Surrogacy made me a mother, and I want to help others build families too
By Hoe I Yune, Apr 15, 2021
Growing families through surrogacy has been gaining visibility thanks to high profile celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Nicole Kidman, Neil Patrick Harris, and Elton John. Yet, attitude towards the practice remains heavily divisive around the world. Some governments outright prohibit it.
There are two types of surrogacy: gestational surrogacy, which sees no genetic link between the surrogate and child, and traditional surrogacy, which involves the surrogate conceiving a child using her own egg. Gestational surrogacy requires a surrogate mother to undergo in vitro fertilisation (IVF) to carry the intended parent’s child (the egg from the intended mother or a donor is fertilised in the laboratory with sperm from either the intended father or a donor, then the embryo is implanted in the surrogate’s uterus). Traditional surrogacy is far less common and often prohibited, so for the purpose of today’s story, we’ll be focusing on gestational surrogacy.
Gestational surrogacy itself has its own fair share of critiques. Critiques cite concern over health and welfare of surrogate women who risk being exploited by wealthier intended parents and commercial surrogacy providers.
The practice continues to remain unavailable in Singapore; there are no civil laws in Malaysia addressing the use of surrogates but religious authorities have issued a fatwa making it haram for Muslims. In other parts of the world, it was recently banned in Sweden and India; in countries such as Australia, only altruistic surrogacy is allowed, which means the practice is unpaid and usually undertaken by close friends or family members.
On the flipside, increasingly more states in the United States (US) are legalising surrogacy and providing a framework to support the practice, intended parents, surrogates, and children. It is an opportunity for people such as infertile couples and the LGBTQIA+ community to have biological children of their own. In California, law and regulations entail both parties finalising a surrogacy legal contract before delving into the medical stages. The contract would cover risks and responsibilities that each party is taking on, surrogate compensation, and how to handle “what if” situations, like pregnancy complications or if intended parents end up divorcing.
44-year-old Taiwanese-American Evie Jeang is founder and managing partner of Ideal Legal Group. Based in California, she has been practising law for over 18 years, specialising in family law. Having been through gestational surrogacy herself, she is mother to a 6-year-old boy and understands first-hand the impact that a demanding career or health issues can have on one's ability to expand their family.
She shares with us today why she pursued gestational surrogacy and how she founded a one-stop fertility shop called Surrogacy Concierge, dedicated to help others expand their own family. Surrogacy Concierge refers intended parents to fertility clinics and commercial surrogacy providers and as its in-house counsel, Ideal Legal Group provides legal support on behalf of either the intended parents or surrogate mother.
When I was 30, my passion was paving a career in law and my priority was to make partner at a firm. I would be working long hours every weekend — staying in the office until as late as 10pm on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. On one occasion, I noticed a mother at the same law firm stay in the office overnight despite everyone else offering to help her. I couldn’t imagine having little ones and not spending time with them, yet I knew the long hours were necessary to climb up the corporate ladder. Seeing what she put herself through and knowing what I wanted out of my career, I felt unready to be a mother.
Around then, my best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer and her doctor advised her to freeze her eggs before starting chemotherapy. She suggested that I do the same. I did it as “insurance”. My best friend passed away a year and a half ago but I’ll forever be grateful to her for opening my mind to egg freezing and surrogacy. It’s what led me to motherhood in my late 30s.
I suffered a bad allergic reaction during the egg retrieval process but I paid the US$1,000 (SG$1,350) annual storage fee anyway. When I was 37, I went through the procedure again because seeing how technology had improved, I believe I stood a better shot at producing a larger amount of good quality eggs. This second time round, the doctor discovered a growing tumour in my uterus. It was benign, which didn’t mean I was incapable of carrying a child, but I felt unsettled by the thought of potentially miscarrying. I didn’t want to take any chances, especially knowing my age and how many “good eggs'' I had left. Meanwhile, I saw how my best friend and her husband started a loving family through adoption and surrogacy — it made me consider surrogacy.
