By Joanna Moorhead
Unable to conceive naturally and desperate for a family, REKHA PATEL and her husband Daniele sold their business so they could go to India to have a surrogate baby
Five months before her daughter was due, Rekha Patel was admitted to hospital for a hysterectomy. It was, she says, entirely the right decision. Her baby was safe – in the womb of a 26-year-old Indian woman more than 4,000 miles away, whom Rekha had yet to meet.
The woman carrying Rekha and her husband Daniele’s child was a surrogate called Nayna Chauhan, a mother-of-three. She was spending her pregnancy in a special hostel for mothers-to-be in Anand, Gujarat. The baby had been conceived using a donor’s eggs and Daniele’s sperm.
It is not, says Rekha, when we meet at her cosy, toy-strewn cottage in Essex, how she ever expected to have a child. ‘Like most women, I assumed that when I wanted a child, I’d conceive,’ she says. But unbeknown to her, the excruciatingly painful periods she had suffered since puberty were a symptom of a condition called endometriosis, in which pieces of womb tissue adhere to other areas outside the uterus, usually in the abdomen.
‘I tried to get help, but doctor after doctor told me it was one of those things, I’d just have to put up with it. The pain was debilitating. A good diet helped, as did cutting out alcohol and reducing my stress levels, but it was incredibly tough to live with.’
It wasn’t until Rekha, now 45, was in her late 30s that she was given a diagnosis of endometriosis and it was explained to her that it could cause infertility. By this time, she and Daniele were trying for a baby.
‘When a gynaecologist finally explained to me that a combination of my age and the endometriosis gave me around a five per cent chance of ever getting pregnant, I was devastated,’ she says. ‘If I’d known that earlier, I’d have tried to get pregnant sooner. I felt I’d wasted so much time trying to manage the pain when what I should have been thinking about was having a baby. But I wasn’t prepared to just give up. When you’re faced with a problem like that you have to think: how important is this to me? What would I sacrifice to achieve what I want?’
At the time, Rekha and Daniele were nurturing another dream: they were running their own restaurant in Epping, Essex, that they’d ploughed all their energy into for many years. The couple met back in 2000 when they were both working as chefs in the upmarket Quaglino’s in Central London. Their friendship was built on a shared passion for cooking, but after a few years it turned into love. ‘Our ambition was to open our own restaurant, and we did it,’ says Rekha.
‘It was incredibly hard work but we adored it – although it was difficult for me to balance the stress with the monthly pain, which was sometimes so bad that I took to my bed for several days.’ In 2012, the couple married; their lives seemed on track – in every way except one. ‘We had a house, a great life, a thriving restaurant,’ says Rekha. ‘But we still longed for a family.’
Now, with the doctor’s damning verdict on her fertility, a baby seemed unlikely. ‘That’s when we started thinking outside the box,’ says Rekha. ‘A friend mentioned she had seen a TV programme in which actress Caroline Quentin travelled to a town called Anand in Gujarat, India, where people went from all over the world to seek help from a doctor called Nayana Patel, who runs a surrogacy clinic. I Googled it and saw she was helping a lot of couples to have babies.’
At this point, Rekha’s own Indian heritage proved useful. Both her parents had moved to the UK from India in the 1960s and, by chance, she had a cousin who was a doctor in Gujarat. ‘I asked him to check it out, and he said that he’d heard good things and that Dr Patel was trustworthy,’ says Rekha. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time in India, visiting relatives and going on holiday, and I was very aware of the poverty there; of women who are working as domestic staff or in clothing factories for as little as £4 a day, who can’t afford a proper home for their families or to educate their children well.
The women who put themselves forward to be surrogates at the Anand clinic (they must have at least one child of their own) live in poverty; the money they make for having a baby can transform the way they live. It’s easy to think, “I’d never get involved in surrogacy”, but it became increasingly obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to conceive a child naturally. The clinic made a baby of our own a possibility – plus we’d be helping another family to have a better standard of living.’
