to be infected with HIV than heterosexuals],” says Barrie. “I would cut my nose off to spite my face and now that we can adopt I won’t do it.”
But Andrea Woelke, a solicitor at Alternative Family Law, a firm that offers advice to gay and lesbian couples using IVF and surrogacy, says that many of the gay men he advises choose not to adopt. “Often my clients have considered adoption and fostering,” says Woelke, “but the process is such an intrusive and long-winded one and if the children come to them aged three or older they can have problems.”
Woelke says that he is noticing an increased number of gay men inquiring about surrogacy. “Lots more lesbian and gay couples are wanting children as it becomes increasingly acceptable. If you are choosing an egg donor then it is inevitable that you would start to consider the type of looks and character traits and abilities you would like your child to have. It is a built-in perk.”
Class and racial divisions between surrogates, egg donors and the intended parents are stark. Surrogates tend to be working-class and have already had their own children, whereas the egg donor is likely to be a college student from a wealthy background who is considered bright and attractive. They earn more than the surrogates. In the US, the price of embryos is approximately $20,000.
In 2007, The Fertility Institutes in Los Angeles announced that, due to popular demand, it would be running a programme aimed at providing surrogacy services to gay men. It immediately began to receive numerous inquires from male couples in Britain. The programme is the first specialist surrogacy scheme dedicated to “two-father” families. The men are able to choose whether to have boys or girls, with three-quarters so far opting for male babies.
I spoke to one surrogate in the US, a 35-year-old housewife who asked not to be named because, she said, her parents would be “horrified” if they knew she made money from giving birth. “I was approached by a gay male couple last year who told me I was perfect for them because I had wide hips, like a brood-mare. I am now seven months pregnant and they come with me to every appointment and talk to my doctors on a regular basis. It is their baby. I have to follow their rules about what I eat and drink and how I look after myself.”
Making babies the lesbian way has also become increasingly commercialised. Baby on Safari, set up seven years ago in Durban, South Africa, is part of the growing “Gaybe” revolution. It caters for overseas lesbian and gay couples who cannot “get a baby” in their own countries.
“Lesbians travel here from Australia, America and the UK,” the woman who runs the service told me. “For them, even with the air fare and other expenses, it is still cheaper to get fertility treatment here than back home.”
BoS offers IVF treatment and has its own sperm bank. Men are catered for, too. If they want a baby, BoS will assist, so long as they bring their own eggs and surrogate mother to the clinic. “Lesbians want their own babies, and are thinking, ‘I can, therefore I want to.'”
Kate and Lisa (not their real names) decided to start a family three years ago and signed up to a commercial donor company. Both white, they decided that it would be “ethically questionable” for them to request a donor of the same race and Lisa became pregnant with the sperm of a man of African origin. “I thought it may be racist in a way to exclude the possibility of a mixed-race child,” says Kate. “After all, if I had met a black man and fallen in love I would have had dual-heritage children with him.”
But having a black child in an all-white household is entirely different from one with one black parent. Did they not consider this? “We know people from every ethnic background, more or less, and we talked about how our baby would have black and white positive role models.” Talking to both women gives me the impression that they chose a black donor for aesthetic reasons as much as their commitment to anti-racism. “Our child is beautiful,” says Lisa. “She has the most gorgeous curly hair and beautiful skin.”
The UK’s first fertility organisation to accept gay donors is Man Not Included (MNI), established in 2002. It advertises itself as the “world’s only confidential and anonymous sperm donation service”. Its opening paragraph reads like a human rights mantra, rather than a plug for a commercial service. “Mannotincluded.com believe that it is every woman’s right to have children if they so wish and that is why we [are] open to any woman, be she single, lesbian or married.” Founder John Gonzales said: “A few years ago, we would have struggled to get such good business, but today, it is totally accepted that lesbians should be able to have children if they wish.” MNI is no longer trading but there are scores of other similar services based in the UK and US catering specifically for lesbians. A number of websites give hugely detailed profiles of the donors, including all physical and intellectual profiles, hobbies and personality traits.
While some lesbians and gay men are spending a fortune trying to bring another baby into the world, it costs an estimated £700 a week to keep one child in care.
Although many heterosexual men and women will choose a spouse on the basis of the sort of looks and characteristics they wish any future children to inherit, “gaybe” boomers can shop around far more widely. Lesbian couple Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough, both deaf since birth, made headlines in 2002 when they were turned down by a series of sperm banks they approached looking for a congenitally deaf donor. Refusing to give up, the couple then approached a family friend who had five generations of deafness in his family and was deaf himself and asked him to donate sperm. The result was a deaf baby. McCullough said in response to her critics at the time that choosing to have a deaf child was no different from choosing its sex.
Much of the market is determined by race. Surrogates tend to be black or Asian and the donors white. India was recently named as the “rent-a-womb capital of the world” in a report on Slate.com. “Reproductive tourism” is now a half-a-billion-dollar a year industry, with 350 clinics offering surrogacy around the country. There it is barely regulated and cheap, costing just over $22,000 compared to around $100,000 in the US. For the desperately poor surrogates, bearing someone else’s child is a better option than selling a kidney. Interestingly, the surrogates are almost exclusively Muslim, whereas the egg donors used by Asian couples (white intended parents will fly an egg donor of their choice to India for the procedure) are Hindu.
Is it really acceptable that wombs are rented and eggs sold on the open market? Not according to the World Health Organisation, which takes a dim view of this commercialisation of childbirth, as do many children’s charities.
To date, the only criticism of the designer “gaybe” industry has come from those who believe that same-sex couples should not be allowed to bring up children. Those within the lesbian and gay communities seem to be largely uncritical of rich, white gays exploiting the bodies of poor, desperate women in the developing world, or adding to the “rent-a-womb” industry elsewhere.
The reasons for same-sex couples opting for surrogacy and other fertility services are partly the culture of homophobic oppression and partly related to biological constraints. But the fact remains that such practices are becoming so normalised and available that we will soon forget that designer babies grow up to be questioning adults.