Love child: How surrogacy worked for this Australian family

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It took trust and courage on all sides, but surrogate Shannon Garner brought the ultimate joy of a baby girl into the home of two loving parents. Here, all three tell their stories to Erin O'Dwyer.

A thoroughly modern family: Jon Cole, Elise, Justin Worthy and Shannon Garner.

A thoroughly modern family: Jon Cole, Elise, Justin Worthy and Shannon Garner. Photo: Nick Cubbin

When mother-of-two Shannon Garner first offered herself as a surrogate, she knew two things were non-negotiable: first, the baby should be conceived using a donor egg; and second, she would express colostrum and breast milk after the birth. Feeding the child from the breast would feel too intimate.

People ask me if I still see the baby. It shocks me that anyone would think I'd just walk away. 

Shannon Garner

With these careful limits in place, a trusting relationship formed between Garner, 36, and the baby's intended parents. Over the course of a year a friendship blossomed and in November 2014, a baby girl was born.

Surrogacy can work in Australia if the good will and groundwork are in place first.

Surrogacy can work in Australia if the good will and groundwork are in place first. Photo: Nick Cubbin

Now a delightful 19-month-old toddler, Elsie is the daughter of law enforcement officer Jon Cole, 30, and his partner, equestrian coach Justin Worthy, 29. She was conceived using IVF with Jon's sperm, Shannon's womb, and an egg from the couple's long-time friend, Sereena.

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A loving community surrounds Jon and Justin, who live in the lower Blue Mountains. Sereena and her husband visit regularly. Shannon and her husband and children come to Sydney twice a year from their home on the NSW mid-north coast. Jon's and Justin's parents live close by, and Sereena's parents, who love Elsie as if she were their own, are also on hand.

The walls of Jon and Justin's home are covered with photographs. One montage shows Elsie cuddling with three of her birth parents - Jon, Justin and Shannon.

Elise was conceived using IVF with Jon's sperm, Shannon's womb, and an egg from the couple's long-time friend, Sereena.

Elise was conceived using IVF with Jon's sperm, Shannon's womb, and an egg from the couple's long-time friend, Sereena. Photo: Nick Cubbin

It's an extraordinary story of courage, commitment and love. And one that proves that surrogacy can work in Australia if the good will and groundwork are in place first.

We asked this very modern family about their journey.

SHANNON GARNER: I breastfed both my children and I know the connection we formed. I wanted Jon and Justin to take over the reins straight away. To see Justin preparing the colostrum in the bottle as soon as Elsie was born was amazing. I was like, "Wow - yep, they're gonna do this!"

It was good for me to detach at that point, too. I regret not holding her when she was born but I wasn't sure how I would feel. When I saw them pick her up, it was such a great feeling.

Using a donor egg was crucial for me. If the child came out and looked anything like my son or daughter, I don't know how I would have felt. But when I saw Elsie and she looked exactly like Jon, I knew it was right. Even though I helped her grow, I knew that she was not genetically mine. It's lovely for Sereena to be involved, too.

Counselling was very important. Our counsellor brought up things we hadn't thought of. We made a plan with her and wrote everything down, like how often Elsie and I would see each other and whether I could take photos of her. The counsellor said it was the most detailed plan she'd seen.

The plan was not legally enforceable, but we wanted it all on paper. In surrogacy, things are sometimes left unspoken and the surrogate can end up feeling used. I didn't want there to be any grey areas.

It's hard to explain why I wanted to do this. I'd had my son and my daughter, and giving birth was such a miracle. It's just so amazing that a human can grow another human and birth it. Our family was complete and I didn't want any more children - I was happy and enjoying life. Yet I had friends who were just begging to fall pregnant. They'd try IVF for years, then fall pregnant and miscarry. It was heartbreaking.

So I offered to be a surrogate for a friend but not long after, she fell pregnant. A little later, I started looking at groups online. It blew me away how many people were seeking a surrogate. I could actually help somebody. A mutual friend knew of Jon and Justin, so we met, and that's how it all started.

