Surrogacy is an increasingly popular pathway to parenthood for gay men. So what’s it like to carry someone else’s baby? How does it feel, waiting to cuddle your newborn? And why does the law make it so difficult?

Lacey Owen lies back on the bed, lifting her top. The ultrasound gel has been warmed slightly, so she doesn’t squeal. But she’s used to this routine now; she’s three babies down, and this will be her fourth pregnancy. 

It’s the first baby that won’t be hers, though. 

The intending parents, Arrun Soma and Jake Vollebregt, squeeze hands on the couch. The light from the scan machine frames their faces, upturned towards the amorphous, swirling blobs on the screen. “From what I can see, so far so good,” says the technician at Whangārei’s EchoNorth ultrasound.

EchoNorth Ultrasound owner and sonographer Angela Browne conducts an anotomical scan, watched closely by the intending parents.

EchoNorth Ultrasound owner and sonographer Angela Browne conducts an anotomical scan, watched closely by the intending parents.

The men’s faces are awash with relief. Owen, who has looked relaxed the entire time, grins. “There’s a foot!” she says, as a set of toes swims into view. “Oh wow, wow, oh my gosh,” says Vollebregt, now gripping Soma’s hand.

“It’s so hard to know when to be happy, and when to celebrate,” Soma explains, as the couple leave the 20-week scan appointment with Owen, their friend and gestational surrogate. “I want to cry happy tears, I can feel them, I'm just trying to keep them at bay and go,” he shares a glance with his husband, “one week at a time.”

In medical terms, Owen is in her second trimester of pregnancy. She is due in mid-November, around four months from now. 

But the creation of this new life began well before the traditional starting point.

Gel is smoothed on Owen’s stomach for the 20-week scan, the most important health check of the baby prior to birth.

Gel is smoothed on Owen’s stomach for the 20-week scan, the most important health check of the baby prior to birth.

To get to this moment, the first, irrefutable proof of their baby’s existence — the swoosh-swoosh of a heartbeat, a tiny digital footprint, organs all in order — the three friends have already been through almost two years of joy and heartbreak. 

Surrogacy is a journey taken by more than 50 Kiwi parents every year, with demand increasing as reproductive technology improves and more same-sex couples look to become parents. 

But the laws that govern gestational surrogacy are problematic, requiring intending parents to apply to adopt the baby, even when one of them is a biological parent, and criminalising any payment for the woman who carries and births the child.

Impetus for reform has been growing since late 2019, when Auckland man Christian Newman presented a 30,000 signature petition to Parliament calling for the rules to be simplified. In late December, Labour MP Tamati Coffey, who adopted baby Tūtānekai born via surrogate in December, introduced a member’s bill. A simultaneous Law Commission review into surrogacy law, regulation and practice, commissioned by Justice Minister Andrew Little, is due to report back to Parliament.

Yet what’s been missing in all of this is any real discussion of what surrogacy entails, and what the experience is like for those who go through it. 

What compels a woman to be a surrogate, enduring pregnancy and childbirth with no baby of her own at the end? How does it feel to be on the cusp of new parenthood, supporting a surrogate to grow your child?

Vollebregt and Soma clasp hands and watch their baby on the scan.

Vollebregt and Soma clasp hands and watch their baby on the scan.

Couple Soma and Vollebregt and their friend Owen let Stuff join them on the emotional rollercoaster that is surrogacy. 

This is a ride with the highest stakes: life.

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It’s afternoon in Whangārei, and Owen’s three children Calais 8, Declan 7, and Jake, 3, are fed, watered, and on the couch watching cartoons. Owen’s husband, Nick, is making a start on dinner.

Owen, 35, who works in a pharmacy and is studying to be a midwife, has always thought about being a surrogate, she says. She wanted to be a mum more than anything, and her pregnancies and births have all been straightforward. “I like being pregnant, I knew that there's nothing better than being a parent, and if you can help someone realise that dream and they can't for themselves, then why wouldn't you? I've got the parts,” she says, matter-of-factly.

The Owen family children: Jake, 3 Declan 7, and  Calais, 8, are excited at a visit from Vollebregt and Soma.

The Owen family children: Jake, 3 Declan 7, and  Calais, 8, are excited at a visit from Vollebregt and Soma.

She’d mentioned it on and off to Nick, who was supportive, but they wanted to make sure their own family was finished first. 

Then, after Jake’s birth, Nick got a vasectomy. Owen joined a Facebook group for surrogates, where she didn’t participate, but watched the posts.

Owen fields a question from youngest son Jake, 3.

Owen fields a question from youngest son Jake, 3.

Down in Wellington, Soma and Vollebregt had begun talking about how they might have a baby. After getting hitched a year previously, they’d bought a house in Churton Park and settled in with their two dogs, Minnie and Snow. Soma was a godfather to a friend’s baby, and they were both uncles. But it wasn’t enough.

