Heather Gunn has spent the majority of the past three years “chronically pregnant.”
This November the 29-year-old London, Ont. real estate agent will give birth for the sixth time since her son was born 12 years ago. But this baby won’t go home with her. Nor did the last two.
The single mother-of-three is a three-time surrogate. She says she was drawn to surrogacy after her nine-year-old twin girls were born.
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Even though she always knew she wanted to have three kids, she didn’t realize she’d have them all by the age of 20 through just two pregnancies.
“I thought, ‘I can’t believe this is it,’” she said.
She’d met people who struggled with fertility and felt fortunate that, despite the occasional bout of morning sickness, pregnancy was “really easy” for her.
“I started thinking, “Hmm, I wonder if this is something I can do to help somebody.”
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She was matched to a heterosexual couple in 2013 and is now carrying a second child for a gay couple.
She’s left six months of postpartums between the past three pregnancies.
Each baby has been larger than the last, and each labour lasts about six hours.
For the last one, she opted for her first epidural.
Both couples she’s carried for have been in the room during delivery. It’s an emotional moment for everyone, as the parents have the baby put into their arms.
“That’s what you do it for. It’s that moment.”
Surrogate Heather Gunn with the couple she carried a baby for twice.
“You just feel so proud…I cry tears of joy. Someone gets to meet their baby, in large part because of you.”
The birth certificate for a baby born through surrogacy in Canada can list either two men, two women or a single person as the parent. The exceptions are Quebec and New Brunswick, where the parents would have to adopt the child. As a result, people reportedly don’t really pursue surrogacy there.
Breaking the stigma surrounding infertility
One in six couples in Canada struggles with fertility issues.
“And you never hear about it. It’s kind of that thing you’re not supposed to talk about – that you’re unable to have children,” said Breanne Willoughy-Brown of Canadian Fertility Consulting.
The Toronto-based agency, which matches parent-hopefuls with surrogates, wants to open up the conversation about surrogacy. The clinic is set to host information sessions in various cities across the country (in Calgary Aug. 19, then in Alberta again as well as B.C. in Oct., Nova Scotia in Nov.), where local surrogates will share their stories.
“It’s a lot more common than you would think,” Willoughy-Brown said, estimating more than 150 babies are born through their program each year.
The majority of the clients are from Ontario, but the agency also attracts surrogacy-seeking couples from western provinces.
“Because there is so much shame related to it, your neighbour could be a surrogate and you may not know.”
Gunn said she worried about people judging her. But the response has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
Sometimes when strangers ask her questions about the pregnancy, she might say, “Oh, this one’s not actually for me.” Or in the case of the gay partners, whose semen was used to fertilize two separate donor eggs,” she’d joke, “I don’t know who the father is.”
Surrogacy misconceptions and legality
The biggest misconception about surrogacy is the compensation.
“In the State of California, for example, a surrogate may receive anywhere between $30,000 and $50,000 in payment — plus other expenses. In Canada, they receive the ‘other expenses,’” explained Leia Swanberg, the CEO of Canadian Fertility Consulting.
“Our average surrogate would receive $20,000.”
But each case is different. A stay-at-home mom on bed rest, for example, would have different reimbursement needs than a nurse who needs full-time child care.
“[The financial help is] definitely not why you would do it,” Gunn stressed.
She said she gets a portion of her grocery bills paid back as long as she keeps the receipts.
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Payment was part of a high-profile legal case at Swanberg’s organization four years ago. She admits she compensated surrogates without receipts, which are now a strict requirement.
The surrogate’s expenses aren’t the only surrogacy cost to consider.
“Typically I say to people, they’re going to spend between $60,000 and $80,000 dollars,” Swanberg said.
That breaks down to roughly:
$10,000 for legal fees — including independent legal advice for both parties, and the creation of a legal contract (surrogacy contracts aren’t recognized in Quebec, and can be in somewhat of a grey zone in other provinces)average of $20,000 in surrogate expenses — this usually covers additional meals, childcare, any vitamins, health supplements or treatment (like acupuncture or reflexology)up to $25,000 in the fertility treatment process — surrogates get referred to a fertility clinic, where they get implanted with embryos created by the intended parents$5,000 in medication — hormone injections are required in the first term to sync a surrogate’s body with the egg donor to mimic and maintain a pregnancy
A surrogate’s medication can include large doses of estrogen and progesterone, which can sometimes leave her feeling moody and unwell.
Swanberg says there are no long-term studies to show any long-term links to health issues stemming from the drugs.
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While her agency works with gestational carriers (meaning the surrogate is not related to the child she’s carrying), some couples choose to find a friend or family member to carry their baby.
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Others may turn to online ads or international arrangements. While this may save costs it can increase risks. In one Canadian case, a New Brunswick surrogate found herself stuck with twins after a British couple broke the contract 27 weeks into the pregnancy because they broke up.
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Bill C-6, which covers surrogacy law in Canada covers, states it’s illegal to pay for surrogacy. It also requires surrogates to be a least 21 years old.
Contravening the law can lead to 10 years in jail or a half million dollar fine.
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Swanberg advises surrogates to have a will, as well as a life insurance policy and make sure there are no surrogacy exclusions — just in case there are any complications. She also requires surrogates to have carried at least one pregnancy to term and undergo a psychological assessment.
Surrogacy definitely isn’t for everyone. Some surrogates may have a hard time with the notion that you may not always have much contact with the parents or child post-birth.
It’s not an issue for Gunn, though.
She thinks the benefit of giving someone the gift of life outweighs any costs.
“It’s one of those gifts that you’re so uniquely able to provide as a younger woman,” she said. “And there’s a finite amount of time you can do it. So if it’s something that appeals to you and you think that it’s something you want, have those discussions and open your mind.
“It’s an amazing thing to do.”