Broadford neighbours discover surrogacy connection

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Featured image: Broadford resident Phillipa Ross holds her newborn child with the surrogate that birthed him. Photo: Lauren + Douglas Photography

“I believe that it’s the greatest gift of humankind, for a woman to sacrifice her body, her family life, and to do this for another human to create another family” – Phillipa Ross.

Two Broadford women, who happen to be neighbours, are eager to share their journeys with surrogacy, demystify the process and provide a rare perspective into the fertility option.

Phillipa Ross is now a mother via a surrogate from Queensland, while Jaide McDonald gave her longtime friends the ability to have a child by being their surrogate mother.

For both, the journey was arduous and unnecessarily complicated, but they say the ultimate gift of a family made it worthwhile.

Sacrifice for friendship

Jaide McDonald’s long-time friends Nancy* and Damon* struggled with infertility for years, which is the case for one in six Australian couples.

While Nancy and Damon dealt with multiple losses and difficulty falling pregnant, Ms McDonald and her husband had two children of their own.

In 2020, Nancy and Damon told Ms McDonald they were considering surrogacy, but had no intention of asking her to carry their child.

Ms McDonald thought that surrogacy was illegal in Australia and that the couple would need to find a surrogate overseas.

Australian law prohibits commercial surrogacy, including advertising for a surrogate and paying a surrogate for the arrangement.

However, altruistic surrogacy is legal – when a woman acts as a surrogate out of goodwill and does not receive any compensation for the arrangement other than for medical expenses and costs associated with the pregnancy.

“I just always wished that I could help [Nancy] in some way other than being a supportive friend … some other, more tangible way,” Ms McDonald said.

“When this totally left-field idea [of surrogacy] came out, I was really interested in pursuing it.”

Jaide McDonald, right, carries a child for her friends of more than a decade, middle and left. Her friends had faced infertility for years and Ms McDonald was eager to support them in a tangible way.

The following months of conversations were enveloped in ‘what ifs’.

“We had lots of hard conversations around parenting styles, termination, if something was to happen, a lot of stuff around bodily autonomy,” Ms McDonald said.

“I knew that I had to have no doubts about whether I wanted to have my own children [being my third caesarean birth], no doubts whether I wanted to actually be doing the surrogacy and no doubt that it was going to have a negative impact on my own family as well.

“My husband and I came to a full agreement – ‘let’s just jump in’.”

The team began a ‘complex’ journey, navigating legalities, mandatory counselling, health checks and preparations for in vitro fertilisation, IVF, and were eventually ‘really lucky’ with a successful first transfer.

“Nancy and Damon had so many rough experiences and losses, so they were obviously hopeful, but anxiously hopeful,” Ms McDonald said.

The pregnancy involved ‘constant communication’.

“There was no decision I could make about my body [without communicating], including what food I ate or what vitamins I took or if I caught a plane or if I went for a walk, for nine months,” she said.

“It’s a really emotional time and it’s a really delicate balance.”

Ms McDonald delivered Nancy and Damon’s baby, Victoria, at Kilmore Hospital in November last year.

Surrogate Jaide McDonald, of Broadford, holds baby Victoria, after delivering at Kilmore Hospital last year. ​

She was scheduled to deliver in Canberra, where Nancy and Damon lived, but baby Victoria, who had already been named, was eager to solidify her namesake.

“While they were at the airport and just about to board the next flight, she was born. They got to meet her via FaceTime,” Ms McDonald said.

“Every person in the room, besides the surgeon, cried. It was such an emotionally-charged moment.”

Eight-year journey

Phillipa Ross pursued surrogacy in her 30s after the effects of treatment for cervical cancer rendered her unable to carry a child and put her into menopause.

More than anything, Ms Ross desired to be a mother.

“My focus was not cancer, it was having a child. I just thought, ‘what’s the point of having cancer treatment? I don’t want to live if I can’t have a child’,” Ms Ross said.

Though devastated, she had time to try IVF for a chance at having a baby.

“It was a very lonely journey because I didn’t know anyone else in my age group who’d gone through not just cancer but fertility loss as a result of cancer,” she said.

Ms Ross shared her story with potential, existing and former surrogates as well as other ‘intended parents’, IPs, via the Australian Surrogacy Community Facebook page after discovering altruistic surrogacy as an option.

