International surrogacy and COVID-19

Among the many people caught up in the COVID-19 nightmare are those involved in international surrogacy arrangements: expecting parents trying to get in, new parents trying to get out and others stuck in quarantine, unable to see their newborn children.

Joe Durak and Valeria Martinez Viademonte are expecting their second child on April 16. Problem is, their home is in Australia and the surrogate who is carrying their baby lives in Canada.

Among the many people caught up in the COVID-19 nightmare are those involved in international surrogacy arrangements: expecting parents trying to get in, new parents trying to get out and others stuck in quarantine, unable to see their newborn children. Canada has become something of an international surrogacy magnet, so a good deal of this is playing out right here. Among the pressing questions are whether exceptions should be made for these foreign nationals, whose children are Canadian, and, if not, who will look after their babies. 

Durak and Viademonte had planned to be here well in advance of the birth — on March 24. But when the coronavirus advisories started rolling out, they moved their travel forward. The earliest flights they could get had them entering the country March 18. 

But that, as it happens, was the day Canada closed the border to all foreigners other than Americans.

The couple, and their seven-year-old son, Marco, got all the way from Sydney to Houston. But Air Canada told them they could not board their connecting flight to Toronto. "They said that we'd missed the cutoff," said Durak on Thursday night, from a hotel near the Houston airport. 

Letters from lawyers and doctors held no sway. Global Affairs Canada, though aware of the situation and working on it, had their hands full with Canadians scrambling to return home.

"We'd be happy to drive up there," said Durak, "but obviously we're a long way away." They knew that by midnight on Friday, the border would be closing even to Americans. They were worried that if they didn't make it in, they might miss not just the birth, but many months from the beginning of their daughter's life. 

They decided to try their luck at a land crossing. Early Friday morning, they flew to Detroit and got a taxi to the border. Canadian officials said they could not enter. For one thing, they risked bringing in the virus. For another, they had no guarantee of leaving: Australia's main airlines had announced they were suspending flights.

"They gave us a white slip saying we had to go back to the US," said Durak. "Then, through the window, we managed to plead our case to a couple of other officers, and we got into the immigration building." Their surrogate drove several hours to the border to be interviewed by officials. In the end, the family was allowed in, and they drove to an AirBnB, where they started their two-week quarantine, exhausted but relieved. 

According to Cindy Wasser, their Toronto-based fertility lawyer, some 50 foreign families are in a similar situation — expecting babies through surrogacy in Canada between now and July. The Australian family got in. So did an Israeli dad-to-be, whose child is due in May. Another intended father from France managed to fly from Marseille to Munich to Toronto to Winnipeg — on the same day Durak and Viademonte were denied entry from Houston.

Others have not been so lucky. One couple is stranded in Japan en route. Several families in Spain are barred from leaving their own country, even if Canada were to agree to let them in.

It is not clear who will look after these infants if their parents can't get here. "We're starting to see women on Facebook saying, 'I'm a doula, I'll step up,' " says Wasser. "But can they?" There are legal questions, she says, not to mention concerns about COVID-19.

On Facebook groups, some people are questioning whether incoming parents are putting the Canadian public at risk. One person commented that he hoped no one would get sick just because a foreign intended parent "wanted to watch a birth." 

Leia Swanberg, who runs Canadian Fertility Consulting, one of Canada's largest surrogacy agencies, says all of the families coming from abroad are undertaking a 14-day quarantine. Swanberg estimates that, among all the Canadian agencies, there are about 25 families currently in quarantine in the country, awaiting the births of their children.

But this too is posing problems. Swanberg has clients from France, for instance, whose baby arrived last Monday, almost five weeks early — while they were still in quarantine. The parents have not yet met their daughter, who spent seven days in the NICU and was then discharged home — with the surrogate. Their quarantine ends Thursday.

Then there are the families who are desperate to get back home. Their babies have been born and now they need documentation to leave the country. But that's not so easy anymore. An Australian couple who were trying to get a passport for their baby last week in Winnipeg were turned away at the Passport Office's door, according to their lawyer, Robynne Kazina. Luckily, an emergency passport was issued and the family is now making their way home. 

Even before a passport can be issued, though, a new baby needs a birth certificate. In Ontario, the law mandates a seven-day wait period between when a baby is born and when a surrogate can sign away parentage. Given the urgency of leaving the country, Wasser asked the registrar last week to suspend the seven-day wait. (BC, for instance, has no such wait.) She had clients who were desperate to get their newborn back to Belgium. "I said, 'Let us register a birth so we can print birth certificates quickly, get them to the passport office quickly, and get them home before this goes down,'" said Wasser. "And they said, 'We're not changing our requirements.'"

As for all the other surrogacies — the ones in people's dreams as well as the ones right on the cusp of going through — they have all been put on hold. Approximately 10 women are currently primed to have embryos transferred at a US clinic, says Swanberg, but they can no longer get there. Even domestic surrogacies will have to wait. The Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society, which speaks for the industry, last week advised freezing any embryos from current IVF cycles and postponing everything else. 

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"How Canada became an international surrogacy destination." Globe and Mail. 2018.

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