Families with two fathers or mothers no longer raise eyebrows in Israel. The discussion about allowing homosexual couples access to surrogacy in the country has resurfaced following the earthquake in Nepal, one of the places where Israeli gay couples go to have children via surrogacy.
At the very time that we had agreed to meet, I received a message from Nir saying he would be arriving late. Nir’s son, Matan, was not feeling very well and he was having trouble falling asleep. It was Nir’s responsibility, not his partner’s, to put their son to sleep. At 42, Nir calls his partner a youngster, as Dor has only recently turned 34. They have been together for 13 years now, and their son was born in 2014. Nir has agreed to speak to us about his meandering path to fatherhood, but wishes to remain anonymous.
Mateusz Kamiński: Do you remember the moment you decided to become parents?
Nir: We had been talking about it for years. I guess it all started with coming up with names, which we did for fun, without ever really thinking about parenthood. We didn’t make the decision on the spot, it was more of a process. We began talking about it more and more seriously over time but when my brother became a father some six and a half years ago, we felt we wanted the same thing for us. It probably made things move faster, as we stopped talking about our dreams, and began to make them happen.
With several available options to choose from, we decided on surrogacy by way of elimination. Other possibilities included shared parenting, which we didn’t find reasonable because of the need to meet another person that you would have to deem worthy of being the co-parent. This would also mean sharing, which is not one of our strong points, I am afraid. We are just too selfish.
Another option we considered, after someone we know had decided to give it a try, was international adoption. Then again, she is a woman, and the whole process was much easier for her than it would have been for us. Generally speaking, these matters are not usually settled in favor of the male parents-to-be. Moreover, international adoptions are allowed only in South America, and the process is not that simple. For example, it was impossible to carry out the procedure in Guatemala, but we discovered that it would most likely be allowed under Ecuadorian law. However, during our investigation, a woman from an NGO dealing with international adoptions in Ecuador told us the procedure had just come under scrutiny, and having one such adoption under way, they first wanted to complete the whole process before we could make a move. Having already been waiting for ten years or so, we just could not settle for a solution that would effectively make us seem like grandparents, rather than parents, to the adopted child.
It was after this that surrogacy turned out to be the only viable option for us. We had thought about it earlier, of course, but at the time it seemed awfully long and complicated. On top of that, we felt adoption was a far better choice because it meant helping a person in need, and also settled the issue of biological parenthood, which made it a very fair solution for both of us.
You eventually decided on a surrogate birth in India. What was the procedure?
We started off in India, but ended up in Thailand. Indian law denies access to surrogacy to men who are not in a heterosexual relationship, and who have been married for less than two years.
To be honest, the procedure itself is fairly dull: you just go to a medical center and give a sperm sample, which is probably the most awkward thing in the world if you dream about having a baby conceived of love and aspiration. Prior to this, you also need to be tested for venereal diseases, in order to rule out the possibility of infecting the surrogate mother.
So, there is the test, and then the sperm sample is sent off to a medical center in India. The young woman designated to be the egg cell donor comes to the center and undergoes the in-vitro fertilization process. We were lucky enough to have the egg fertilized on the first attempt. I suspect the mother might have had to travel across India for us, which was probably pretty uncomfortable given her condition after the treatment, but still, I hope she had a good time.
We had the support of Tammuz, a big and well reputed Israeli company, acting as the middle man for such procedures. We had a team of wonderful people who were enormously helpful, and made every effort to ensure that the rights of everyone involved in the process were respected.
The people involved included the biological father, the biological mother and the surrogate mother. How did you choose them?
Truth be told, I don’t really remember our first try in India. It was a very traumatic experience that ended in removal of the dead fetus. If my memory serves me right, we might have confused the sperm, and we lost track of who the biological father was.
The egg cell donor, on the other hand, was chosen from a database that provides information on the donors’ habits, hobbies, appearance, etc. I think this is ultimately of little importance. What mattered most was the woman’s health and her medical history, like not having a family history of genetic disorders.
Was it important for you whether the mother was Jewish?
Not in the least, religion is not all that important to me. Although I hope that the rabbi doing Matan’s conversion will not read this and have it revoked. Dor only wanted the woman to be tall, so the child wouldn’t be as short as he is.
But you decided on a conversion in the end?