I became increasingly sure about my decision to pursue surrogacy, although I didn’t receive everyone’s support.
To some people, even other women, they think a woman’s role is to “be a good wife and give birth”. A lot of aunties didn’t approve of it and I was asked questions like, “How are you going to bond with your baby if you don’t carry it yourself?” and “How will you know for sure that your child will have your DNA and not the surrogate mother’s?” Many of the questions I got were based on social stigma rather than science.
I think the criticisms are often rooted in fear and how people don’t feel comfortable with the unknown. When people see someone doing something they had never been exposed to, it makes them uncomfortable. It doesn’t help that in olden times, a woman’s worth was tied to their ability to bear a child.
But now that we have the technology to delay pregnancies and seek other means, I think modern women should be given a choice whether or not to procreate.
For me to pursue something, it has to make sense to me. The idea of giving birth myself would’ve made sense if it were the only option on the table, but I felt conflicted going down that path knowing that gestational surrogacy was a viable option in California.
My husband and I pursued surrogacy together, but we got a divorce after our son was born because of irreconcilable differences. I don’t think his more traditional Shanghainese parents were too pleased — they weren’t happy how I defied the norm by freezing my eggs either and used to put pressure on my ex-husband, who would in turn put pressure on me to conceive a child. It caused a rift between us, although our relationship is more amicable now that we’ve separated.
Despite the medical technology available, doctors would normally not recommend that healthy women freeze their eggs and prefer that we keep trying naturally. But the way I see it, not all of us are ready from young to be mothers and if technology enables us to delay the decision-making process, I see that as a good thing.
Growing up, I was always told that I had to get married by a certain age because of my biological clock. But I think if you’re not sure, it’s better to weigh out your options.
When you don’t decide based on fear, you make better choices.
Girl friends often say how they’re not sure about their romantic relationships but are afraid that if they break up with their partners, they’ll have to start all over again and that’ll delay when they can have children. A friend who really wanted to be a dad couldn’t find the right partner for a long time, but thanks to surrogacy, he didn’t have to give up his dream. Egg freezing and surrogacy give us freedom, and that’s priceless.
Surrogacy has been a hugely controversial subject across the world. Within the United Nations, there is an ongoing debate about whether surrogacy is in violation of human rights. Personally I believe medical technology should be used to help people and what surrogacy does is it enables people to achieve their dreams of becoming parents.
With a proper framework in place, I believe surrogacy and human rights can co-exist. Because that is the best way to act in the best interest of the child and protect the rights of surrogate mothers.
To avoid a sale and women’s bodies being turned into commodities, California Law clearly states that surrogates are reimbursed or compensated for their time – wages they lose out on, medical risks they accept, and travel expenses. It’s not the child or pregnancy that intended parents are paying for.
A lot of countries don’t allow surrogacy because they don’t want it to turn into a black market for human trafficking, but the reality is when you impose only restrictions, people do it underground and that creates the black market.
As surrogacy becomes more popular, people seek out regardless of legal restrictions in their home country, which is not the best thing. You don’t want surrogacy providers with unfair business practices to take advantage of legal loopholes. Underground practices are not only medically unsafe but they provide legal protection to neither intended parents nor surrogate mothers. If either party changes their minds, it’ll be difficult for the other side to enforce whatever agreement was made beforehand. In countries where it is illegal, how are you going to make a police report?
Critics claim that surrogacy only benefits the wealthy. While it’s true that pursuing surrogacy as intended parents is expensive, especially in California, I believe that is because we have the most favourable laws here. As other places become more open to surrogacy and the laws are favourable, then we will see the prices change and surrogacy becoming more mainstream. We will see it becoming more accessible to not only the wealthy.
