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Surrogacy and the Single Dad

The hunt for a family can take some unexpected turns

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Time and again, on his morning commute, David found himself scowling about the night before--yet another dead-end date. There he was, a successful 39-year-old, with a flourishing ophthalmology business and a decent income. All he wanted was to fall in love and start a family--unlike so many men, he actually wanted to commit. But he never was lucky in love.

"I had a few relationships, but nothing ever lasted more than a year," David shrugs. "I don't know why. Maybe I'm too focused on my work. Maybe it's because I live in Flint, Michigan--I'm sure it's easier in New York. Also, you know, I started off looking for a Jewish girl. Out here, we call them JAPs: Jewish-American Princesses. I wasn't so picky after a while."

Every day, he would pass a billboard on his drive to work: "Dream of having a family but can't? Consider in-vitro fertilization." The face on the poster was a patient of his, a fellow physician who ran a local in-vitro fertilization clinic. So one morning, after "the date that broke the camel's back," he decided to pay him a visit.

"I asked him whether the chances of birth defects were greater with IVF. I honestly didn't know. But he said, 'no'. And that got me thinking--I'm not going to wait for a wife, I'm going to do this myself."

That was in 2002. Now he is the father of twin boys, 15 months old--Philip and Benjamin.

David--who wants to conceal his surname--is one of a small but growing minority of single men who are choosing to bypass relationships altogether and pursue fatherhood through surrogacy. Not traditional surrogacy but 'host' or 'gestational' surrogacy--there's a big difference. While a traditional surrogate becomes pregnant by artificial insemination--her own eggs are fertilized so she is genetically the child's mother--a host surrogacy is more complex. The prospective father first buys eggs from a donor--they can range from $2,000 to $100,000 a batch, depending on the donor's looks, brains, health and so on. He has them fertilized in-vitro with his own sperm or that of another cherry-picked donor--IVF costs up to $23,000. And then the embryos are implanted in the uterus of a surrogate who brings the baby to term for about $25,000. Not to mention legal fees.

Though traditional surrogacy is considerably cheaper--in addition to the surrogate's fees, artificial insemination can cost as little as $600--most prospective parents opt for host surrogacy because the surrogate, lacking a genetic bond, is far less likely to become attached to the baby. And while there are no hard numbers--surrogacy is a largely unregulated industry--anecdotal evidence indicates that host surrogacy is a booming business. Where it was once the preserve of infertile straight couples, now demand has extended to gay couples and singles (for whom traditional procreation is not an option) and a handful of perfectly fertile, straight men like David (for whom it is).

No doubt there are ethical questions raised by this phenomenon, in which the rich hand-pick their children's genes for brains, beauty, athleticism and longevity, and then lease out the uterus of a lower income woman to carry the baby.

"I worry that it becomes just another consumer choice," says Professor Mary Shanley of Vassar College, New York, the author of Making Babies, Making Families. "There are alternatives for people who wish to become parents, such as adoption. Why is the genetic factor so important here? By choosing the characteristics you want your child to have, you misunderstand the attitude that you need to be a good parent, which is ultimately about acceptance."

Shanley is encouraged, however, that men should be actively seeking a parenting role--a welcome change in traditional gender roles. But the question remains--why are eligible, wealthy, straight men, who don't have the urgency of a biological clock, nevertheless opting to have children without women?

"Believe me, it's not because it's easy," says David. Unassuming and soft-spoken, he seems an unlikely candidate for such a bold step. But behind his modest demeanour lies a grim determination. "I had to try five times over 3 years before my surrogate got pregnant. I must have spent something like $300,000. And I'm not what you call rich--at one point, I maxed out all three of my credit cards."

The first time around, his greatest challenge was finding an egg donor. Having contacted several agencies and browsed the profiles online, he found Rachel through an agency called Fertility Alternatives in Southern California.

"She was a college student, about 20," says David. "Dark hair, dark eyes, very pretty. She had a healthy family history. I talked to her on the phone and she seemed nice."

But it didn't work--the surrogate didn't get pregnant. So he tried again, keeping Rachel but changing the surrogate. Still no joy.