“A woman from Townsville in North Queensland contacted me and said, ‘something really resonates with me about your story, can we talk some more?’,” Ms Ross said.

“We just got chatting, and eventually she said, ‘I’d really like to do this’.”

Ms Ross said the process to satisfy the Victorian Government for approval to become a surrogacy team was ‘laborious’, requiring an assessment by a Patient Review Panel, a police check and extensive counselling, among other requirements.

“There are so many things to consider that you don’t realise until you’re in it,” Ms Ross said.

Ms Ross’ egg was fertilised with donor sperm, which her surrogate carried.

The surrogate delivered Ms Ross’ baby in 2018, eight years after her cancer diagnosis – a boy named Jeremy. 

“He’s just a wonderful, bright, funny, charismatic young boy who I know will make his mark on the world,” Ms Ross said.

“I don’t know if it’s just parental bias, but certainly my world is a better place with Jeremy in it.”

An eight-year journey comes to an end: Phillipa Ross holds her son, Jeremy, after he was born via surrogacy. Photo: Lauren + Douglas Photography

Last year, Jeremy met his surrogate mother once again.

“We have a commitment to always remain like family now,” Ms Ross said.

“If Jeremy ever wants to see or talk to her, she’s there.”

A complicated system

Despite Australian law upholding altruistic surrogacy, the estimated 100 children born through surrogacy in the country each year remain vulnerable to a lack of post-birth regulations.

When a surrogate delivers the baby, she is listed on the birth certificate as its parent, despite having no biological link.

To be acknowledged as the true parents, the biological parents or IPs must apply for a Substitute Parentage Order through the court to recognise the surrogacy arrangement and have the birth certificate re-issued. 

If a surrogate decided to keep the baby, lawyer Sarah Jefford said surrogacy arrangements were not legally binding. 

“The decision of where [the] baby lives would be about the baby’s best interests, not based on the surrogacy agreement,” she said.

Surrogacy Australia suggested that in the case that neither a surrogate or IPs wanted the child, Australian law was not binding on either party to care for the baby.

Ms Ross was not legally Jeremy’s mother until she could apply for parentage transfer when the baby was 30 days old, making navigating the Medicare system, paid parental leave and other associated necessities ‘very challenging’.

“There is not a document or piece of paper on earth that can actually declare that that child belongs to the intended parent, even if it’s a biological link – my egg,” Ms Ross said.

“You need to place an immense amount of trust in the [surrogate].”

The situation was even more complicated for Ms McDonald and Victoria’s parents due to surrogacy laws differing between the states and territories.

They had been approved for surrogacy in Canberra – but Ms McDonald went into spontaneous labour in Victoria days before she was scheduled for a caesarean interstate, creating complications with the birth certificate.

For the first four months of her life, Victoria was legally the child of Ms McDonald and her husband.

Jaide McDonald with her daughter Piper, left, holds baby Victoria who she carried as a surrogate mother. Despite sharing no biological link with Victoria, she was still listed as her mother on the birth certificate.

And, while state governments must approve surrogacy teams, Medicare benefits do not cover surrogacy-related expenses.

“You are paying the full whack of all costs of medication, all treatments, everything,” Ms Ross said.

“That’s how I ended up in Broadford – it was knowing how much surrogacy was going to cost. I lived in the western suburbs, and when I made this decision to pursue having a baby, I sold my house and moved somewhere cheaper so I could afford it.”

Hope amid infertility

While Ms Ross and Ms McDonald experienced two different sides of the surrogacy equation, a resounding message from both was clear: surrogacy, though a harrowing feat, is ‘the greatest gift’.

“[My surrogate] single-handedly turned me into a mother … Jeremy is this incredible little human being who is here because she [the surrogate] was so willing to do this for us,” Ms Ross said.

“It’s hard, there is no doubt about it, but you know what they say – nothing worth doing is easy.”

Phillipa Ross cries tears of joy as she is united with her son for the first time. Photo: Lauren + Douglas Photography

Ms McDonald said despite the challenges it came with, helping her friends have a child was ‘amazing’.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat. I love the fact that I’ve been able to be a part of creating a family for them,” she said.

“It’s really important to step back and really do the research and the soul searching that you need to do beforehand just to make sure that you’re completely ready for it.”

*Names changed to protect privacy.