Rekha and Daniele, who is now 41, travelled to Anand in October 2012 and, after a consultation with Dr Patel, decided to try having their own genetic baby via a surrogate. Rekha was given fertility drugs and her eggs were harvested and then fertilised using Daniele’s sperm. The resulting two good-quality embryos were implanted into a surrogate mother, a woman whose house had been destroyed in a gas explosion and who wanted to raise the money to rebuild it. But two weeks later, a pregnancy test proved negative.
Rekha and Daniele returned to the UK, but the clinic still had samples of Daniele’s sperm. ‘We decided to try again, but use an egg donor as she would provide better quality eggs than mine,’ says Rekha. ‘We didn’t know a lot about the donor, but we chose someone whose physical appearance closely resembled mine. We began to hope again.’ But there was bad news once more: the surrogate didn’t get pregnant
‘It was December when we heard it had failed,’ says Rekha. ‘It was an incredibly busy time in the restaurant, and Daniele and I were working flat out. One day he said, “Let’s go for it. Let’s sell the business, go to India and keep going till we have a baby.” And I realised that, although running a restaurant had been my dream for so long, sometimes a bigger dream comes along and you have to decide what you’re willing to give up in order to give that its best chance.’
The couple put the restaurant on the market, intending to use the proceeds to fund their move to India and the clinic costs. Meanwhile, Dr Patel had found another surrogate, Nayna Chauhan, and was preparing for another attempt using an egg donor and Daniele’s sperm. ‘And then, on 10 January 2013, I opened an email that said: “Congratulations, Nayna is pregnant!” And I was, like, “Wow, it really is happening.”’
The couple decided to carry on with the restaurant sale: they knew there would be a gruelling bureaucratic process that could take several months after the birth before they could bring their baby home. ‘We’d made our choice and we didn’t want the stress of running a restaurant in Britain while we were having a baby in India.’
But they were now in a race against time to get the business sold and make it to India in time for the birth in August. It was, says Rekha, a strange few months. ‘We were having a baby and yet I wasn’t pregnant. I’d made the decision to have a hysterectomy [to treat her endometriosis] shortly before we found out that Nayna was pregnant and I opted to go ahead. I knew I was going to need all my energy now for my child and I also knew my womb would never carry a baby.’
Emails arrived regularly with news of Nayna’s pregnancy. Like most surrogates at the Anand clinic, she was living in a hostel, where she could have the best possible food and care. The clinic also provides the women with English classes and training in subjects such as book-keeping to give them a better chance of finding work in the future.
‘They are very well looked after. Their families visit regularly and Nayna’s daughters – who were two, six and nine at the time – were sometimes able to stay with her at the hostel. The rest of the time they were looked after by Nayna’s husband and her mother,’ says Rekha.
Scan pictures were sent to Rekha and Daniele, and although in India it’s illegal to reveal the sex of the child, Rekha and Daniele showed the images to three friends who were doctors and they all said the baby looked like a boy. ‘It was incredibly exciting and despite the distance between us, we felt very connected to Nayna and to our child,’ says Rekha. ‘Daniele and I both believe in positive thinking: we would make sure that they were never far from our thoughts.’
In the end, the couple made it to India for the birth by the skin of their teeth. ‘We finalised the restaurant sale on a Wednesday, got on the plane on the Thursday and the baby was born the following Tuesday,’ says Rekha. ‘I remember landing in Delhi and, as I felt the wheels touch the tarmac, I thought: “If I’d just won the lottery I couldn’t be happier than I am right now.”’
Meeting Nayna – who was then just days away from giving birth – was an amazing moment. ‘It was wonderful to be able to talk to her at long last. My Gujarati isn’t great, but we could get by. A few weeks earlier she held a baby shower, a Hindu custom called godh bharai, and seeing the pictures from that had been very moving because it was the first time I’d seen her bump.’
The day of the birth is etched on Rekha’s memory. ‘Nayna had a caesarean and we were waiting outside the theatre. Suddenly the door opened and the doctor said: “It’s a girl!” We were surprised – we’d brought lots of blue baby clothes with us as we thought we were having a boy – but completely delighted. Then the doctor handed her to me and I thought, “Oh my gosh. It’s finally happened. We’ve got our baby.”’
