Welcome to The Egg Whisperer Show. Today, I’m interviewing Michael Johnson-Ellis of TwoDadsUK to talk about LGBTQ+ Parenthood, Surrogacy, and Education. Michael and his husband Wes make up TwoDadsUK. They’re proud fathers to Talulah and Duke, born via surrogacy. They’re on a mission to help normalize same sex families in the UK.
Dr. Aimee: Thank you for joining me today. I love watching you and your family on Instagram. You have such a gorgeous family.
Michael Johnson-Ellis: Thank you for having me on the show.
Michael Johnson-Ellis with son Duke, husband Wes, and daughter Talulah
Dr. Aimee: You are just doing an incredible job by sharing your story and doing everything that you’re doing. You are also very active in surrogacy law reform and have already influenced major change to UK healthcare guidance when it comes to the treatment of surrogates and intended parents. You guys are doing a great job of it.
I know that we’re so lucky in the Bay Area especially not to have to deal with a lot of the shame, taboo, and stigmas that go along with same sex family building.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family.
Michael: Sure. Thank you, first of all. I’ve been married to Wes since 2014. We met in 2012. When we met, Wes has a daughter from a previous straight relationship, and I knew that he had kids. I really liked that factor and I desperately wanted to be a dad, so we had that conversation about wanting kids quite early on. We just have had a great time ever since.
Surrogacy for us was always the first option of how we were to build our family. We did nearly three years’ worth of research looking at all of the various options, the various countries, and the various pathways that would work for us. We decided on UK surrogacy, which is altruistic, it has some similarities to Canada.
In doing that, we had to navigate our way through just treacle, literally. We wanted to ensure that by telling our story it would assist more people that would want to follow. So, that’s what we did, we created TwoDadsUK.
Dr. Aimee: As far as the response that you’ve gotten from TwoDadsUK, what has that been like for you?
Michael: It was crazy. We started off as it was just an Instagram account, it was purely a Facebook account, to destigmatize surrogacy and to bring it front and center so people would talk about it, but so people would also see our family and get people talking more about same sex families.
Right from the beginning, it exploded in the sense that the attention was mixed to begin with. We then were approached to do a number of collaborations, TV documentaries, commercials. When we had our family, our fertility journey was documented. We had quite a mixed experience. It was because of that that we decided to do something with the platform that we had and to do a bit of good by using our following on the Instagram and Facebook platforms.
Dr. Aimee: Right. You’re doing even more now. Tell us about the agency that you guys have started.
Michael: Yes. We like a challenge. We’ve been working on setting up this particular organization for nearly three years, and it launches in the next two weeks. It’s been a real experience. It’s called My Surrogacy Journey. It’s a nonprofit, because it has to be that way in the UK, but also that fits well with the values that we wanted to do anyway.
We are providing full emotional, professional, and practical support for a surrogacy journey for both LGBTQ+ and heterosexual people that are on a surrogacy journey in the UK, in the US, or in Canada. We’re working with agencies, clinics, egg banks, and surrogacy organizations to provide a true concierge service. Emotional support is super important.
It’s all of the things that I wish we would have had when we went on our journey. We’ve created this benefits package through a membership that people can purchase on their journey.
Dr. Aimee: What is the current state of surrogacy in the UK? Is it still only compassionate surrogacy? You touched on that a little bit.
Michael: As you may know or may have been explained, surrogacy in the UK is perfectly legal. It’s altruistic, and what that means is no organization can profit from surrogacy. You can’t advertise for a surrogate in the UK. If you want to access surrogacy, you either work with one of the nonprofit organizations or you do an independent journey, you find your own surrogate, choose your own clinic, your donor, whether you want to do traditional surrogacy or gestational surrogacy. Those are the options that you have.
The law is massively inadequate and out of date. It’s the Surrogacy Arrangements Act of 1985 and the HFEA Act of 1990. It has been updated over time, but only as recently as 2010 when gay people could access surrogacy through applying for the parental order. The parental order is the biggest issue in the current legislation. Essentially, when your child is born to a surrogate, the surrogate is classed as the legal mother until you have your parental order granted by the court. If you do domestic or UK surrogacy, that takes about five months. If you’ve had international surrogacy, that can take 12 or 18 months. So, it’s a real issue.
We were involved in some of the reform and the conversations that took place at the House of Parliament, and we were involved in last year’s consultations with the law commissioners for England, Wales, and Scotland. That was an experience. It was an overwhelming response that the parental responsibility needs to be from birth, that was overwhelmingly what everybody was wanting, and the thinking process is that that will be the case.
That consultation period ended in October the year before last. As we know, the world has gone crazy. The chance of this coming in now as new legislation is probably going to be 2024 or 2025, so there’s still a way to go.
Dr. Aimee: Wow. That’s true. You’ve really helped quite a bit. I just see the conversations you’re having, and I imagine they’re changing the hearts and minds of so many people in your community and just making it easier for the LGBTQ+ community to start talking freely about having families.