“There was something missing. We wanted to be Dad and Dad,” Soma says. They started thinking about who could be an egg donor — at one point, they had to politely ask Soma’s mum to stop casually asking family friends — and joined the same online surrogates group as Owen. They also started looking into adoption, attending an Oranga Tamariki open evening for potential foster parents.

Vollebregt explains the ultrasound picture to Calais. The children know mummy is carrying a baby for her friends, “the boys.”

Vollebregt explains the ultrasound picture to Calais. The children know mummy is carrying a baby for her friends, “the boys.”

For a year or so, that was it. Then, in September 2019, Soma and Owen started messaging. They’d been flatmates about a decade earlier, and had kept in touch. They had a shared friend code; a love of the strange coincidence that is looking at a clock when the numbers all align. “Thought of you yesterday when I looked at the clock and it was 11:11,” wrote Soma. Owen replied. “Haha! I still think of you whenever I see it too.” 

Owen asked how Soma and Vollebregt — “the boys,” as she calls them — were doing. Soma said they’d recently moved to Wellington, and sent a photo of the dogs, adding, “We’ll have a real human baby one day I am sure too!” Owen then mentioned how she’d talked to Nick about one day being a surrogate, and they found they were in the same Facebook group. And then. At home in Whangārei, Owen made a joke to Nick that she should carry their child. He replied, seriously, “Well, you’ve always said you’ve wanted to, and they’d be perfect.”

Helping mum with the handheld fetal heart rate monitor, so everyone can hear the heartbeat.

Helping mum with the handheld fetal heart rate monitor, so everyone can hear the heartbeat.

Owen thought about it for a moment. She typed out a response. 

“Well my friend, I know it’s a bloody huge life-changing decision but you should go for it! I don’t know what the process entails but I’d definitely be interested in looking into it with you! I’d love to be your surrogate if I qualify.”

She hit send.

Arrun
Thought of you yesterday when I looked at the clock and it was 11:11.
Lacey
Haha! I still think of you whenever I see it too.
Lacey
How are you guys?
Arrun
We are good babes
Same old down here
Back in Welly and loving it
Living life with our fur babies
We’ll have a real human baby one day I am sure too!
Arrun
How's it going up north?
Lacey
We're good, life is mental with our lot but love it! I've been talking to Nick recently about being a surrogate since we've finished our family
Arrun
Wow women like you are amazing, people who've had their own families and want to help others! So selfless! We actually just joined a surrogacy group on Facebook
Lacey
Well my friend, I know it’s a bloody huge life-changing decision but you should go for it! I don’t know what the process entails but I’d definitely be interested in looking into it with you! I’d love to be your surrogate if I qualify.
Arrun
Omg
That would change our lives

That night, Soma and Vollebregt talked it over, each conversational thread leading to hope and the unknown. But Soma couldn’t sleep. What was the next step? Was Owen sure? They had to make sure she and Nick were okay with everything. Who should they talk to? How could they ever repay her? Was she sure? Just before dawn, exhaustion had the final say.

Making a baby

There are two types of surrogacy. One is known as traditional surrogacy, when the carrier of the baby is also the biological mother. Pregnancy happens through insemination, either at a clinic or DIY at home, typically using a syringe. Anyone with a uterus can do this, and there’s no approval needed.

The other is gestational surrogacy. This is when a person with a uterus, usually a woman, carries a baby to which she has no genetic link. The egg and sperm have both been donated, and combined together in a laboratory to create an embryo which is implanted in the surrogate. In New Zealand, the circumstances under which this can happen are governed by the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act (HART), and every surrogacy must be approved by the Ethics Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ECART).

Declan and Calais explain all the ways a baby can be made these days.

Declan and Calais explain all the ways a baby can be made these days.

Demand is expected to increase. Surrogacy applications have more than doubled since 2005, with a record 37 applications in 2020. While ECART told the Law Commission it thinks this could be partly due to Covid-19 affecting the number of parents being able to pursue international surrogacy, it’s also an increasingly visible and viable pathway to parenthood for gay men.

An application to the ethics committee must be iron-clad. The surrogate and intending parents have to get counselling separately, together, and with current partners and children. They need medical checks, references and personal letters in support, and reports from lawyers to state they understand the risks and their rights.

This is not accidental. “There’s a lot at stake with assisted reproductive technology, where the ultimate result is to bring a life into the world,” says Calum Barrett, chair of the Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ACART), the board that makes the rules. As a sitting member of ECART, he also takes part in meetings where applications are heard and discussed.

Calum Barrett, chair of the Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ACART) and sitting member of the ethics committee.

