Stop 3: Illinois
A couple of days ago I watched (again) the 2010 remake of Alice In Wonderland. In the film, Alice is overwhelmed by everything she sees and experiences but reassures herself by telling herself, “it’s all just a dream and I’ll wake up soon”. She pinches herself on the arm many times to help herself return to reality.
As I walked through Chicago this morning, getting ready to head on to my next destination, I felt that same urge to pinch myself – that surely this is just a dream and soon I will wake up. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to do what I am doing. Two of the fabulous people I met with in the past few days made an identical observation – that this is truly “the trip of a lifetime”.
But I suppose I should talk about what I have been doing 🙂 After arriving earlier than expected in Chicago (an upside to cancelling the Mexico leg of my trip), I had a few spare days to check out the city (unfortunately, there was no chance to schedule extra meetings over the New Years long weekend). For someone with a very amateur interest in art and architecture, this city is incredible. I’ve had a chance to check out some of the amazing Art Deco era buildings, and took a tour around Oak Park – home to many buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright at the beginning of his career. I also got to spend a morning overwhelmed by the magnitude of the Chicago Institute of Art (an image from there later).
On Monday, I really got down to business, and started to meet with some of the practitioners working here in the area of IVF, donor conception and surrogacy. Illinois takes a very family friendly approach to third party reproduction, that is, the State is broadly supportive of whatever is necessary to assist people to have a family. They have had a pretty solid State Statute in place for the past 10 years, and this seems to provide general protections to all parties involved in surrogacy arrangements (i.e. Intending parents (IPs), surrogates, and kids born through surrogacy arrangements). I have been very impressed by the screening processes used by the agencies here (screening primarily relates to surrogates, but there is a less arduous process for IPs also), firstly by the agencies themselves, and then through their psychology evaluations. All parties also require legal representation and medical screening.
It’s taken me a little while to really get my head around the function of the agencies – when I left Australia, I really had not understood the role they play, and had wondered what they added to the process, to justify their fees. I think I have been fortunate to talk to agencies to do the job well (and this is a really important point, NOT everyone does it well, so it remains a “buyer beware” kind of environment ), because now that I have spent time and talked to the agency staff, and discussed their screening processes, I can see that they really can reduce the stress for IPs and surrogates. Surrogates are fully screened and approved long before meeting an IP, and long before an agreement gets drafted. This is quite different to the situation we have at home, where I have seen families recruit a potential surrogate, invest their emotional energy into that relationship, (and invest their financial resources into the background preparations), only to be disappointed that the surrogate is really not a suitable candidate.
Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal (“you will find someone else”), but potential surrogates really are tricky to find at home, and the restrictions on advertising mean that it’s a little like the blind man looking for the black hat in the darkened room. Also, if you’ve already had your heart broken by years of infertility and unsuccessful fertility treatment, surrogacy really is the last straw – your emotional, and financial resources are pretty depleted and there are often major strains beginning to show on relationships (within marriages/partnerships, but also with external social supports). Another false start has been the final straw for many people negotiating the fertility maze.
One of the agencies I spoke to here described how they have established a process where there is one clear contact for the IPs, and a different, separate contact for the surrogates. Each serve to assess, inform, educate, and very importantly, advocate, separately for their respective clients. When the time comes to make a match between IP and surrogate candidates, these 2 individuals then work together to decide who is well aligned in their expectations and wishes for the surrogacy arrangement. This just makes so much sense to me, and from what I was told, really helps to minimise problems later. (Once there is a baby on board, you really don’t want any more problems). But if problems do arise as the arrangement progresses, these 2 separate staff members are there to act as private sounding boards, and advocates and to assist in getting the communication happening again and repair the surrogacy relationship. At the end of the day, this seems to be in the best interests of the child, (which is the main focus for those of us working within the QLD legislative framework).
When I left Australia, I was really unsure of what I would think about the surrogacy process in the USA. I admit to having had some pre-conceived views of international surrogacy. I am pleased to say that already this trip is influencing my thinking and giving me an opportunity to open my eyes to how we can do things better in Australia. With the upcoming Federal Parliamentary Inquiry into surrogacy in mind, I think there is consensus that Australia needs to do surrogacy differently from the structure that has been established, but we really have a chance -RIGHT NOW- to learn from the mistakes, but also the successes of other jurisdictions, and get things right at home. After all, wanting to have a baby isn’t such a strange desire.
Many thanks to Nidhi Desai; Dr Kaplan and Dr Beltsos from Fertility Centres of Illinois; Mary-Ellen, Robyn and Antonia from Alternative Reproductive Resources; Nancy Block from Fertility SOURCE Companies; and Dr Angela Lawson, all of whom took time out of their busy schedules to meet with me and share their expertise about surrogacy and egg donation.
A late addition to my post is this photo of myself with the absolutely gorgeous Nancy Block from Fertility Source. She took me out for dinner on my final evening in Chicago and was really helpful in establishing contact with some great people in Chicago… and she’s an incredibly lovely person to boot!
And to keep with my tradition of posting images of parenthood: Pablo Picasso’s “Mother and Child” (1921) snapped at the Chicago Institute of Art