We had to because his mother was not Jewish. I am not sure if you know, but in Israel Sephardic Jews differ from Ashkenazi Jews in how they treat a child born through surrogacy. They disagree primarily over the question of what determines the mother: the egg cell or the womb, each group taking a different stance on the matter. Luckily, in our case neither the egg donor nor the surrogate mother were Jewish, so either way we had to convert Matan.
What was the rabbi’s reaction when you saw him about your son’s conversion?
As we are not orthodox, we went straight to a Reform rabbi, who was no stranger to the problems of gay couples wanting to convert their babies. On the contrary, he was fully aware of the issue of surrogacy for homosexual parents in all its complexity. The whole community is also very open-minded and welcoming, making the conversion a pleasant experience.
The Rabbi also asked why we cared about Matan’s conversion. We said we wanted him to be part of the community, and experience his life as a Jew. We did not need to lie or do anything contrary to our nature only to make him a member of the nation of Israel. After all, we are both Jews, even if secular.
How did you choose the surrogate mother?
It was not up to us; the decision was made by the company. I felt somewhat disappointed, as there was no chance of personal contact. On the other hand, this also guaranteed that no one would be able to extort money from us.
What happened next?
The implantation was carried out, and the surrogate mother became pregnant. We were so happy after the first prenatal examination, and after the second, which took place around week 7 of the pregnancy, we were simply overjoyed. We received all the information via the internet, which on the one hand allowed us to be up to date, and yet keep a healthy distance from the matter (there was still a lot of room for disappointment). However, even all of this did not help. The examination in week 11 showed the fetus had no pulse and it was necessary to remove it. We were devastated and all the distance in the world could do little to relieve our pain. It took us a long time to pull ourselves together and decide to try again, but in the meantime Indian law had changed, making surrogacy no longer available to men. Our embryos were still stored frozen in an Indian medical center, so we had them sent to Thailand, but they did not survive the journey. We never found out whether a mistake was made in the freezing or thawing process of the embryos.
We had difficulty finding the right egg cell donor in the following months. When we finally did find, in the Republic of South Africa, the one candidate we thought suitable to donate the egg, the whole procedure had to be postponed because of her health problems. Then she was in a car accident, and eventually had to drop out of the program when her employer objected to her being absent from work again.
We were very upset, and had wasted several precious months. Then, as luck would have it, we got news that another couple had just withdrawn from the program, making their donor available.
We went over her profile and so we figured – I guess you just end up lowering your standards with time – if she has a pulse, we will use her. Not only did she have a pulse, this woman had dark hair, just like mine, and even looked a bit Israeli.
The medical center storing our sperm samples sent them to Bangkok, where a new in-vitro fertilization took place. This time, as mixing the sperm was not an option, we asked them to fertilize the eggs with both my and Dor’s sperm, and choose the most promising embryo, regardless of which one of us would be the biological father. We found this to be easier than choosing between ourselves. Our luck held, and the cell implementation proved successful on the first try.
We were again very happy with the thought of becoming parents, but chose not to live and breathe that happiness during the first half of the pregnancy. The first attempt, where the fetus had to be removed, was traumatizing enough, so this time we decided not to tell anyone. However, week after week, and month after month, we received nothing but good news.
When did it occur to you that you were going to be a father?
I think about halfway through the pregnancy, when the doctor did an ultrasound scan to examine all the organs of the fetus. There was a whole series of meetings organized for us: two with a psychologist, two with an educator, and one on how to resuscitate infants. We found them to be very useful for our future parenthood.
The psychologist, a homosexual father himself, said we had reached the point where we could finally allow ourselves to be happy. Sometimes you just need someone else to tell you to relax, and be happy. Naturally, we were still a bit anxious, but, as you can see, everything ended really well for us.
When did you go to Thailand?
About three or four days before the date set for the cesarean section. The contract we had signed with the surrogate mother specified the hospital where our son was to be born, but said nothing about the birth itself. Whether it was going to be a natural or cesarean birth was up to the mother and her doctor.
We were told it was the mother who decided on the cesarean, which I thought was surprising, but still welcomed that decision as it made it easier to plan everything. We never talked to the woman about it after the birth. I do still have some uneasy feelings though, because it later turned out that other surrogate mothers had also been choosing to give birth by C-section. If everyone is choosing to do the same, I believe there may be a possibility of some sort of external pressure.
But you did eventually meet her, didn’t you?
Yes, we did. She did not speak English, so we communicated through an interpreter provided by the company responsible for recruiting surrogate mothers. This means there was potentially room for some complicity.
