An LGBTQ+ Parent and a Surrogate Weigh In on the Pope’s Surrogacy Comments

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Pope Francis might not have meant to target the LGBTQ+ community when he called for a global surrogacy ban, but that didn’t soften the blow. On Jan. 8, the pope gave a speech in Vatican City in which he described the process so many people rely on for family building as “deplorable,” as the Associated Press reported. While a surrogacy ban would affect everyone, his blanket statements repeatedly glossed over the LGBTQ+ community’s specific need for surrogacy. “[The pope] completely ignored a host of other people and families who are going to require assisted fertility and surrogacy to be able to create a family,” says Kate Steinle, Chief Clinical Officer at FOLX Health. “Is he calling them deplorable? Is it the decision? Is it all of these things?”

For many LGBTQ+ couples, surrogacy is the only way to facilitate a genetic connection to their child. This is part of what inspired Niki Renslow, Northstar Fertility surrogate success manager at Surrogacy.com, to become a surrogate herself in 2010. “Growing up, I had a ton of LGBTQ friends and we would have a lot of conversations,” she tells POPSUGAR. “Surrogacy wasn’t as popular back then, and the question was: how are we going to have our own families? We want to have biological connections to our children, and as a man in a relationship with another man, that’s something that’s a little hard to do.” Having already gone through two healthy pregnancies of her own, Renslow decided to apply to a surrogacy agency and asked to carry for someone within the LGBTQ+ community. She was eventually matched with a same-sex couple overseas and delivered twins.

Although the pope called surrogacy “a grave violation of the dignity of the woman and the child,” Renslow doesn’t feel this way about her own experience. According to Renslow, surrogates in the US have a say in everything, from the parents they want to work with to the amount of embryos they want to transfer. “As many preferences and requests that the intended parents have, the surrogates have that same voice as well,” Renslow says. “That’s part of the process. It’s educating, guiding, and onboarding [surrogates] and supporting them throughout that process so they know that they can make these decisions.”

In his speech, the pope also emphasized his concern with material exploitation — a misconception Renslow hopes to debunk. “At least with surrogacy in the United States, the ASRM, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, has set really comprehensive guidelines for women to even be able to qualify to be a surrogate. Part of that is not only physical health, [but also] mental health [and] financial stability,” Renslow says. “We have to make sure that you fit in these guidelines so not only is the pregnancy safe and it’s safe for the intended parents, but our number one concern is the safety of the surrogate.”

Some of the most common criticisms surrounding commercial surrogacy have to do with regulations and protections for the surrogates themselves. In the past, feminists like Gloria Steinem have explicitly denounced pro-surrogacy legislation, saying it commodifies women’s bodies and puts poor women at risk of coercion. Safety is another major concern, with gestational surrogate pregnancies taking on pregnancy risks like high blood pressure, diabetes and infections (per the Cleveland Clinic), and potentially adverse pregnancy outcomes.

But as Steinle points out, it’s possible to want to improve protections for surrogates without banning surrogacy as a whole. “We believe surrogacy is right for people and should be an option, and we believe everyone involved in that should be protected and honored and not taken advantage of,” she says. “Both of those things can exist.”

“The idea of going through pregnancy would not just be dysphoric, but devastating.”

In addition to the genetic connection, Steinle notes that surrogacy can be important for trans and nonbinary members of the community who struggle with gender dysphoria. “[For them,] the idea of going through pregnancy would not just be dysphoric, but devastating and possibly increase mental health concerns,” Steinle says. “But should they not still have an option of being able to create an offspring that they’re genetically connected to?” There’s also significant safety concerns for people within the community who present more masculine and don’t want to risk being visibly pregnant themselves.

In a post-Roe v. Wade world, many laws around reproductive rights are still in flux. This includes the Alabama Supreme Court’s recent decision to classify frozen embryos created through in vitro fertilization (IVF) as people, essentially halting all IVF treatments, which are also involved in gestational surrogacy, in the state. Now more than ever, advocates believe everyone deserves access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, and surrogacy is a big part of that.

“Surrogacy is not just for the LGBTQIA community. It is also for heterosexual couples or single moms that are struggling with their own infertility issues, and again, without surrogacy, may be unable to have their own children,” Renslow says. “You can’t lump them into separate buckets when you make a statement like [the pope’s].” Characterizing surrogacy as a cut-and-dry business exchange instead of a much-needed resource many people depend on is misleading at best. “One of [the pope’s] quotes said, ‘A child is always a gift and never the basis of a commercial contract,'” Steinle says. “But I feel like the action of surrogacy is like a gift in a lot of ways.”

Michael Johnson-Ellis, co-founder of Two Dads UK and My Surrogacy Journey (the UK’s leading surrogacy agency), could not agree more. He has surrogacy to thank for his two children, and has a third surrogacy journey planned for the spring. All told, Johnson-Ellis spent about three years researching surrogacy options with his partner, Wes, and they finally chose an agency and networked in various surrogacy groups. They connected with their specific surrogate, Caroline, and waited six more months to find an egg donor. After fertilizing five eggs, the first embryo was transferred on Feb. 13, 2016. Caroline called 10 days later to announce she was pregnant. Johnson-Ellis welcomed his daughter, Talulah, on Oct. 16, 2016.

“Nothing prepares you for the wave of emotion and overwhelming love,” Johnson-Ellis says. “I remember in the car driving back with her in the car seat, just crying — totally overwhelmed that we’d created this beautiful tiny human.”

Having dedicated his life to helping other LGBTQ+ parents build their families, for Johnson-Ellis, the pope’s comments hit particularly close to home. “Our community has been through enough,” he tells POPSUGAR. “People are still being hunted and killed just for living their most authentic lives, let alone dreaming about a family; that’s not even on most people’s radar. They just want to get to adulthood.”

For allies looking to step up to the plate, Steinle says you can start by speaking up, whether that’s to your friends, family, or pastor. “Bring people’s humanity into it so that then it’s a trigger for people to take action,” she explains. If you know someone going through surrogacy themselves, offer your support and follow up with action. “I think that allyship is really about saying, ‘I read this, I’m bringing this up with you, I want you to know where I stand, I want you to know I support you,'” Steinle says.

In light of the recent vitriol, Johnson-Ellis encourages us not to lose sight of what surrogacy is really about. “At the core of all this is a child. A child that wants to be loved, appreciated, and cared for,” he says. “We’re just like you — we’re parents, parenting.”


Chandler Plante is an assistant editor for POPSUGAR Health & Fitness. Previously, she worked as an editorial assistant for People magazine and contributed to Ladygunn, Millie, and Bustle Digital Group. In her free time, she overshares on the internet, creating content about chronic illness, beauty, and disability.


Image Source: Getty / Vanessa Nunes

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