Calum Barrett, chair of the Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ACART) and sitting member of the ethics committee.

He sees the ethics committee as guardians. “We have to identify the risks early on,” Barrett says. “As well as the physical element, it can be an emotionally intense experience, especially for the surrogate. There’s a complex set of relationships which can make even the most straightforward scenario quite complicated. We need to make sure they are entering into it fully informed.”

Having a baby, and becoming a parent, are transformational experiences. With surrogacy, they are cleaved apart. How can this be done safely? International human rights principles say everyone involved in a surrogacy must be doing so by choice. If coercion or exploitation is involved, it is considered an infringement on the rights of all involved, including the rights of the child.

Aside from making sure there aren’t any obvious medical risks to the surrogate — having a high BMI, complicated previous pregnancies, more than three c-section births and not having finished having their own family would all rule a potential surrogate out — the real test is the relationship between the surrogate and the parents. 

This needs to be strong, because in the coming months, it will be a protective cocoon. For them, and for any baby born as a result.

The friends tried to get together to support each other as much as possible, including for this maternity shoot at Ruakākā Beach.

The friends tried to get together to support each other as much as possible, including for this maternity shoot at Ruakākā Beach.

After Owen’s initial offer, the friends set up a video call. There is a lot to think about. Vollebregt, 38, an accountant, and Soma, 36, a former television journalist and communications professional, throw themselves into research. They contact Fertility Associates, start up a group chat, and call around family lawyers. They check in on each other daily.

“As far as high risk goes, it feels really high risk,” Soma says. “It’s someone's body, people's DNA. It was really emotional, right from the beginning, and we thought it was important to mitigate any impacts on mental health.”

The counselling sessions are confronting. Some of the questions are those all would-be parents would usually consider: what if it was discovered the baby had Down Syndrome, or a congenital defect? But others are more involved: what would happen if Soma or Vollebregt, or both, died during the pregnancy? Who would look after the baby? What if they split up, or Owen got a terminal illness?

“They’re not very nice things to think about, but they’re all possible,” Owen says. “And it was really important to me as well, having three children, I have to be here for them. I needed to make sure that everything was going to be as safe as possible for me throughout the whole process.”

Owen parenting her own children while heavily pregnant.

Owen parenting her own children while heavily pregnant.

Owen’s three previous pregnancies had been vaginal births, with a shorter labour each time. She was healthy, she understood the medical risks, and she and Nick had finished their own family. Clinically, she was the ideal surrogate. 

But she had no desire to be the genetic mother. “That was a big thing for me, I just knew I couldn’t do it,” she says. “I just wanted to be the oven.”

Soma and Vollebregt had some friends in mind as egg donors, but took a while to get up the courage to ask. In the end, no-nonsense Nick encouraged them to get over themselves. “He said look, I know you’re pondering it but if you don’t ask you don’t get; in the nicest possible way,” Soma says. “You could say he’s been quite good at helping us to distil our emotions.”

Friend Dee Sharpe-Davidson, 33, said she felt privileged when Soma asked if she or her partner Alice Khaw would want to be egg donors. “It didn’t really feel like a super hard decision to make, we hadn’t thought about it prior to that but they are good friends of ours and we knew they would be good parents,” Sharpe-Davidson says.

Owen at 35 weeks pregnant.

Owen at 35 weeks pregnant.

“Being from the rainbow community, we were conscious of not having the option of having a child without other things being involved. Either of us would have done it, but I’m a couple of years younger so apparently my eggs were the better bet.”

Stuff has agreed not to say who the biological father is. Soma and Vollebregt’s families and close friends know, but over time they began to feel there were implications to the question they didn’t like. 

It felt like it was being insinuated that if you're using that person's sperm, it's more their child than it is the others’. And that's not absolutely not the case. 
Arrun Soma

“We are both dads, and we will love the child equally, unconditionally, and we'll make sure that our home is happy, healthy, and safe. It’s not a question of who is more of a dad.”

Owen began taking a cocktail of drugs to prepare for the embryo implantation. This included oral medicine and vaginal tablets. In October 2020, the first embryo was transferred. 

It didn’t take. While she knew she couldn’t have done anything differently, Owen still blamed herself. “I just assumed that, oh, it's IVF, it'll just work. It'll just carry on and everything will be great. So when it happened, I got quite a shock.”

Straight after Owen’s next period, in late November, they tried again. 

Soon after, Owen began feeling the telltale signs of pregnancy. The trio were ecstatic, and Soma and Vollebregt planned to tell their families on Christmas day. The perfect gift.

That afternoon, Owen knew what was happening. She’d experienced two miscarriages of her own. This one was different. It was hers but not hers, and the main feeling, as she drove to Whangārei Hospital’s emergency room, was guilt. She took a deep breath and called the dads, who stayed on the phone with her during her hours in ED. “It was really tough, a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be,” Owen says.