Exploitation of surrogate mothers is a concern but this is why it’s crucial that both intended parents and a gestational surrogate are fairly represented by individual attorneys throughout the process. Even if the surrogacy provider recommends legal representatives, both parties should feel free to choose their own.
Surrogacy’s growing popularity among celebrities and the wealthy has influenced a rise in cost. Intended parents have to cover legal representation fees on both sides, medical care, and health insurance, which can work out to be between US$150,000 to US$200,000 (SG$200,000 to SG$260,000). The surrogate mothers are compensated for the time they dedicate, the wages they lose out on, the travel expenses they incur and the medical risks they accept, which can range anywhere between US$30,000 to US$50,000 of the grand total for first time surrogates and US$45,000 to US$90,000 for repeat surrogates depending on what is set out in the surrogacy contract. But it’s often stressed that surrogate mothers shouldn’t be going into it just for the money.
To carry a child is such a huge deal that it’s important that surrogacy mothers do it because they genuinely want to help others.
Some intended parents might want to keep things confidential, but I personally remain friends with the surrogate mother I hired. Every year on my son’s birthday, I send her pictures. If she has any questions on how he’s doing, she can reach out to me and we speak over the phone, which probably makes us more involved in each other’s lives than the norm.
She has a family of her own and mentioned that she really enjoyed being pregnant, which is why she wanted to give someone else the joy of being a parent. I am so grateful to her for doing this for me at all. When I met her through a commercial surrogacy provider, I answered the questionnaire saying that I am open to having continued contact with her, during and after the procedure. Bringing a baby into the world together is such a big deal that intended parents and surrogate mothers might grow close as friends during the pregnancy or some surrogates might be interested in getting to know the babies as they grow up, but others might prefer having an emotional detachment and intended parents from more conservative families might wish to keep their surrogacy on the down-low.
In California, you have laws and regulations, which involve lawyers, doctors, and psychiatrists. To be a surrogate, you need to meet a criteria, which includes having given birth at least once with no complications and being of a certain Body Mass Index (BMI) range. Surrogacy can be a mentally and emotionally laborious experience, so potential surrogates would also need to complete a psychological screening process. Intended parents can make reasonable requests such as wanting their surrogate to work out three times a week, go on 30-minute walks daily or eat more vegetables, but not unreasonable requests that disrupt the everyday life of the surrogate and cause distress, such as asking someone not to colour their hair or get rid of their pet cat.
Surrogate mothers are entitled to health insurance, being informed about any medical procedure and potential side effects, the freedom to choose her medical team if side effects develop, access to psychological help at any point during the pregnancy, and the compensation or reimbursements agreed upon in the binding surrogacy agreement.
Since multiple births might bring about a higher risk for the surrogate mother and baby, surrogates are able to indicate on their profile if they are only comfortable with one embryo per transfer, and this will be written into the surrogacy agreement. The IVF doctor is also consulted during this process so even if the surrogate agrees to two embryos per transfer, it doesn’t mean that the doctor will immediately allow it. And no IVF doctor will transfer more than two embryos.
I’ve started talking to my son about how I didn’t carry him but that a nice lady helped me to do so instead. When my son is older and understands how he was born, then maybe he will ask to meet her. And I would be open to it as long as she is.
A project that I look forward to working on is a children’s book about what it means to be born through surrogacy because I think it would help children to understand where they came from. For my son who is raised by a single mother and for children with same-sex parents, they might get questions from classmates. What I hope is to empower children born through surrogacy with knowledge, so that they won’t feel baffled or get bullied in school.
Having gone through the commercial surrogacy procedure myself, I realised how it entails a lot of legal agreements. Even as a lawyer specialising in family law, I was confused at first on how you meet a surrogate mother and what are the requirements for both parties. Wanting to help intended parents with what to expect and the legal and contractual challenges that might arise, I co-founded Surrogacy Concierge in 2017.