Michael: Absolutely. It’s surprising how many people just didn’t even know how accessible it was, or had the misconception that it was illegal, or thought that the only options were to go to the US or go to other countries where there was less safety or less regulation. We’re all about trying to provide a safer pathway to parenthood. Option and choices, that’s the intended parents’ decision. We can talk about surrogacy and talk about what those options look like, but ultimately it’s always their decision.
Dr. Aimee: Right. How is it handled when it comes to delivery and who is in the delivery room?
Michael: Pre-COVID, it depends on where you give birth in terms of the hospital. In the UK what’s called the NHS, it’s a publicly funded health service. It’s good. Obviously, healthcare is free. Depending which hospital you give birth at, it will depend on what their policy is.
When we had Talulah, when we had our first appointment for our 12-week scan, the mood very quickly changed from us being really excited to being really flat, because we were just told what we couldn’t do. The hospital we went to had an outdated policy. They were referring back to this law which was just outdated and not really fit for modern family building. We were just being told, “You can’t do that. You won’t see your baby being born. The baby will have to be given to you off-premises in a car park, not on hospital property.”
It was just like this isn’t fair, so we challenged it and we changed our consultant. We then had the most unbelievable inclusive journey. We didn’t want anything different, we just wanted that image of car seats, holding hands, balloons, you know. We got that. More importantly, we got to see the birth of Talulah.
Our surrogate had a planned C-section and n the UK it’s one person only in theater. That was always going to be our surrogate’s husband. Literally, three minutes before Talulah was born they rushed into our side room. He rushed in and there was no baby, so it was like, “Is everything okay?” He said, “Get some scrubs on. You can come and see your child being born.” They changed it just at the last minute because they were like, “These men need to see their child being born. They’re not birth partners. These are parents.”
We were the first surrogacy journey that this hospital had. So, we saw Talulah being born and they rewrote their policy because of our experience. Because they rewrote it, 30 other NHS trusts, hospitals, copied the policy and rolled it out across the UK. Now more and more intended parents are at the birth, even if it’s an elective C-section, where for the last however many years it was always only one person. That was positive.
Dr. Aimee: You mentioned finding the right fit. How did you approach that? If someone is listening and they’re in that situation, because it still might happen, how would you recommend they do that?
Michael: It’s part of the work that we do every single day. There’s not a rest for us, we’re doing this constantly, helping them, making sure people’s journey are safe. More than safe, it’s more about that they’re equal, that they are still visible parents, they’re not birth partners, and this is a real special time for them.
I would always advise everyone to request the surrogacy policy of that particular NHS trust. If that policy hasn’t been updated since October 2018, then the chances are that policy won’t be reflecting the government guidance that came out in October and November 2018, which allows you to be present, which allows you to not have your child handed to you on a car park, which treats you as a parent and not as a safeguarding risk.
Dr. Aimee: What makes surrogacy different as a same sex couple than let’s say a heterosexual couple?
Michael: I think society, you really notice being a same sex couple more when you have children.
Maternity services generally aren’t built for our type of family. Just when we were going for scans, we always wanted Caroline’s husband with her, so we would all crowd into the same room. You could see people thinking, “There are three men with that woman. What is going on?” We would get funny looks and we would love it because you can ham it up a little bit.
The general process and system, whilst people have been going through surrogacy since 1985 in the UK, it’s more and more common now. There’s approximately between 400 and 500 children a year being born in the UK through surrogacy, and it’s growing. For a lot of people that meet you, it’s the first they know about surrogacy.
When you’re same sex and you’re exploring surrogacy, emotionally you’re coming at it from a completely different viewpoint than if you’re heterosexual and you’ve been struggling with your fertility. It’s more of a celebration for us. For someone who is heterosexual, it’s probably exhausting, it’s a last resort that a woman is having to give over that last right to carry her child, so they’re probably emotionally very different.
I think apart from some of the social stigmas and adjustments there, policy generally in the UK within the health services is one man, one woman, so therefore having to challenge that. Our initial consultation there were 12 counts of discrimination under the Equality Act. It was only by correcting that that what else happened just followed nicely.
Dr. Aimee: You and Wes are focused on three areas with your work; social, policy, and education. That’s part of your mission. What are some of the social pieces that you guys are looking at and what changes? We’ve talked a little bit about them already, but are there other changes that you would like to also see?
Michael: One of the ones that we do is called Dads Change Too. This is a social policy. I have a 17-month-old and a 4-year-old. My 4-year-old obviously isn’t in nappies anymore, but Duke still is. Being a dad generally in the UK, when you want to change your children is really tricky. It’s not like in some parts of the US, particularly where you live, where bathrooms have changing facilities. That just doesn’t exist in the UK in male bathrooms.