It wasn't my child, so I felt guilty for being so upset when it wasn't my loss to grieve. And I'd be talking to you guys on the phone and I'd be the one bawling my eyes out. And it was them consoling me, and I thought, ‘This is wrong’.
Lacey Owen

Please don’t feel guilty, Soma and Vollebregt kept saying. “The miscarriage was hard, but it was also hard knowing that Lacey was feeling guilty and trying to turn that around because that's probably not an emotion we thought about,” Soma says.

The miscarriage was a huge setback, and a low point for everyone.

The miscarriage was a huge setback, and a low point for everyone.

Devastated, and with Christmas now feeling emptier, they all decided to take a break. Owen, by now physically and mentally drained, didn’t know if she could do it again. She felt bad for the guys, who had talked about remortgaging their house, spending all their money on fertility treatment. She was over the pills. She’d told Nick she would give it three tries, but now she felt scared. 

What if she couldn’t carry their child and all of this had been for nothing?

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Having a baby can be stressful. Having someone else’s baby in a pandemic? That’s red light stressful, or Level 3 lockdown to be precise, the Covid-19 response setting when Owen went into Auckland Fertility Associates for the third embryo transfer in March 2021. Staring at the ceiling, legs spread, alone, she waited for the doctor and hoped.

Within a few days, Owen’s breasts were killing her. She took a pregnancy test on day four, which came back positive.

Your life has begun deep within me.
Two pink lines informing me of your growing presence.
Soon I’ll deliver the news of your existence to your dad’s. Altering their world in more ways than they know possible right now. Turning men into fathers.
News that will change us all forever more. Turning friends into family.
I make this promise to you, to your loving Dads, and to your wonderful extended families.
To keep you safe and warm within me allowing you the chance to grow big and strong.
To carry you with love and care for you as if you are my very own.
To display strength and determination until it’s time to grace us with your presence earthside.
But for these few moments, I will keep you. The only time from here on out where it’ll be just you and I. And forever more I will share in you. Even though you were never really mine at all.

- Lacey Owen

This time, the trio were more cautious in their joy. Five weeks into the pregnancy, there was one heart-stopping bleed, then another. But the little sucker holds on through lentil, blueberry and fig until, when it is the size of a lime, Soma and Vollebregt hear their baby’s heartbeat for the first time. 

When they see each other at 20 weeks, the love shared between their families is palpable. While Owen and the kids are trying to listen for the heartbeat of the baby Mummy is carrying for Arrun and Jake, the couple laugh with the kids or chat to Nick.

Owen is supported by her husband Nick, who says he thinks she’s a legend for what she’s doing.

Owen is supported by her husband Nick, who says he thinks she’s a legend for what she’s doing.

A salt-of-the-earth type, Nick is both supportive and nonplussed. “It doesn’t worry me, if she wants to do it it’s her body, I think it’s quite a noble thing for her to be doing. Sure, I have to put up with her being hormonal, but it’s a small price to pay,” he jokes. “She loves being pregnant, she loves babies, and it’s something we take for granted. Pregnancy doesn’t interest me, so it’s good Lacey has someone to enjoy it with.”

Colleagues in his male-dominated profession have been overwhelmingly supportive, other than one religious workmate who told him he was putting his family at risk.

Owen has had one such comment, from a medical professional. The woman was taking her blood when Owen mentioned she’d had more morning sickness with this surrogate pregnancy. “Oh well, that’s just nature, that just shows you that nature gets it right,” the woman replied. 

The only thing that’s made Nick uncomfortable are the rules. For one, he had to give his consent for Owen to get an embryo transfer. “I think it’s quite archaic, some of the laws around it, like telling women what to do with their bodies. 

“That’s crazy, it’s like I’ve got some authority over her.”

(Since February 2022 partners are no longer required to give signed consent, but must attend mandatory counselling and understand the implications of what their partner is doing.)

He will also be listed as the father on the birth certificate, despite not having any biological link to the child. “I just can't get my head around that. Why?”

The legacy of Baby M

There is a longstanding stereotype that a surrogate will struggle to give up the baby. This is what happened in the highly-publicised case of Baby M in the United States, where a traditional surrogate changed her mind and fought for custody. The ensuing legal battle and debate around surrogates — were they being taken advantage of, how could rights be protected, should they be paid, who were the legal parents — informed New Zealand’s current laws.

In practice, there has been one documented case of a surrogate not wanting to part with a baby here, in 2021. That was also a traditional surrogacy, where the surrogate was the baby’s genetic mother, and so it hadn’t been through the ethics committee process, including extensive counselling.

Owen, here two weeks away from giving birth, says she has always enjoyed being pregnant. This time, she felt “huge.”