Nayna spent the next few days in hospital recovering, while the baby, who weighed 6.5lb, was kept in another hospital for observation. Rekha and Daniele [who is Italian] had decided they wanted to give their child an Italian name, and they settled on Gabriella. ‘She was – and still is – the spitting image of Daniele’s sister,’ says Rekha.
‘A few hours after her birth my mother arrived from Britain. It was amazing to see her with Gabriella and she was reassuring to have around. I was terrified of being in charge of this tiny baby. We took her back to our hotel and I spent all the first night awake just gazing at her; I couldn’t believe she was really here.’
The heartache was over, but the bureaucratic wrangle they had anticipated ensued. ‘There was a lot of paperwork before we could bring Gabriella home to Britain. It took three months,’ says Rekha, ‘but it was such a blissful time. After all those years of working so hard, all Daniele and I had to do was be with our gorgeous baby, enjoying her and being together as a family.’
Eventually the day came when Gabriella was granted British citizenship and could go home. Three years on, she is a sociable, lively little girl who goes to nursery school. When we meet she is playing happily with her toys and enjoying the delicious-smelling pasta lunch rustled up by Daniele. He talks to her in Italian and she laughs and giggles with him before moving on to Rekha’s lap for a cuddle and switching seamlessly to English.
Today you’d never guess there was anything unusual about them. But Rekha has already started to talk to Gabriella about the way she came into the world because, she says, she doesn’t want her to ever be confused or shocked. ‘I’ve told her she was born in India, and that my tummy wasn’t well and I had to ask another nice lady to look after her in her tummy.’ One day, they hope to take Gabriella to meet Nayna and her family. Since the birth, Rekha has returned to visit them – and to see for herself that their lives have improved as a result of the money she and Daniele paid. She doesn’t, however, regard Nayna’s other daughters as Gabriella’s sisters – after all, they are not genetically related to her.
The good news, says Rekha, is that carrying Gabriella for her and Daniele has changed Nayna’s life. ‘She and her husband and their three girls were living in a tiny flat,’ says Rekha. ‘But since having Gabriella and a baby for another couple, the family has moved to a much bigger place and Nayna’s husband has a new rickshaw.
Surrogacy isn’t about exploitation, it’s about making lives better: their lives are better because of the money Nayna was paid, our lives are better because we have Gabriella.’ Rekha and Daniele are currently on a round-the-world tour with Gabriella, taking the opportunity to travel before she starts school. When they return, Daniele will look for work as a chef.
Genetically, Gabriella is Daniele’s but not Rekha’s, but, says Rekha, that doesn’t make a jot of difference. ‘Gabriella is absolutely my child,’ she says. ‘She is only here because we wanted her to be here. If it hadn’t been for me and Daniele, she would never have been born.’ The couple’s only sadness is that they can’t add to their family in the same way: since Gabriella was born, a ban has been placed on Indian women carrying babies for foreigners in return for money while a proposed law prohibiting the practice is considered.
One of the reasons behind the ban is that surrogacy clinics came under fire for treating women like ‘wombs for rent’. But, says Rekha, that is too sweeping a criticism. ‘People are too quick to damn it. The fact is that Gabriella’s birth transformed two families: ours in Britain and Nayna’s in India. To people who say it shouldn’t be allowed, I say this: unless you’ve been there, you can’t understand how it feels to be unable to have a child and you can’t know the lengths you would go to in order to have one.’
SURROGACY: THE FACTS
● Surrogacy isn’t illegal in the UK, but it is illegal to advertise either as or for a surrogate, which makes it difficult to organise.
● In the UK a surrogate only receives expenses (typically £8,000-£15,000), not a fee.
● India used to be known as the world’s ‘surrogacy hub’, but a ban was placed on commercial surrogacy last year, pending proposed legislation that would end the practice. One of the criticisms of the industry, which is said to have been worth more than £1.7 billion a year, is that it allegedly puts poor women under pressure to be surrogates.
● Advocates such as Rekha say that no one is ever forced into surrogacy, that the industry was well organised in India and that surrogates and their families were well looked after.
● Commercial surrogacy is legal in some US states, where women can be paid a fee for carrying child. Other countries that allow commercial surrogacy include the Ukraine and Russia, but the cost varies: in the US it can be more than $100,000.