That is the price you pay for a surrogate birth in Asia. You can never be one hundred percent sure of anything, which is also what probably plays a role in the ongoing discussion about surrogacy in Israel. To what extent is this entirely an act of free will? Whose will is it? And should we judge people living in the East by our Western standards?
We will get back to that in a moment. Could you please describe the day of the birth?
We arrived several days prior to the scheduled date, but did not meet the mother until the day of birth. For medical reasons, only one of us was allowed to enter the operating room and we were asked to choose, but before I even had a chance to open my mouth, Dor had already rushed in wearing a lab coat and a mask. A very democratic decision indeed! Two minutes later he was back pushing an incubator with our little Matan. The doctors there are extremely professional.
Dor only caught a glimpse of the mother. We were not allowed to talk to her immediately after the operation because she had to rest. This proved impossible the following day too – the medical staff advised us against talking to the surrogate mother because the hospital was swarming with journalists. Apparently, an Australian couple had abandoned one of their newborn twins diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. That was incredibly frustrating because the day after Matan’s birth, his surrogate mother was turning forty, and we wanted to meet her, and give her birthday presents.
We finally met her several days later.
How do you remember that meeting?
I remember tears.
We had no idea what to expect due to cultural differences. Thai people are usually very quiet, unassuming, and somewhat withdrawn. Much to our surprise and delight, the surrogate mother turned out to be a wonderful person, and only a little bit shy. Acting completely out of character, Dor sprang up, hugged the woman, and started crying.
We had received letters and pictures throughout the pregnancy, but meeting her face to face meant connecting with the person who had just given you the greatest happiness conceivable. We felt high, and we felt wonderful. Even though she could not speak English, and we didn’t know a word in Thai, we were somehow able to communicate without an interpreter.
What was your first thought when seeing Matan?
I did not think; I cried. We have several pictures taken that day where I look like someone who had just smoked marijuana. There were no thoughts passing through my mind, only pure emotion.
How did your families react to Matan’s birth?
We are all very close and both of our families had been deeply involved from the very beginning. They wanted to know as much as possible at every stage of the process, unless they felt we were not eager to talk. They waited for information, but did not press us. They did their best not to call us every few hours when we were in Thailand, but we still talked every day.
We stayed at a hotel across from the hospital, along with other couples from Israel. Matan joined us three days after his birth, and the three of us stayed there for another month before going back home.
Do you know who Matan’s biological father is?
Yes, of course we do. However at this stage, we want only the three of us, including Matan, to know.
You were not required to reveal this information to fill out the documents?
Matan could not enter Israel without a passport. To get it, we had to prove that his father was Israeli, so we did all the necessary DNA tests. This is all confidential data, and we want to keep it that way. We wanted our families to meet Matan as Matan, without being biased. With time, this purely genetic information will become irrelevant.
What surprised you most about being a parent?
I expected to be forced to cut down on sleep, and to lose much of my personal freedom. The reality turned out to be much more extreme. I hardly sleep at all, although it does not really bother me. The loss of freedom is the greater discomfort by far; but then again, it is not much of a bother, really. My life now is all about making the baby happy.
How did you feel when you heard about the latest natural disaster in Nepal?
My first reaction was to call two of my friends who are scheduled to go there soon for the birth of their children. I wanted to know if they were in touch with the people on site, if the surrogate mothers and their families were safe, and if the pregnancies were progressing undisturbed. Then I realized that what happened there was really horrible.
There is a Facebook group for homosexual parents, of which I am a member. I remember we wanted to come up with a solution to help those people the very same evening the earthquake hit Nepal. Not only the surrogate mothers, but of course our motivation was driven by the experiences of people who were able to become parents thanks to those women in Asia.
Do you think this situation may result in a change of legislation in Israel?
No, I don’t. Every time something like this happens, the debate starts again. I cannot say I feel very optimistic about the situation. The previous government promised to do something about it, but the matter just disappeared after the elections. As a matter of fact, I do not regret that it did. The way they wanted to do it had so many faults that the solutions could only do more harm than good to overseas surrogacy. I read it, and it was just a bad piece of legislation.
Are you considering siblings for Matan?
Oh, yes! We spoke to a Tammuz agent a week or two before the earthquake, and we have already signed the contract though it has not yet been sent.
This is a good time for Matan to have a brother or a sister. We are also afraid something could change in the meantime, making overseas surrogacy unavailable in the future. We will think about the money later.
How much have you paid so far?
About eighty thousand dollars. ■
» first published in May 2015