Jessie Thomas says while she would recommend altruistic surrogacy to others, there should be room for some commercialisation of the industry
Giving back is something Jessie and Marty Thomas have done their fair share of. Between them they have volunteered at various roles within their childrens sporting clubs and school environments and they help out where they can in their community of Rockhampton in Queensland.
But it was a news segment Jessie saw in early 2015 about someones experience as a surrogate that led her to embark on one of the most selfless acts of all.
I remember turning to Marty and saying, I could totally do that, she told Guardian Australia. Once I have my heart set on something, Im pretty determined to make it happen.
What makes Jessie particularly remarkable is that she agreed to become an altruistic surrogate for a couple, Emma Wood and Michael Fiddian, who were total strangers to her. Jessie is what is known in the surrogacy world as a gestational carrier, where IVF is used to impregnate a surrogate with the intended mothers egg and the intended fathers sperm, resulting in a baby not biologically related to the surrogate.
We are so fortunate to have been blessed with two healthy children and it was our decision how many children we wanted to have, Jessie says.
Some people dont get to make that choice so I felt it was something that I could help out with. Our children are our life, we live for them and I couldnt imagine how hard it would be to feel that your family is not complete and not being able to do anything about it yourself. Being able to help someone with their dream is a pretty good feeling.
Commercial surrogacy is illegal in all jurisdictions except the Northern Territory, so Jessie will not receive any money for her role in helping Emma and Michael become parents, apart from having her medical and legal costs covered by them.
It is only legal to advertise for a surrogate or to advertise an offer to become a surrogate in New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory and the advertisement must not be a paid one.
This leaves many, including Jessie and Emma, turning to online forums to find surrogates or intended parents. Many more couples abandon their hopes of finding a surrogate in Australia altogether, flying overseas and entering into commercial surrogacy arrangements. Despite traveling overseas for such arrangements being illegal in Queensland, NSW and the ACT, many Australians do it anyway, though there has not been a single prosecution for doing so.
According to a study led by Surrogacy Australia, 269 babies were born through overseas surrogacy on behalf of Australians in 2011. Comparatively, just 35 babies were born to gestational surrogates within Australia and New Zealand combined in 2013, the latest available statistics from the Australian and New Zealand Assisted Reproduction Database show. Surrogates are commonly family members or close friends but those options werent available to Emma.
Emma knows how lucky she is to have found Jessie and Marty to carry her and Michaels child. Jessie was contacted in an online forum by several parents but connected most with Emma and Michael. The couples met for the first time about one year ago and have visited each other several times since.
She lives in Rockhampton, I live in Canberra, we have no common friends, we dont have similar lives, shes 33 and Im 40, shes a teachers aid and Im a high school teacher and playwright, Emma says. But it has become a fantastic friendship. Jessie will always be acknowledged as the tummy mummy and shell always be a part of our family.
Emma wants people to know that for most people going down the surrogacy route, the option is a last resort and often follows years of heartache. Emma and Michael had their first child, Edward, nine years ago, but it took them two years to conceive him. Emma discovered her fallopian tubes were blocked about 18 months into trying and, after a medical procedure to repair her fallopian tubes, became pregnant with him six months later.
We thought wed had it tough because wed tried so hard to conceive him but we had no idea how tough things could get, she says.
One month after Edward was born, they conceived again, which excited them given their desire for more children and earlier difficulties. But Emma miscarried at nine weeks, discovering she had been carrying twins.
In 2010 Emma became pregnant again, this time through IVF, having failed to conceive naturally for two years. At 15 weeks, when she went to the toilet one night, her waters broke.
We went to hospital and they said; youll have to have a termination and deliver the baby, even though its still alive, she says. It was terrible. Doctors had different viewpoints about what had happened but no one could tell us clearly why. But it was clear the baby could not survive without the waters to help it develop its lungs and other vital organs.
We tried IVF again with the hope that it might have been a one-off and hoped for the best.
However, in 2011, again at 14 weeks into the pregnancy, an ultrasound revealed her baby had died. Again, she had to give birth.
At 12 weeks, when Emma went to the toilet and felt the baby coming, she was taken to hospital where she had an emergency operation to attempt to push the baby back and stitch up the cervix. Doctors said her baby probably died sometime after this due to the trauma of that procedure.
It was awful, Emma says. After that we were in despair. I was 36 by then and Michael was 39.
Doctors by this stage believed Emma may have a medical condition where the cervix is weak and begins to dilate and thin before a pregnancy can reach term. To complicate matters, she had also been diagnosed with an autoimmune illness that could, in itself, cause pregnancy loss.
But, to their shock, Emma and Michael became pregnant again in 2014, this time conceiving naturally despite believing they were unable to. They had not been trying for a child. Emma was terrified of losing another baby and asked for a surgical stitch to be placed around her cervix to strengthen it and hold it closed. She was advised by her obstetrician that the stitch would not be necessary, because there were other, safer ways to support the cervix. A routine scan at 15 weeks found her cervix had begun to open and she was at this point given a surgical stitch and placed on strict bed rest.
Nearly four weeks into the bed rest I was given an ultrasound that revealed my waters had seeped gradually away and so, just like the first time, I had to give birth to a living baby that would not survive, Emma says.
