'I was just the person letting it grow inside me': What drives an altruistic surrogate?

One surrogate's story

Belinda Cahill offered to be a surrogate because she couldn't bear the thought of her cousin Leah never having a baby.

Belinda Cahill couldn't bear the thought of her cousin Leah Ellis never having a baby.

That was the most incredible moment. I realised I had nothing to worry about. It just felt so natural.

Belinda Cahill

So when radiation treatment she was having for bowel cancer ruined Ms Ellis's ability to carry a child, Ms Cahill offered to be a surrogate for her and her husband James.

Belinda Cahill couldn't bear the thought of her cousin Leah Ellis never having a baby, so she offered to be a surrogate ...
Belinda Cahill couldn't bear the thought of her cousin Leah Ellis never having a baby, so she offered to be a surrogate for her and her husband James. Photo: Cole Bennetts

"She called me one day and said 'I really want to do this'," Ms Ellis, who had frozen embryos before her cancer treatment, recalled.

Ms Cahill already had two sons of her own. "I couldn't bear the thought of seeing someone who wanted a family so much not be able to have kids. I knew I was capable of [being a surrogate]."

It took three tries and more than $50,000 before Ms Cahill fell pregnant. In January Alyza Grace Belinda was born, so named because she is a "joyous blessing" from her mother's cousin. "It was a family affair bringing Alyza into the world," Ms Ellis said.

Alyza is the product of a good altruistic surrogacy relationship. Sydney infertility counsellor Miranda Montrone has analysed more than 120 cases of altruistic surrogacy to determine what factors make for a successful arrangement. About 10 per cent of Ms Montrone's clients did not proceed with surrogacy.

Altruistic surrogacy is the only form permitted in Australia. It is illegal to pay someone to carry a baby for you, or to advertise for a surrogate.

A recent Senate inquiry recommended keeping the ban on commercial surrogacy. NSW Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton is pushing for changes to state law to allow people to advertise for altruistic surrogates.

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Ms Montrone found that surrogacy arrangements were likely to succeed if the intended parents were positive, concerned for the wellbeing of their surrogate, felt a close female bond, and had dealt with their own infertility trauma. A willingness to be open with the child born of a surrogacy arrangement was also crucial.

Like many women who have used surrogates, Ms Ellis said she feels blessed. "There is nothing I can do to express our gratitude for her," she said. "She did it to provide us with the opportunity to have a family. How can you ever repay someone for doing that?"

Ms Montrone said altruistic surrogates understood the importance of being a mother, and the sadness felt by women who couldn't bear their own child. They were "good" at pregnancy, and felt they were doing something special in their lives by carrying another woman's baby.

Four-month-old Alyza Grace Belinda with mum Leah Ellis and  Belinda Cahill
Four-month-old Alyza Grace Belinda with mum Leah Ellis and Belinda Cahill  Photo: Cole Bennetts

Ms Cahill said it would have hurt her too much to see her cousin go through infertility. "It's such a huge gift, not just for Alyza's parents, but for our whole family. It's enabled my aunt to be a grandmother."

Most aspiring mothers turn to surrogacy because of issues with their uterus, according to Ms Montrone, who will present her findings at the Families Through Surrogacy conference on Sunday. Nine out of 10 altruistic arrangements involve family, friends or friends of friends. A growing proportion of intended parents are meeting their surrogates online.

Surrogacy arrangements are unlikely to succeed if there is a power imbalance, mental health issues, relationship problems, or a lack of understanding of the legal implications. 

Ms Ellis and Ms Cahill admit they had their own fears during the surrogacy process. Ms Ellis's main concern was how Ms Cahill would feel, but she also worried whether she would bond with a baby she didn't carry herself. These fears evaporated when she had skin-to-skin contact with Alyza.

"That was the most incredible moment. I realised I had nothing to worry about. It just felt so natural."

Ms Cahill was unsure how she would react when the baby arrived. "Is it going to be really difficult to hand the baby over?" she remembers thinking. But she said it had been drilled into her during counselling that it was not her baby. "I was just the person letting it grow inside me."

After Alyza's birth Ms Cahill didn't feel the same primal instincts she had with her own boys. "I didn't really feel like 'I have to protect you, I have to make sure you're fed right'. I didn't have any issues at all – it was very much 'this is their baby'."

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