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Radio Review: Diary of a surrogate – The Untold (BBC Radio 4)

17 June 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1002

In 'Diary of a Surrogate', an episode of the Radio 4 programme The Untold, Linder Wilkinson speaks about what becoming a surrogate mother meant for her. She tells the story of why – after giving birth to her first surrogate child – she decided to embark again on the same journey for a gay couple, Nick and Karl. 

Linder decided to become a surrogate mother because she has always been moved by altruistic feelings for couples that are unable to conceive. As she speaks, I cannot help myself but think: 'What if one of the parties changed plans during the pregnancy? What if something happened to the baby?' I was surprised to learn that there is no legally binding agreement between a surrogate mother and the intended parents – it is all based on mutual trust.

Linder's story unfolds and reveals a path fraught with difficulties. After an abnormal blood test, Linder is called back for further analyses, and finds out that the baby is affected by a very rare disorder, known as holoprosencephaly. In most cases, the condition results in fetal death in utero. Linder lost the fetus, and experienced two more miscarriages in the attempt to conceive a baby for Nick and Karl.

I admire how Linder went through all this, together with Nick and Karl, and still decided to attempt pregnancy twice more. She constantly refers to the couple as the only parents of the baby, even though she donated her eggs as part of the arrangement and any resulting baby would be genetically related to her. In the UK, intended parents are not considered as such until a parental order has been issued. Until that time, the surrogate mother has the right to keep the child if she wants to.

As a woman, I thought that after nine months of gestation a mother must be so physically and emotionally attached to her baby that it would be nearly impossible to separate. I am not a mother, but I heard many stories from people very close to me about the bond a mum creates with her baby during gestation. 

As a scientist, I strongly believe that these stories are not just a figment of the imagination. Physiological changes occur in pregnancy to nurture the developing fetus and prepare the mother for labour and delivery. Evidence shows that the radical hormone surges and biological adaptations during pregnancy also have long-term effects on the brain. A mother must be prepared to sustain another human being until it becomes independent. 

But for women taking part in surrogacy, the narrative is very different. Linder's story gave me a new perspective. She happily honoured her agreement with Nick and Karl, with her role as surrogate coming above all else.

The story ends after the third miscarriage, when Nick and Karl decided to start looking for a new surrogate and stopped attempting further pregnancies with Linder. She was disappointed, but she understood their good intentions to avoid causing further stress for herself and her family.

Linder's story flows very well through the episode, she speaks openly about her feelings and frustrations throughout the pregnancy. It is an honest and balanced representation of the positives and negatives that one can encounter when choosing to become a surrogate. 

On the other hand, the episode does not provide a lot of information about Linder's family, including her husband. From the podcast, we only have a hint of the impact surrogacy can have on surrogates' family and friends. There is no direct testimony. I think this perspective would have been extremely interesting and useful to share, especially for those women with a family who are contemplating the idea of becoming surrogate mothers.

I myself am not familiar with surrogacy – I was born and raised in Italy where any form of it is still illegal. I hoped this podcast could help me to obtain a more general overview, mainly from a legal perspective. 

In reality, very little explanation is given around the practicalities of what surrogacy entails. For example, Surrogacy UK is only briefly mentioned, despite this being a leading UK not-for-profit organisation providing support for surrogates and intended parents. I would have liked to know more about the agreements between surrogates and intended parents and how these are dealt with, given the fact that they are not legally binding. 

Finally, I felt that during the conversation not so much importance was given to what happens after the delivery, although perhaps this was inevitable as Linder, Nick and Karl's relationship never made it past the gestation period.

Overall, I do appreciate that given the short time of the podcast – around 30 minutes – it is challenging to cover all these aspects. Therefore, I would not recommend the podcast to those who are taking their first steps into this journey and are in need of basic information.

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