Owen, here two weeks away from giving birth, says she has always enjoyed being pregnant. This time, she felt “huge.”

Now 30 weeks pregnant, Owen says she is prepared. Seeing the look on Vollebregt and Soma’s faces when they see their baby for the first time motivates her on the nights she can’t sleep, or when her back is killing her. There are no nurseries to paint, or tiny merino bodysuits to imagine coming to life. “I definitely don’t feel as connected. It’s nice to feel the movements, I am emotionally invested because I want this to happen so badly for the guys, but I’ve known right from the beginning it’s not my baby.”

She does, however, expect to feel sad in the days afterwards, as the “baby blues” kick in. “There’s no way around it, hormones are hormones, and I think my body will have to catch up to my mind.”

And the pregnancy is taking its toll. Owen needed an iron transfusion, where the mineral is pumped directly into her bloodstream, and extra growth scans after a subchorionic haemorrhage. The baby is in the 99th percentile for weight. “I’m huge. I can’t even imagine how the next nine weeks is going to go,” she says. “I’m pretty tired because I’ve got three kids and I’m studying and working and still doing everything else.”

In Wellington, Vollebregt and Soma feel useless. With the country in and out of lockdown, they have mainly had to support Owen from afar.

It's kind of hard because someone’s giving you a massive, massive gift but you feel a bit helpless to give anything back, so you feel like a bit of a bludger,” Soma says. “I definitely understand that women’s bodies shouldn’t be commodities, but our love and support didn’t feel enough.

During her pregnancy and after the birth, Owen will attend more than two dozen appointments, including blood tests, embryo implantations, growth scans, an iron transfusion, midwife appointments, the birth, postnatal midwife visits and vaginal physiotherapy. She’ll have to take time off work, arrange childcare, and live through the discomfort of treatment, pregnancy, and recovery from birth.

Owen couldn’t receive any compensation or financial support from the intending dads during pregnancy. Doctors and lawyers involved with the surrogacy could be paid, however.

Owen couldn’t receive any compensation or financial support from the intending dads during pregnancy. Doctors and lawyers involved with the surrogacy could be paid, however.

Legally, Soma and Vollebregt are not allowed to offer any financial support. The current law criminalises the compensation of surrogates, with exchange of “valuable consideration” punishable by a prison term of up to a year, a fine of $100,000, or both.

However, while the woman is entitled to nothing, doctors and lawyers helping to facilitate a surrogacy arrangement are allowed to be paid.

In two reports, in 2005 and an issues paper released in July 2021, the Law Commission has criticised surrogacy laws — primarily, the 2004 HART Act and the 1955 Adoption Act — as outdated. Others go further, saying the current rules are unsafe or even exploitative for surrogates, and create unnecessary anxiety for them and the parents. 

“The surrogate is doing this amazing thing for intended parents, and she gets no money whatsoever,” says University of Canterbury associate professor Debra Wilson, who has extensively researched surrogacy laws here and overseas. “That’s really problematic, and it’s a big source of stress.”

Feminist opinions are mixed on the ethics of paying women for surrogacy. Some say it equates to the commodification of women’s bodies and would encourage poor women to reproduce for profit, a “womb-for-hire” model that is seen in some developing countries. 

Others argue that not giving surrogates any compensation for carrying and delivering a baby is free-riding on the unpaid work of women, and is itself a form of exploitation.

Compensation needs to happen so she’s not out of pocket.
Debra Wilson

“She goes through two years — pre-pregnancy, pregnancy, the time and stress of being pregnant and childbirth. It’s just compensation for service. You hear these arguments that if you pay a surrogate, say, $40,000, you’re paying her for being a surrogate. If you work that out, it’s $2 an hour for being pregnant.” 

The current law pushes many couples to look overseas, where they feel more comfortable being able to pay surrogates, Wilson says. “They’ve been able to pay, and they’ve wanted to.”

In its issues paper, the Law Commission suggests reasonable costs should be allowed, but stops short of recommending a flat fee, saying it would be a “radical policy shift”.

Another point raised by intending parents, from celebrity Toni Street to high-profile gay dads like Labour MP Tamati Coffey, is why they should have to undergo scrutiny from Oranga Tamariki (OT) and approval from the Family Court to adopt the baby.

Labour MP Tamati Coffey and partner Tim Smith with baby Tūtānekai, presenter Toni Street with Lachie, 18 months, born by surrogate, Mackenzie, 4 and Juliette 7, and Auckland parents Mark Edwards, left, and Christian Newman with son Frankie.

Before their surrogacy was approved, Soma and Vollebregt were visited by a social worker from Oranga Tamariki, whose vetting included a home inspection and criminal record checks. They needed a placement certificate from OT to take the baby home from hospital, with the surrogate signing her consent to adoption on day 12. 