There was more negativity around me than I had expected and that did chip away at me. Then, when the Baby Gammy story broke, I saw how cruel people could be. But with Elsie and Jon and Justin, I see love. They wanted to have a child, give her love and help her to grow and become a young lady. I don't see how that is wrong in any sense.

Compensated surrogacy is a grey area. In America, women can be paid up to $50,000 and that's not including expenses. Such a large amount makes me feel uncomfortable. Surrogacy groups in Australia are pushing for a fee of $10,000 or $15,000 including expenses, which is similar to what happens in England and Canada. I see merit in keeping intending parents in Australia, rather than pushing people overseas to look for surrogates.

A trusting relationship is crucial. You have to meet one another and find your way, and it has to feel right. People ask me if I still see the baby. It shocks me that anyone would think I'd just walk away and not be part of their family. It's a bonus that comes from being a surrogate.

We're hoping to have a sibling for Elsie. We have embryos frozen: this time Justin's sperm has been used. We plan to do the transfer later this year.

JON COLE: One thing we didn't anticipate was how all of this would affect Sereena's family. Her parents love Elsie, and now Sereena is expecting a baby in October. Justin and I had been together for three or four years when we started to discuss children. We looked into adoption but it's nearly impossible in Australia, especially for gay men. We had gay friends who fostered, but it was very challenging. We discussed overseas surrogacy but we couldn't afford to have time away from our work, and it also felt like buying a baby.

We went to high school together and got together after high school. We were both 19 and had been in relationships with females. For me, it was very hard to come out. You always know that you are gay but you try not to be. It was a lot easier to come out with a partner than to do it on my own.

It means a lot to have a connection with Shannon and her family. If we had a child that we'd brought back from Mexico or Thailand, in a few years' time she'd be asking questions that are very hard to answer.

We would have considered paying money to an Australian surrogate but you have to be careful who you choose. A big lump-sum payment might attract someone for the wrong reason. Not once was I concerned about what Shannon was doing, or what she was putting into her body. I don't think someone who was getting paid would put in the amount of love and care Shannon did.

Elsie was born into Justin's arms. I hung back - I was worried I would end up on the floor. We point at photos on the wall and say, "Who's that?" Elsie knows it's Shannon but she obviously doesn't comprehend it all yet.

JUSTIN WORTHY: From the beginning, we were all open and honest. We talked about everything. Our ultimate dream was to have two children, conceived with sperm from each of us. I have a very strong belief that if you want something enough, you'll make it happen. You just have to believe in the dream.

Even when she was very little, we'd tell Elsie the story - she doesn't sit still long enough now. We've always said we'll be honest and that there won't be any secrets. The experience has been so positive, so there are no bad bits to tell.

As Elsie grows up, there will be other hurdles. When she goes to school, it might be hard for other kids to understand, and she might not know how to deal with it. But that is something we will deal with when we get there. I just want her to always feel okay about it, to know where she came from and to be happy about it.

The success of surrogacy varies depending on the people involved in each case. Our situation could not have gone any better, so we think, yes, this is how you should do it. For us, love and respect is what made it work.

Surrogacy in Australia

  • Australian law only permits altruistic surrogacy. Agreements are not legally binding
  • In Tasmania, Victoria and WA, a surrogate must have already given birth to a child, and in all states and territories except the ACT, the surrogate must be at least 25.
  • A birth mother is considered the mother of a child, regardless of genetics, until a birth certificate is amended.
  • Australia is the largest market in the world for international surrogacy arrangements.
  • India has banned foreigners from accessing surrogacy. Surrogacy is illegal in Thailand, Nepal and Cambodia. Mexico and Canada are increasingly popular destinations.
  • Clinics in countries such as Argentina, Greece, South Africa and Spain have increased egg donation services to meet demand.

Labour of Love by Shannon Garner is published by Simon & Schuster on July 1.