New families. Surrogate mothers and untraditional parenting, the controversial case of The Netherlands

by Francesca Polo

Cover: Stella Casella

Surrogacy is one of those topics that merges ethics and politics, values and some natural (and legitimate) human instincts, and has the potential to flame never-ending discussion. Recently, the Italian parliament has taken steps to give a legal framework to gay couples to have children, sparking a national debate about adoptions and surrogacy.

So close, so faraway

Ways of dealing with this issue across Europe and worldwide do not show a common pattern; the legislative landscape is very diverse, ranging from the American and Canadian model, which regulates surrogacy at every stage and aspect (medical, legal, ethical), to the Indian or Ukrainian, that while on one side allows the practice, on the other side does not control it, leaving the door open to exploitation and the violation of human rights. The approach in The Netherlands and Belgium can for now be described as: tolerant.

The Netherlands: surrogacy is not a business

Rules on ‘draagmoederschap’ (the Dutch term for ‘surrogate motherhood’), though, are less clear than they initially sound: “There is a lot of misinformation,” says Sara Coster, an expert on the field, and coach of nontraditional parenthood, “It’s a shame,” she continues, “because in this way public opinion, often without knowing, forms an idea and a judgment based on untrue facts, or misleading information.” The first misleading idea, according to the coach, is that surrogate motherhood is a business: “A woman who for nine months carries someone else’s child in her womb, does so to give others the joy of a family . Nevertheless, her life revolves for nine months around pregnancy, and after childbirth the child will ‘return’ to his parents. I think it is right that she her expenses are covered.” In the Netherlands, surrogacy is permitted provided it is not for profit. The mother who lends her uterus, in short, can do so but only for humanitarian purposes and, at most, ask for funds to cover the expenses. The Dutch law also limits the possibility for couples not biologically capable of having children, to search publicly for a carrier mother and vice versa. “If the meeting between surrogate mother and aspiring parents were encouraged in their country of residence,” continued Coster, “the mother and the prospective parents would be able to get to know each other very well, and choose each other consciously.” The Dutch law prohibits that would-be carrier mothers and receiver parents can seek each publicly, in order to “discourage the practice,” Wilma Eusman, a lawyer, an expert in nontraditional parenting told 31mag. “But the result was not as hoped: the phenomenon has spread, and, being very hard to find a mother available in the Netherlands, many people have gone abroad, despite the risks this might involve for the child.” The laws on the legal parenthood of the newborn are variable from country to country, and the biggest risk for those who choose overseas is to not be able to return home with the child. For this reason, parliament is discussing from time in a complete matter. Debate on the issue has been scheduled for May in the Tweede Kamer, and Wilma Eusman is part of the Committee on ‘Recalibration of Genitoriality’ that is drafting the debate’s baseline text. “Every child has the right to have a family — so it is written in the UN Convention on Rights for Children — and by this law the Netherlands must address the issue of surrogacy,” said Eusman. “In view of new births as a result of surrogacy it is an ethical duty to protect the future of unborn children.” This, according to the lawyer, is only possible by regulating in detail their relationship with parents who will be called to care for and sustain them.

Pauline, the choice of being a surrogate mother

Pending the discussion, despite the many difficulties of the case, some people have embraced surrogate parenting and agreed to recount their experience: “My family and I love Emma,” says Pauline, “but her family is formed by her and her two parents, with whom I have a very close relationship, but from whom at the same time I am detached.” Already mother of 3 children, two years ago Pauline gave birth to Emma, and continues to play a role in her life. And not just her, even her three children have regular contact with the child, who they consider a cousin. Emma knows that Pauline is her biological mother and that her parents are her two fathers. Pauline decided to become a carrier mother because ”10 years after the birth of my last child, I still wanted to have this experience, but at the same time my life was already complete with three children. So I began to inquire about the various possibilities and I came to surrogacy. I could combine my desire to go through pregnancy again with the one of helping others building up a family” Pauline wanted to be just a biological mother but she feared that the two prospective parents could pull back at the last moment, which “was obviously the last thing I wanted for the child or girl that I would bring into the world. This has caused me a lot of insecurity at first since there was not a law that protected the child in such cases.” She told 31mag, “for this reason I searched the candidate parents very carefully, and in the end I relied a lot on my intuition and I chose to take the risk, if the two parents in the end pulled back, of having to raise a fourth child. The two dads and I consciously took a year to get to know each other well and see if we were compatible in order to share this experience. What really helped me was talking, not only with them but also with other carrier mothers.” Immediately after the birth of Emma, Pauline expressed milk for four months, so that the two fathers could develop their special bond with her, and she with them. “I felt it was very important,” she said. According to Pauline, many mothers who feel the desire or instinct to be bearers of children for others are afraid of not really being able to let go of the newborn son or daughter. “If you have a desire for motherhood, it is not the right choice; my experience, as strange as it can sound, is that it is a very natural act, because you have created a relationship of trust with parents and you do nothing but giving them back their own child. Everything is very transparent therefore nothing is forced.”

Marc and Joris, two dads with three children

A similar story was experienced by Joris and his husband Marc, who after years of failed attempts to adopt or co-parent, went to the States to pursue their dream of fatherhood. “We had already tried in vain to adopt a child, and when the mother with whom we would become co-parents, after two years, called for a time-out for personal reasons, we decided for surrogacy. We did not want to depend on so many institutions and individuals anymore in order to build a family. In America everything is very well organized and we are now fathers of Lola and Flint, who are twins, and Loek, who is only six weeks old.” Joris and Marc consider themselves lucky because the original oocyte given by a donor produced two embryos, which allowed them to have 3 children in blood. “Many say that the American model is commercial. We call it ‘controlled’ and we are grateful that it is like that, because today surrogacy is possible in many countries, but in most is carried out in a totally unethical way. The biological mother of our twins is a doctor and does not miss anything from the economic point of view. She was glad to be able to do such a thing for someone else.” Also in their case the two biological mothers are in the picture and will continue doing so, but it is clear that the family is formed by Joris, Marc and their three children. “We have always been very open and transparent about everything. But this is the result of a long process. It took us four years after having to make a lot of informed choices. The good thing is that it forms you as a family.”

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