After a follow-up visit and OT report, the intending parents can apply to the Family Court for an adoption order and new birth certificate. While this is meant to take 15 weeks, in reality it can be much longer.

Vollebregt says they have an understanding social worker, and for them it’s just another hurdle. “We’ve followed the process, we are just going through the motions. For us the most important thing is we have a baby in our arms,” he says.

Coffey, along with many experts in family law, say many parents find this process complicated and demeaning. “I just kept thinking about how hard it was, and the usual questions of ‘Why is this taking so long?’ and, ‘Where’s the support?’” Coffey, whose Improving Arrangements for Surrogacy Bill is about to have its first reading, says. 

“It just didn’t seem to make sense to go to court for a baby who is biologically yours.”

Labour MP Tamati Coffey, who hopes his member’s bill will simplify the process for surrogacy and adoption and make it fairer for all intending parents.

Labour MP Tamati Coffey, who hopes his member’s bill will simplify the process for surrogacy and adoption and make it fairer for all intending parents.

His bill instead suggests the creation of a “surrogacy order” which could be enforced as if it were a parenting order for custody under the Care of Children Act. It would be signed by all parties pre-birth, and give intending parents automatic parental rights immediately after birth. “If everyone agrees, when the baby is born, the parenthood of the baby changes from the woman carrying it to the parents.” 

He also wants reasonable compensation for surrogates to be allowed, and the establishment of a surrogacy register.

“It’s the biggest irony that the lawyers get paid, the doctors get paid, the ethics committee gets paid, but the lady with the bun in the oven gets nothing and is expected to do it out of the love in her heart,” he says. “This is such a big issue and it’s not just for the gays. I really want to see some good, wide-ranging reforms.”

Family lawyer Margaret Casey, who has been at the forefront of reproductive law in Aotearoa for more than 20 years, agrees a new system for recognising parenthood is needed. But she says it’s important to recognise the place of the surrogate right up until after the birth. The Verona Principles, which protect the rights of children born through surrogacy, include a clause granting surrogates final consent once the baby is born.

The issues are that there’s a triangle — there’s the woman who carries, the people who want to be parents, and the child. And how can you make sure everyone’s rights are treated with dignity and respect?
Margaret Casey

“You get the balance right by protecting the child, making sure the surrogate understands, a pre- and post-birth consent process and that she’s compensated for her costs. You protect the rights of the intending parent by giving them a clear and quick process that gives them parentage after the birth, and they get to reimburse their surrogate,” she says.

Family lawyer Margaret Casey, who specialises in reproductive law.

Family lawyer Margaret Casey, who specialises in reproductive law.

“Unless you have the post-birth check-in with the surrogate then she is being treated like a vessel with no involvement or consideration given once the baby is born. The expectation is that very few surrogates will ever withhold consent or change their minds at birth so, it is more an act of respect for her and her significant part in the birthing of the child to confirm her views have not changed.” 

In its issues paper, the Law Commission says the current adoption laws are “inappropriate” for surrogacies, even if modernised as part of a concurrent Ministry of Justice review. They don’t respect the intention of the parents or the surrogate, the rights of the child, and the lack of clarity and uncertainty could create an “atmosphere of fear and mistrust” in surrogacy arrangements.

But in its suggestions for reform, with final recommendations expected in May, the commission did not endorse Coffey’s model, saying it “raised concerns about the timing of the surrogate’s consent,” adding: “International best practice is that the surrogate must have an opportunity to confirm or revoke her consent post-birth. This is considered an important safeguard that protects the surrogate’s rights and promotes confidence in the integrity of the circumstances surrounding the surrogacy arrangement.”

It preferred the establishment of a new legal framework — completely separate from adoption legislation — with two pathways. In ECART-approved surrogacies, the intended parents would be the legal parents of the child, providing the surrogate confirmed her consent after birth, and going to court would not be necessary. In other surrogacies, the same process applies but an application would have to be made to the Family Court for a post-birth order. This framework would reduce time and cost, protect everyone’s rights, encourage the use of ECART and support parents to enter surrogacy arrangements in Aotearoa, the commission said.

A social worker would likely still have to be involved at some point, to satisfy the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and ensure parents were equipped to relate the child’s genetic origins to them in future.

Asked about the differences between the Law Commission report and his bill, Coffey says the issue of a second, post-birth consent had been raised with him since he wrote it. He would not be drawn on what he thought of the commission’s preliminary suggestions until he saw its final report. He would be “open” to including post-birth consent in his bill. “I’m not opposed to that, and I think it can be worked through.”

