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Radio Review: Surrogacy in The Archers

29 January 2018
Appeared in BioNews 935

The Archers

BBC Radio 4, broadcast daily

'The Archers', BBC Radio 4, broadcast daily

For some unknown reason rooted in the mists of time I am addicted to The Archers, the not-so-everyday story of country folk that has been running on Radio 4 at 7pm every day except Saturday pretty much for ever. This soap is known for tackling big subjects. In the field of conception and assisted reproduction, it's covered abortion (most recently Pip's realisation that she couldn't go through with it), donor conception (solo mum Helen and her son Henry) and now surrogacy.

Adam Macey, eco-farmer and illegitimate son of Jennifer Archer, and his husband Ian Craig, head chef at the local smart hotel, are hoping to start a family and are looking for a surrogate to help them. It is really Ian who has wanted children for a long time. He had to persuade Adam that this was a good idea and initially they were going to try to adopt a child.

The idea of surrogacy came from Ian's good friend Helen, single mum to a sperm-donor-conceived child. Again, Adam took some persuading but eventually came round and they started the process. Ian wanted to be the biological father and was devastated to find that his sperm did not seem to be up to scratch. However, there was no mention of further investigations or procedures or ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection).

Until very recently there was no mention at all of the potential for seeking a surrogate and egg donor overseas. Whilst a UK arrangement is definitely preferable from the child's point of view, it was odd that going abroad was not discussed earlier. Adam and Ian seem to have found an organisation that sounds remarkably like Surrogacy UK and through them started talking to a woman who was interested in working with them, but eventually pulled out.

In the meantime, Adam's sperm has been found to be plentiful, with good swimmers, so he will be the biological dad. Ian's feelings about his sub-fertility and sadness about not being able to create a child have been well explored. Even so, I kept shouting at the radio that it only takes one and if he's not completely infertile they should be trying ICSI.

Adam and Ian appear to be on the books of a fertility clinic and there are occasional mentions of them being on a waiting list for a surrogate (not sure this is a service that clinics provide). But in the meantime they are on the lookout for someone they know who could help. Who should offer her services on a drunken evening but Lexi, Bulgarian ex-fruit-picker from Adam's farm who is currently working temporarily at Grey Gables, the hotel where Ian is chef.

Lexi is in a relationship with Roy, one of the hotel's administrative staff. Over the last couple of weeks there have been fraught conversations between Ian and Lexi, Adam and Ian and more recently Lexi and Roy about whether Lexi meant what she said and the implications for everyone, and particularly for Lexi and Roy's relationship if she did carry Ian and Adam's baby. Roy found it difficult to get his head round his girlfriend carrying a child for someone else.

Initially, because she values her relationship with Roy, Lexi retracted her offer. But as I write on 25 January, Roy has relented, Lexi renewed her offer and Ian and Adam have gratefully accepted, although she is adamant that her eggs should not be used. No doubt there will be further plot twists and turns before this story plays out. Of course, in real life an offer to be a surrogate does not always translate into the happy scenario of a live birth.

How realistic is this portrayal of a gay couple looking for a surrogate? It's hard to know but I suspect that very few men would be satisfied with the vague 'they don't seem to be moving' diagnosis that Ian seems to have been given following a sperm test. We are not told if this was done locally or at a fertility clinic. I am sure that all gay couples at least explore initially the possibilities of going abroad, even if things like the astronomical cost, put them off in the end. I don't recall money or legal matters being mentioned at all, which seems a little implausible.

The introduction of a fertility problem was a good addition to the story line as it is relatable for many couples. Ian's feelings about this were given plenty of space. The false starts and hopes and disappointments experienced are also probably typical of any couple seeking surrogacy and actually most fertility treatments.

There has been a lot of comment by other characters about being sure that Ian and Adam will be good dads. But there hasn't been much space devoted to how a child might feel about being conceived with help from a donor and a surrogate and having two dads. These are all topics that are conspicuously absent from the agenda of organisations promoting the rights of everyone to be able to have a child. Not that there is necessarily a problem, but it is something that should be spoken about and explored rather than being ignored.

Let's hope that at some point the child's perspective is addressed. If the surrogate does turn out to be Lexi, they will obviously remain in contact with her (unless she disappears back to Bulgaria for good). If their egg donor comes via a UK clinic then she will be identifiable when the child reaches 18. As a gay couple they will also have to tell the child about their biological origin early on, this being something that Helen failed to do with Henry, who seems only to have had the information about his beginnings from around age eight.

We shall see…

15 January 2018 - by Susan Tranfield-Thomas 
The entire landscape of human fertility, from puberty to menopause, is the uncharted territory we tread from adolescence to middle age and sometimes beyond. It is a heady mixture of hormones, reproductive functions and barely acknowledged social and emotional narratives played out against our own and familial expectations...
11 December 2017 - by Eleanor Taylor 
Despite concerted efforts to reduce the stigma surrounding fertility struggles, there still appears to be a 'facelessness' to this incredibly common issue, which suggests that fertility is still very much a taboo subject...
4 December 2017 - by Jen Willows 
Of Kith and Kin is a play about surrogacy that seems to have very little to say about surrogacy...
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