‘I had no legal right to be at my sick baby’s bedside’
When Sara Byrne’s surrogate daughter fell seriously ill, only her husband was allowed permit medical treatment as the legally recognised parent. She tells Lynne Kelleher about her campaign for status
Last January, Sara Byrne watched from the car park as her husband carried her sick baby through the automatic doors of her local hospital’s emergency department at midnight. It was the last she would see of her baby daughter Alice, who was fighting a soaring temperature, for 10 days. The distressed first-time mother spent most of the next fortnight in the car park to feel near to her 15-month-old infant as she got almost hourly updates from her husband, Pádraig, on her worsening condition as the doctors ran test after test.
As a mother of a child who had arrived into the world through surrogacy, she had no legal right under Irish law to give permission for any medical treatment.
“At that time, only one parent was let in and automatically that was my husband because I wouldn’t be able to legally sign anything for her should she need an intervention,” Sara explains.
“I sat out in the car because I had to be somewhere close to her. I couldn’t sit at home, I literally couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. It was just the most horrific feeling.
“She was so ill and so distressed. They were doing all the tests to her and she didn’t understand what was going on, and the fact that I couldn’t be there to calm her and reassure her was just awful.
“My husband was amazing with her but just as a Mammy… if anyone is a Mammy, they would understand you would do anything to help your child.”
Eventually, her baby daughter was diagnosed with a rare paediatric inflammatory multi-system syndrome called PIMS-TS, which is a reaction to Covid.
Alice had shown no symptoms of the virus prior to her hospitalisation, but luckily was discharged after treatment and recovery.
Under Irish law, the father in an international surrogacy scenario can be recognised as a parent and guardian if he has provided the sperm used in embryo formation.
But the mother can only be recognised as a guardian under Irish law for a minimum of two years after the child’s birth, even where she has provided the egg used to form the embryo carried by the surrogate.
At present, Carlow woman Sara, who is a campaigner for Irish Families Through Surrogacy, can’t even sign off on her child receiving a spoon of Calpol at her creche until she is granted guardianship with her husband’s permission.
Although it is hoped changes to the law could be undertaken before the end of the year.
The feeling of powerlessness in the face of her daughter’s condition is something that has been experienced by a number of Irish parents who have had their children through surrogacy.
“The daughter of another one of our members got pneumonia after Covid and she had to stay in the car park of Crumlin hospital while her husband dealt with it inside,” tells Sara.
Although the wheels are in motion when it comes to changing the law with a Special Joint Oireachtas Committee on International Surrogacy established to regulate surrogacy, it can’t come fast enough for hundreds, if not thousands, of parents in Ireland.
“There is an urgency there,” she continues. “We have one family, where the mother has no legal relationship with her child and her husband is actually quite ill with cancer and it’s a real worry.
“There has been a lot of political will, most recently I’d say, so we’re very hopeful that this will happen.”
Sara’s own journey to surrogacy began six years ago when she went to see her hospital consultant to discuss the chances of her carrying a baby.
“I have cystic fibrosis, and I had a lung transplant 15 years ago now, when I was 19.
“My consultant in the Mater told us he would be very supportive but he advised us that I would have to come off a number of my anti-rejection medications in order to fall pregnant, because obviously they’d be toxic to the baby.
“I would have loved to carry my own child but after a lot of talking and crying and all the rest, we just made a decision that it just wouldn’t be fair to any child that we brought into the world if I was going to risk my own health.”
After much research and discussion, the couple met their surrogate, Natalia, for the first time when they travelled to Ukraine for the 20-week scan.
“That was just a wonderful experience,” recalls Sara. “We had been in touch with her obviously in Zoom calls, but we hadn’t met her in person.
“Just the minute we met her she just gave us the biggest hug. She was such a warm, gentle kind of person. I just immediately relaxed and I just knew she was going to look after our baby so well.
“We became much closer and we were in contact much more and have been in contact ever since Alice was born. It takes a very special type of person to be a surrogate.”
In the end, Sara and Pádraig had to dash from Ireland to Ukraine when Alice surprised them all by arriving into the world two weeks early in October, 2019.
“We got the quickest last-minute flight we could get and we were there within a few hours of her birth. It was a lovely, lovely time,” she adds.
After returning home with Alice, Sara kept up a close relationship with Natalia, her baby’s surrogate mother in Ukraine, with regular WhatsApp messages, but they went silent when Russia began bombarding Ukraine.
When she finally got through to her on a Viber line, an emotional Natalia, who had to shelter from shelling in the first few nights, told her: “Thank you for not forgetting about us.”
“She had no idea she was on our minds constantly,” says Sara. “I’m in daily contact with her.
“Her parents are there and she has three children herself. She is in a safe area at the minute. We’ve sent over a bit of financial support to her and her family just to make sure they could remain in a safe place and make sure they have provisions.
“They are hoping they can stay where they are and remain safe.
“It’s just devastating, she’s part of our family and without her, we wouldn’t have Alice.”
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