Many of my clients are from China since the government relaxed its one-child policy to allow families to have two children. As a bilingual practising lawyer, I want to help them understand what choices they have, especially knowing that transnational law can make parental rights a grey area. Children born in California will immediately be granted an American citizenship and once the surrogate mothers are pregnant, intended parents assume responsibility.
When they leave the US, parents of other nationalities might have to undergo an adoption process to be recognised as parents of the child in their home country. For foreign citizens who come to California, it’s important that on top of getting legal representation here, they also hire someone licensed to practice back home so as to get parental rights and citizenship for their babies. Once a surrogacy agreement has been signed in California, you also cannot just change your mind, abandon your baby, and flee the country. Most US states would consider it a felony and the individual would be charged if they re-enter California.
I find so much joy in watching my son grow up to be the curious and intelligent boy that he is. I wish he wouldn’t grow up so quickly! I love how my mum taught me to be so independent — it really prepared me to be who I am today — and I’m looking to instill the same independence and confidence in my son.
A family isn’t defined by having a mother and dad as parents, especially now that more countries are legalising same-sex marriage and more children grow up in single-parent households. Back in ancient times, men would have multiple wives because of how much importances was placed having male heirs to carry on the bloodline; in Chinese agrarian society, families favoured sons because of their physical strength to help with farm work, but nowadays, we are no longer starting families purely for these conventional purposes.
I think we should relook at our laws to see how we can adapt them to suit evolving circumstances.
Societal definitions of what makes a family and why people start families are changing and if it’s done out of love, I think surrogacy can be a beautiful thing.
Photos were provided by Evie Jeang. Find out more about Surrogacy Concierge at https://surrogacyconcierge.com/. In addition, Evie founded a non-profit initiative, Raised by a Village, which provides mentorship, counselling and support to children of divorced families: https://raisedbyavillage.org/ .
To understand what Singapore laws surrounding surrogacy are, we spoke with family lawyer, Mr Ivan Cheong, a partner at Withers KhattarWong. Mr Cheong says although surrogacy is not allowed or available in Singapore, it is not illegal. It just comes with risks because local courts may not enforce surrogacy agreements or greenlight the adoption. People who still want this option pursue it abroad but when they return, the adoption application will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
“The government’s public policy encourages parenthood within marriage. Consistent with this, they will generally not object if married couples with fertility problems apply to adopt their children born through surrogacy,” says Mr Cheong, although this is provided that the couple is medically assessed as unable to conceive and surrogacy is carried out in a jurisdiction where it is not illegal or unlawful.
Bringing a child in from a country like the US is usually not an issue because they would have an American citizenship. But parents might prefer to convert it into a Singapore citizenship, so that the child has a right to reside in Singapore long term. This would need to be done within a year. “The names of the parents on the child birth certificate would usually reflect their names and if one of the parents is a Singapore citizen, they can apply for registration of the child as a Singapore citizen by descent,” he explains.
Following the 2018 landmark case, which allowed a gay father to adopt his biological child who was conceived through a surrogate in the US, then Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee said on 14 January 2019 that the government said that they are studying the issue of surrogacy carefully which is a complex issue with ethical, social, health and legal implications for all involved and that persons considering surrogacy should take the issues into account while making their decision. On 7 October 2019, it was mentioned in parliament that Assisted Reproduction Technology (ART) clinics in Singapore are not allowed to provide surrogacy treatment and the government is still reviewing the position on surrogacy. When we reached out to the Ministry of Social and Family Development, they said there has been no change in regards to their position on the matter.
Issues on adoption, especially in regards to surrogacy, can be complicated due to the policy, ethical and legal considerations surrounding it. Should you have any queries, please contact a family lawyer.
We’d like to emphasise that this story should not be taken as legal or medical advice.
My name is I Yune, and you can find me at @i_yune on the Dayre app. When I’m not recounting what I ate last weekend on my personal account, I write to make sense of my thoughts on surrogacy and other social issues such as the period taboo and “menstrual leave”.
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