With six weeks until their baby is due, Vollebregt and Soma decide to pack up and head to Whangārei. It’s too nerve-wracking being in Wellington, not being able to support Owen, with the country still fluctuating between Covid-19 alert levels. Up north, they immediately feel better. Now they can take the kids to mini-golf, cook the family dinner. They’re both still working, from Nick’s mother’s dining table or their Airbnb.

Now full-term, Owen has just had what’s known as a “sweep” — a drug-free way of bringing on labour. “They stick two fingers up your cervix and just move everything around the baby’s head to kind of loosen everything,” Owen explains, as if she’s talking about what she’s up to on the weekend. 

Which she is, kind of.

With the help of her midwife, Owen has managed to get an exemption from Whangārei Hospital so the boys can be there for the birth. She’s glad; she wants them to be there for the initial bonding. “That would mess with my head if I was the one there doing that, that’s not my job.”

She is starting to feel the adrenaline. “It was only when I started getting some pains today that I was like, ‘Oh crap, I remembered how painful it is. Oh God, why am I doing this again?” she says.

“But you know, I've done it before so I can do it again. I just hope it all goes smoothly. I can't wait to hand the baby over and see them, see their reaction. 

“That's all I've been waiting for.”

Five days later, sitting down to a family dinner with Soma and Vollebregt, Owen’s waters break. It’s go time.

You were in on all fours in the water in an almost meditative state, you know, breathing and swaying and music was playing. And, yeah, you turned onto your back, and that's when it all happened.
Arrun Soma
He was beautiful. Yeah, he was. I’d never seen a brand new baby. He doesn’t really look real and then you see he’s moving and he's purple and then he starts screaming and you’re like, your heart it just races, and you just feel like nothing you’ve experienced before.
Jake Vollebregt
Lacey was pushing and panting and breathing and in extreme pain, but she somehow found the time and the pool to look up at Jake and I and go, ‘You’re going to be dads.’ That brings me to tears, thinking about it now.
Arrun Soma

Niko

There is a moment, right before their child emerges into the world, where Owen looks up at the men gazing down at her. Soma and Vollebregt’s faces are a thunderstorm of changing emotions: wonder, nerves, fear, anticipation — but Owen, despite having a baby’s head half out of her vagina, is calm.

“You’re going to be dads,” she says.

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Item 1 of 5

Moments later, Niko is born. He’s purple and squishy and an overwhelmed Soma, taking the first photograph to send to Nick and Owen’s mum, accidentally pushes send to his dog groomer.

“Can’t wait to meet Minnie and Snow’s new sibling,” she writes back.

That night, it’s Vollebregt who can’t sleep. As Soma snores beside him, he can’t take his eyes off Niko’s face, thinking how impossibly beautiful he is and how today is the best day of his life. 

“Even better than our wedding?” Soma asks him, later. 

Yes, Vollebregt says. Sorry, but yes.

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“I’m quite nervous, for some reason,” Owen says, lifting her suitcase from the baggage carousel at Wellington Airport. “I can’t wait to see them, and have some baby cuddles.”

It’s eight weeks since the birth, and the first time Owen has caught up with the boys since the week after, when they left Whangārei. 

Soma answers the door resplendent in an embroidered jacket, while Vollebregt, who was up and down last night, has missed a button on his rumpled shirt. ‘We make quite a good team, because we tag-team overnights,” Soma says. “Then we have a little business meeting in the morning, to figure out where he’s at.” That morning, Vollebregt was positive Niko smiled for the first time.  “I went to pick him up and I said, ‘Good morning Niko,’ and he smiled. I’m sure it wasn’t just wind.”

Vollebregt and Soma at home in Wellington with Niko.

Vollebregt and Soma at home in Wellington with Niko.

Egg donor Dee Sharpe-Davidson and partner Alice Khaw.

Egg donor Dee Sharpe-Davidson and partner Alice Khaw.

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Vollebregt and Soma at home in Wellington with Niko.

Vollebregt and Soma at home in Wellington with Niko.

Egg donor Dee Sharpe-Davidson and partner Alice Khaw.

Egg donor Dee Sharpe-Davidson and partner Alice Khaw.

Vollebregt and Soma at home in Wellington with Niko.

Vollebregt and Soma at home in Wellington with Niko.

Egg donor Dee Sharpe-Davidson and partner Alice Khaw.

Egg donor Dee Sharpe-Davidson and partner Alice Khaw.

Item 1 of 4

Vollebregt and Soma at home in Wellington with Niko.

Vollebregt and Soma at home in Wellington with Niko.

Egg donor Dee Sharpe-Davidson and partner Alice Khaw.

Egg donor Dee Sharpe-Davidson and partner Alice Khaw.