Dads Change Too: Making changing tables the norm in men’s restrooms
Whether you’re a gay dad or a heterosexual dad, trying to change your child, you tend to be squatting on the floor, they’re lying across your lap, or you have to go into the disabled toilet, and there’s someone less able than you that needs that space more than you do. You’re changing a diaper, you shouldn’t need that. So, we’re working on a nonprofit initiative to roll out 120 baby changing stations in each city. We receive funding and then we sponsor the changing stations and we put them through. That’s one of them.
One of the other major pieces is educating healthcare professionals about surrogacy and how to engage with intended parents and surrogates and the correct use of language when talking about the surrogacy journey. A big area that is really under-educated is the midwifery community, which is really surprising. We’re working with a number of organizations to roll out training to nurses and to doctors about surrogacy.
Those are two of the main social education ones. Then there’s a huge project that we’re doing called Positive Surrogacy, and that is to change the legislation to allow HIV positive intended parents to explore surrogacy, because they can’t.
Dr. Aimee: You guys are also working on different policies, and then there are some legal questions about parental leave for parents and also the surrogate. What are you guys working on in those areas?
Michael: From a policy process, the UK is actually ahead of the curve when it comes to parental leave. When you have a child through surrogacy, the surrogate can take full maternity leave. Depending on their employer, they can take the six months statutory or they can have extended leave through their employer if that’s their policy.
For intended parents, you can both have time off. I was able to take nine months off work. Partners can share your leave, so you’re allowed to take 50/50 each. From the UK point of view, it’s actually quite progressive, so we’re quite lucky here from a policy point of view for paternal rights.
Dr. Aimee: That’s great. What can you help educate people about both in the UK and here in the US? I think our countries have many of the same misconceptions or lack of knowledge about both surrogacy and LGBTQ+ parenthood.
Michael: I think one of the things that we all could do more on is family building within LGBTQ+ is challenging and we do sometimes have to fit into a heteronormative pathway. One of the biggest things is when you are going through surrogacy there are often two people involved and one of those individuals won’t be biologically linked to that particular child or won’t be using their genetics for that particular fertility journey.
What healthcare professionals seem to get wrong is the inclusion of all parties and all parents, not just referring to the person that is donating their sperm or their eggs. I still it now, I still see consultations where if it’s heterosexual then the woman is just spoken to, or if it’s a same sex situation one person often gets left out.
I think just being respectful of all people on that particular journey and the inclusiveness, whether that’s LGBTQ+ or just the nonbiological or the person not having the procedure. It’s really important just to take stock and remember and respect that.
Also, just understanding that we’ve had a bit of a journey to get to where we need to. This isn’t a conveyor belt of treatment. I always say there are no unwanted children to anyone that’s born through fertility treatment, particularly from LGBTQ+ communities, because these children are desperately wanted, and loved, and needed. The journey can often be super emotionally charged.
Dr. Aimee: Absolutely. What other changes do you foresee in the future government in the UK?
Michael: The biggest is the law reform, which we hope that comes through in the next few years. I would love there to be a discussion around allowing those with HIV to explore surrogacy.
At the moment, you can explore IVF if you’re HIV positive and undetectable and on medication. But for exploring surrogacy, you’re not allowed, because of the donation rules. I would love to see that change. It’s just so unfair. Intended parents have to go to the US or to Canada or to Cyprus. Those are the place where people tend to go. I’d love to see that change. That’s something that we’re trying to challenge.
As for the surrogacy laws, I don’t think they’re going to be commercial, I think it will stay altruistic. That’s certainly one to watch. That’s what I would predict.
Dr. Aimee: I didn’t realize that HIV positive parents couldn’t use a surrogate in the UK.
Michael: You can’t. It’s dreadful and it’s completely discriminatory.
Dr. Aimee: I agree.
Michael: It’s just absolutely unfair. That’s the next challenge.
Dr. Aimee: Let’s just say that you have a room full of IVF doctors. What would you say to them to help patients be allies in your mission, what would you teach us, what would you want to leave us with?
Michael: I would say rather than for the month of June or July you slap a rainbow flag on some part of your branding, rather than being with us for one month of the year, pink-washing and rainbow-washing your brand, commit to being inclusive all of the year. We’re not asking for our own section of your website. Just include us in your website. Just include us in your operation, your clinic, your practice, your education.
We aren’t going away. The trend we’re seeing is Millennials are turning to reproductive medicine more than previous generations. The LGBTQ+ community are opting more for reproductive medicine than previous. It’s time to wake up and understand that gays have kids too. Just get with us and support us, because we ain’t going anywhere.
Dr. Aimee: I love that. You’re doing amazing work. Can you share with us your website names, where we can find you on Instagram, and your new agency name?
Dr. Aimee: Awesome. Thank you, Michael, for coming on with us today. Thank you for everything that you’re doing to change the world and provide education for parenthood for everybody.
Michael: Thank you so much.
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