We felt cursed. It was our third second-trimester loss. We named them all Pat, Pip and Rose.
The doctor said he felt my cervix during my last procedure and it was like butter. He said he didnt know why, it was a mystery, but there was just something wrong, but that it was also clear there was no hope that I could carry a baby.
Then Jessie came along and she saved our sanity. Shes just extraordinary.
However, the surrogacy process has not been without its difficulties. Unfortunately the first embryo transfer to Jessie, in January, ended in miscarriage about seven weeks into her pregnancy.
That was the first time I have experienced anything like that and was very tough for all of us, Jessie says.
But, to Emma and Michaels relief, Jessie agreed to try again.
We were fortunate that the second transfer has been successful, Jessie says. In the beginning especially, it was near impossible to relax. As time goes on and everything seems to be going great, I can relax and try and enjoy the pregnancy a little more each day.
She is now 25 weeks pregnant.
While there is no limit to the number of IVF cycles that can be claimed through Medicare, surrogates who become pregnant through IVF are not entitled to a Medicare rebate. It makes surrogacy an option only to those who can afford it.
Emma says she stopped keeping track of the medical and legal costs when they reached about $50,000. This is, however, still cheaper than it is for those who travel overseas to find a commercial surrogate, with a study published in the Medical Journal of Australia finding the average total costs for couples travelling to India was $69,212 and $172,347 for those traveling to the US.
The president of Surrogacy Australia, Robert Reith, says the organisation wants the government to allow a Medicare rebate for couples who require a surrogate to start a family, to decriminalise commercial surrogacy and to create a compensated surrogacy framework consistent across Australia, including allowing for surrogates and intending parents to advertise.
Common factors for requiring surrogacy include infertility, being unable to carry a child due to disease or cancer, being part of a same-sex relationship, or Mayer-Rokitansky-Kster-Hauser syndrome [a disorder that occurs in women and mainly affects her reproductive system], he says.
Most surrogacy pregnancies are very positive. After 10 years of heartbreak, my wife and I are currently 17 weeks pregnant. My sister-in-law is our surrogate. As its such an emotional issue, people are very private, so we do find it hard to get people to go public.
In May, the standing committee on social policy and legal affairs tabled its report from its inquiry into surrogacy to parliament. As its key point, the committee recommended that commercial surrogacy remain illegal in Australia, noting that surrogates were not motivated by financial reward and a significant potential for the exploitation of surrogates and children to occur through commercialisation.
However, the committee recommended a nationally consistent legal altruistic surrogacy framework be established. The committee did not make any recommendations about Medicare rebates but noted that a number of submissions have raised the issue of Medicare coverage for surrogates.
It has been noted that Medicare coverage does not extend to IVF treatment if a surrogate is used, the report found. The Australian governments paid parental leave scheme does apply to women who are pregnant with a surrogate child.
The government is due to respond to the committees recommendations by the end of the year.
Dr Karin Hammarberg, a womens health researcher with the Jean Hailes research unit at Monash Universitys school of public health and preventive medicine, said rebates for IVF could be better targeted to those most likely to benefit from IVF treatment.
Surrogacy, due to its cost, is really only available to a select few, she says. We are prepared to fund IVF irrespective of age or likelihood of succeeding. But the worthy case of a young woman who had cancer of the uterus, for example, and who has a sister prepared to help her have a child through surrogacy, does not have treatment funded to the same extent.
We havent got the balance quite right.
A leading Australian surrogacy lawyer, Stephen Page, said it was common for his clients to have been through many, many rounds of failed IVF before opting for surrogacy.
We as taxpayers are paying for that, he says. If surrogacy were more available, they wouldnt have done so many rounds, theyd go towards surrogacy sooner.
He supports a carefully regulated and nationally consistent model of commercial surrogacy that would require intensive counselling for all parties and which would ban financially unstable or first-time parents from becoming a surrogate.
Typically, surrogates are women 25 years and older, so they are quite mature, and they have had all of their own children, Page says.
Thats generally a good idea, because they know what theyre in for, theyre aware of any complications theyre in for and, if they have had all of their own kids, they wont suddenly decide they want to keep yours.
Page also believes it is unfair that the only people benefiting financially from surrogacy currently are doctors, lawyers and fertility specialists.
Jessie says while her intention in becoming a surrogate was to help someone in need, she believes there should be room for some commercialisation of the industry in Australia.
While she would recommend altruistic surrogacy to others, she says establishing a good relationship with the intended parents and sorting out legal arrangements first is essential.
I also dont think its something you should jump into without that and the full support of your own family, she says. I also believe you should always trust your gut feeling.
Jessie also says that the responsibility she feels carrying someone elses child is enormous. She says she was nowhere near as anxious when carrying her own children, Imea, now 13, and Bamali, now 11, though she has started to relax.
As to whether I would do it again thats a tough one to answer right now, she says. I would love to but I cant help but think another journey would not live up to the current one. I have read a couple of horror stories and I know that not everyone has their surrogates best interest at heart and can be very good at pretending in order to get what they want.
I would be wary of that happening to me and tarnishing what should be a good experience all round. I feel extremely lucky to have found Emma and Michael and to have built a great relationship with them, even though we are very different people.
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