Owen takes Niko for a cuddle, cradling his head in her hands while enquiring gently about his routine, how he’s feeding, whether the dads have slept. Soma’s mum, Lalita, arrives soon after, swooping in for a hug with her first grandson. “What a beautiful thing you’ve done for us Lacey,” she says, as Vollebregt fusses around Niko’s bottle.

“Tip it more like this,” he says. Lalita Soma, who has raised four children of her own, looks at Stuff, an almost imperceptible eye-roll. “They tried to tell me the best way to put his nappies on as well,” she says. “They said, ‘You fold it down’ and I said, ‘No, you don’t fold it down, and my way is better.’”

Soma’s mother Lalita, who is over the moon to be a grandmother - who always knows best.

Soma’s mother Lalita, who is over the moon to be a grandmother - who always knows best.

She remembers when Soma first came out to her as gay, more than a decade ago. His first words were: “I know you really want kids, but I can’t give them to you.”

She turns to Owen. “And look what we’ve got, Lacey, look what you’ve given us. This is the gift that you’ve given us, and it’s like falling in love all over again.”

Learning on the job.

Learning on the job.

After the birth, as anticipated, Owen says she fell into a slump. “I was on such a high for, like, 36 hours and then the tears kicked in, as they will do with any birth. It was good to have these guys still around, and I went to see them every day.”

Her breast milk is drying up but the other week, when she saw a baby at the supermarket, she started leaking everywhere. “It definitely isn't that I want Niko specifically. It’s just my body is: ‘Where's the baby? Where's this baby that you need to be looking after?’ So your body and your heart and mind go through a grieving process, I guess.”

Baby Niko at eight weeks. Vollebregt and Soma are still not his legal parents.

Baby Niko at eight weeks. Vollebregt and Soma are still not his legal parents.

It’s really strange because your head knows you've done the right thing, but your heart and your body are like, ‘What's going on?’ So I was just waiting for them to catch up.
Lacey Owen

Another unexpected emotion was the desire to have another child of her own, an impossibility now for her and Nick. So she’s also been grieving for the child she can’t have. “We were done and we both felt fine about that, but this has been like, ‘Oh I’d quite like another one.’ Maybe it is because hormones are still running high.”

While she is proud she could help Soma and Vollebregt create their family and would encourage others to look into it, she thinks it’s important to be honest. “All the stories I read about surrogacy were like, ‘It’s awesome, you feel fine afterwards, everything goes back to normal,’ and I’m like, ‘Nah, that’s not true.’ It’s not to say I wouldn’t do it again, but it has been much harder than I thought. Just not for the reasons you’d think.”

A Christmas tableau: Owen, Niko, Soma, Vollebregt, and dogs Minnie and Snow.

A Christmas tableau: Owen, Niko, Soma, Vollebregt, and dogs Minnie and Snow.

Soma says he and Vollebregt have been trying to give support from the whirlwind that is newborn baby care. “Any man that thinks they know a woman's body and mind is insane, because you just can't understand exactly what that lived experience is like,” he says.

“We’ve tried to learn about it, but we will never fully know what it's like and how hard it's been. It wasn't just, ‘Lacey carried a baby for nine months and then gave it away to some expectant dads.’ There's so much more to it.”

They are still not Niko’s legal parents, which Vollebregt, who is taking the first chunk of seven months' paid parental leave, says he finds increasingly upsetting. No Family Court date has yet been set. “It’s insulting, to be honest. I’m his dad, I take him to swimming classes, Playcentre, baby massage, and I still don’t have a birth certificate with our names on it.”

Owen won’t be a mum again. But to little Niko, who is now giggling, laughs when dad plays peekaboo, and likes to babble and hawkishly watch his dads eat, she will forever be a special Aunty. Egg donor Sharpe-Davidson and Khaw will also be considered part of the baby’s wider family. "People think because you donated an egg and it’s two guys you have some kind of role in raising that baby. We’ve had to talk to people, especially older people, in saying we have an extended family role," Sharpe-Davidson says. "I feel really lucky and grateful to have helped them out and be nice, and to do something that didn’t feel to me to be a massive effort but transforms into something huge for them.”

Vollebregt, Owen, Sharpe-Davidson, and Soma will always consider each other extended family, with Niko at the centre.

Vollebregt, Owen, Sharpe-Davidson, and Soma will always consider each other extended family, with Niko at the centre.

And for Vollebregt and Soma, or Dad and Papa, there will never be enough words.

“For Niko, this will be Aunty Lacey, and this is a lifelong bond. Niko will grow up knowing who Lacey and her family are, what they did for us, the sacrifices they made,” Soma says.

“Our overwhelming feeling through all of this has been gratitude, and we will be feeling this for the rest of our lives.”

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Words: Michelle Duff
Visuals: Ricky Wilson
Design & Layout: Aaron Wood
Editor: John Hartevelt