"It was very stressful," he says. "But every time it didn't work, I just grew more determined. So the third time I changed egg donor and doctor, but I kept the same surrogate. And the fourth time I changed the egg donor again. Then the agency told me there were studies that showed that where you had Caucasian sperm and eggs, the best surrogates were Latina or African-American women."

So on his fifth attempt, David finally found his winning combination. The egg donor was a former Swedish model living in Beverly Hills--a tall, well-educated blonde who had three grandparents living in their 90s. And his surrogate was Lilia Chavez, a 28-year-old mother of three from Riverside, California.

"Actually, I had two two surrogates at the same time," he says, "Sheila and Lilia. I was so exasperated I just used a scattershot approach. When I got the call from my lawyer, I was playing golf in Florida. He said, both surrogates were carrying twins, so for a few days I thought I'd have four children. But Sheila's embryos didn't take."

Eight weeks later, he was at a hospital in Riverside, California, by Lilia's bedside--it was the first time they had met.

"We were watching the sonogram," he said. "And just to see those two babies, their hearts beating, it really affected me. I started crying. I felt like, at last, it's going to happen." It's no accident that David went to California--the Golden State is something of a world capital for surrogacy.

"Our laws are more liberal," says Susan Jones, who runs Surrogate Parenting Consultants, the agency that put David and Lilia together. "In California, you needn't be a couple to use a surrogate. Gay couples are fine, so are single parents. They'll even issue a birth certificate with only the father's name on it--not the surrogate or the egg donor.

"Parenthood is decided by a surrogacy contract out here," she continues.

"In one case, a couple used an egg donor and a sperm donor, so the child wasn't genetically related to either the surrogate or the intended parents. Then, during the pregnancy, they filed for divorce and the father tried to get out of paying child support--'it's not my baby.' But the Supreme Court upheld the contract. He was the intended parent, so he had to pay."

It's quite a different story in the UK, as Ian Mucklejohn well knows. The first-ever Englishman to become a single father through surrogacy, Mucklejohn was forced to leave England for Los Angeles to find himself a surrogate. Now at 59, he is the father of three fraternal twins, Piers, Lars and Ian, all approaching 6 years old--his remarkable story is told in the book And Then There Were Three.

"For a start, only couples are allowed in England," he says. "Surrogacy's illegal for single parents. And it doesn't matter what contracts you've got signed, the surrogate mother can always claim the baby as her own. Under English law, the parent is defined as the person out of whom the baby came, whether they're genetically related or not. And if the woman is married, it is assumed that her husband is the father. So my surrogate, Tina, had to divorce her husband while she was pregnant with my boys. Not that she minded--she was quite relieved actually!" (Tina's marriage had long ended in any meaningful sense).

For Mucklejohn, the challenge wasn't the pregnancy--he was lucky the first time around--but bringing his babies back to England.

"In order to get my children's nationality I had to prove by DNA that I was the father," he says. "I think that was pretty groundbreaking. Surely it's time that English law embraced DNA testing? If paternity can be proved, it should be proved."

Like David, Mucklejohn is a wealthy, self-made businessman with a long yearning for family. Though a much more forthright, emphatic personality, he shares that sense of paternal destiny, almost--he'd always seen himself as a father, life had simply dealt him an unusual hand. He was single not because of a succession of dismal dates, but because he scarcely dated at all.

"I was living the life of a 'carer,'" he says. "My father's mental state had totally deteriorated. He needed around-the-clock care. And then I had my business to run [he operates residential English Language courses for foreign children]. I just had no social life whatsoever. And I was in my fifties--I couldn't afford to hang around."

David, being 10 years his junior, was less motivated by a ticking clock. But like Ian, and so many other men who pursue surrogacy in their middle age, he worked long, antisocial hours--hardly conducive to finding a life partner, but perfect for bearing the costs of future surrogacy. He has always wanted children--at his practice, he's the one who treats the kids, he believes he has a way with them.

"I considered moving into pediatrics," he says. And just as Ian lost his father to dementia before he took the plunge into fatherhood himself, David too experienced a similar loss. His father died of a malignant tumour three years earlier.

"It scared me," he said. "I realized that you have one life, one chance, and you've just got to take it."

