Growing Families annual UK/EU conference is coming up in March, bringing together surrogates, parents and professionals from the UK and around the globe. It can be an expensive route to parenthood. So increasingly Europeans are choosing cheaper destinations such as Ukraine, Russia and Georgia. But one UK mum who wanted the best of US medical expertise demonstrates how with careful planning, US surrogacy can be within reach.

Charlotte Kimber and her partner Malcolm are sheep farmers in the northwest of England, 90 minutes from Manchester. Charlotte’s first daughter Pip was the result of a natural birth when she was 35 years old.

But further attempts to have a child failed, resulting in four heartbreaking miscarriages. Each required a D&C to resolve – and that in turn Charlotte believes, caused scarring in her uterus – a condition sometimes known as Ashermans Syndrome. It can make it very difficult to fall pregnant.

So Charlotte turned to IVF, completing one unsuccessful egg retrieval in UK, before seeking out a world expert physician on Ashermans in California.  “It was hellishly expensive” Charlotte admits, but she was impressed with the advanced science on offer. Her physician “could do a hysteroscopy at the time of egg collection” to see exactly how her womb looked.

But her fertility levels had crashed – three more ‘freeze-all’ cycles produced only three embryos that could be PGS tested. Of these, only one came back as normal. Both Charlotte and her doctor knew her womb was not necessarily a reliable refuge for this precious embryo. Surrogacy would be required.

Yet she & Malcolm could not afford a full US surrogacy package. Some surrogate compensation levels were about US$40,000 and then there were  surrogacy agency match fees, travel expenses, and insurance. Still, with a child already, Charlotte felt sure a UK surrogate would never pick her and “we wanted a bit more certainty that we would at least be able to give the embryo a chance” Charlotte explains, given surrogate medical screening is so thorough in the US.

So she began her own dogged research, joining a few Facebook groups to learn about independent, lower cost US surrogacy. Discovering some independent matching forums, she posted an introduction about herself and Malcolm. While she had a few responses from potential surrogates, the chats all fizzled out. 

Through the online forums. Charlotte learned much “Some people are desperate to match with anybody – but you need to be honest about what you want at the start. We wanted a close relationship but you can engage with a surrogate who is happy to have a more distant one.”

If she did find someone, her surrogate would need to understand Charlotte’s own foibles and anxieties. Further, her doctor had warned her that his medical screening criteria were not flexible.

Then in February 2018 a Nevada mum, “Cindy”, posted her interest in finding someone she might carry a child for. Charlotte knew from her research Nevada was a surrogacy friendly state and Cindy’s post stood out.

Cindy was bombarded by messages from at least 22 intended parents. One was Charlotte. The two soon became Facebook friends swapping family photos and updates on their busy lives and shared interests.  Four weeks in, Cindy offered to carry. 

The two women had agreed on costs up-front and it was clear that Cindy genuinely wanted to make the process as affordable as possible for Charlotte.

“She was incredibly understanding of the financial toll this journey had taken on us” Charlotte recalls. Their relationship blossomed.

In May that year Charlotte and family flew to Nevada to meet up and by August Cindy was in Los Angeles for her medical screening. She passed. 

The next hurdle was medical insurance.  The US insurance landscape is constantly changing, and there were no surrogacy friendly marketplace policies available in Nevada for 2019. Some US surrogacy agencies can access bespoke insurance policies and this was another factor in deciding to work with an agency as a ‘matched pair’. A boutique agency charged just $12,000 to manage their journey allowing access to an insurance policy, far cheaper than the alternative, catastrophic, policies available.  

The embryo transfer went ahead and it took. But Charlotte had experienced so many losses, that she found it hard to believe even this pregnancy might be successful. “We lived expecting it to go wrong” she admits. In contrast, “Cindy was relentlessly positive”.

To protect herself, Charlotte confided in almost no-one. They did not even tell her own now eight-year-old daughter until the pregnancy was 23 weeks in train. “Friends thought we had a gambling habit as we kept flying to Las Vegas” Charlotte admits.

There were stressful times Charlotte recalls – including a subcorionic haematoma and exchange rate fluctuations exacerbated by Brexit. “You start watching currencies and world politics religiously”. But ultimately their daughter Juliette was born at 40 weeks in September 2019. 

Charlotte’s key advice – “Don’t be completely put off the US by the cost until you’ve thoroughly researched it. There are ways to do it more cost-effectively by putting in more hours yourself.”

UK parents, surrogates and world-renowned professionals will share their extra-ordinary experience and expertise in egg donation and surrogacy at Growing Families conferences in London on 21 March and Dublin on 22 March.  Full details at https://www.growingfamilies.org/2020-conference-and-event-schedule/

Sam Everingham is a gay dad via surrogacy, a writer, public health professional and global expert in family building options.