Both men freely admit that their decisions to go it alone were partly driven by a fear of divorce. "Don't get me wrong, I always wanted a wife and I still do," says David. "But half of all marriages end in divorce and the law heavily favors women when it comes to custody. I see my friends all depressed about custody battles with their exes. That was a real red flag for me. I couldn't imagine having my children taken from me. This way, that can never happen."

Inevitably, the likes of David and Ian have met with opposition. In America, all the men I approached for this article feared a backlash from Christian conservatives. Sometimes, even surrogates will refuse to work with them.

"I've had surrogates tell me, 'I'd work with a single mother before a single guy because you don't know if he's a child abuser or something,'" says Susan Jones.

And the tabloid media hasn't always been kind. Certainly, they have put Ian Mucklejohn on the defensive, quick to argue that older parents are better for children (more experience), and that his children have plenty of female influences in their lives.

"One [woman] accused me of creating disabled children," he says, bitterly. "Just because I had deprived them the interplay between mothers and fathers who don't always agree. I made the point that my children hadn't heard any arguments."

But perhaps the reactionary responses are fading, at least among surrogate mothers. As more single mothers become surrogate moms, they are less quick to doubt the motives of a single parent. And while five years ago, many agencies didn't work with single men at all, now some actually prefer it. Lilia Chavez has only ever worked with single men. Though David was her first experience as a surrogate, she's now hoping to carry children for Mike, another single, straight man in his 40s.

"My husband was a single father before we got married and I saw what a good parent he is," she says. "Men are not as emotional. You don't get all the drama. I think they're more realistic, so in a way, they're better equipped to be parents."

Nevertheless, there were tensions between her and David. Though Lilia wouldn't talk about it, David hints at a conflict of class--"here I am with all this money to pay for this," he says, "and she's doing it for the money. It wasn't always smooth. We just come from different backgrounds."

Certainly David's background afforded him the means to attempt surrogacy five times--though it plunged him into debt--and he currently has a full-time nanny. But perhaps more importantly, he has the broad support of his extended family--his mother and two brothers, all of whom live within minutes of each other.

"When I started taking this route, my mother thought I was risking my future," he says. "She said, 'What if you end up with a monster?' Now she couldn't be happier."

Mucklejohn, on the other hand, is very much on his own. He once had a nanny but "the kids didn't ask about her when she went to hospital, so I took that as a sign to step in. So now, Daddy does everything. It's tough, managing it all. I can't afford to fall ill, as you can imagine."

Nevertheless, Mucklejohn has a confident, breezy way about him. When I ask about perhaps the trickiest issue of all--what to tell the children about "mummy"--it seems he has already taken care of it. With the help of the BBC, he tracked down the egg donor, Melissa, and arranged a meeting with the children. He did the same with Tina, the surrogate.

"The boys know they have two mummy's and they're both in America and they're happy with it," he says. "It doesn't come up." Job done.

This is, in fact, very rare, in the world of surrogacy. Most egg donation is entirely anonymous. As a result, men have spun elaborate lies about these phantom mothers, particularly those who travel to America from abroad.

"It's a problem, I think," says Professor Shanley. "I'm all for collaborative procreation but the child, I believe, has a right to know who their genetic forebears are."

Certainly, David hasn't decided yet what he's going to do. "I think honesty's always the best policy, but still, how do you explain this to a child?" he says anxiously. "I might get a consultation with a child psychiatrist. Hopefully they won't grow up and say, 'how could you bring us into the world without a mother, how could you do such a cruel thing?"

Like Mucklejohn, however, David just bubbles over with pride in his children. Both men are devoted fathers and have a strong sense of being trailblazers, determined to raise exemplary kids to defy any critics. And as for what the moral of their stories might be, they are unanimous--they are beacons of hope for childless men everywhere.

"I think the lesson of all this is that life is wonderful," says David. "Just look how far we've come in this society that this is even possible."

"Yes, and also how much easier it is to meet women when you already have children," says Mucklejohn. "I'm not joking. I've had a number of women who've expressed the wish to meet me. Maybe it's easier to do it backwards!"

 

This story was originally published in Stella Magazine, in the United Kingdom.

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