As demand for surrogates increases, consulting agencies remain scarce

Surrogate consulting agencies are few and far between partly because of the legal hoops service providers must jump through. Even existing ones operate at a risk, complicating matters for surrogates and prospective parents.

Surrogacy can cost adopting parents over $80K

Liz Ellwood, left, and Lisa Casselman have started a company that pairs surrogates, donors and parents together. (Photo courtesy Meghan Andrews)

Stephanie Plante is expecting a baby in September, but she's not shopping for onesies or painting the nursery.

Plante is a surrogate mother, and will be handing her child over to another couple shortly after giving birth.

"When the option of surrogacy came up, I gave it a thought and it really spoke to me," she said. "I wanted to do something nice for someone else." 

The couple who will become the baby's parents live in a country where surrogacy is banned. 

Even in Canada, there are strict rules. It's illegal, for example, for intended parents to pay surrogates. They only can reimburse the surrogate for expenses directly related to the pregnancy, such as maternity clothes or medical expenses. Businesses that match parents with surrogates are only allowed to charge fees for consulting.

The idea is to remove any impression that parents are buying their babies, or paying agencies a finder's fee.

Plante used an agency to plan her pregnancy and get in touch with a family, but not all arrangements go so smoothly. 

A woman sits in front of a microphone.
Stephanie Plante says the idea of surrogacy always spoke to her. She is expecting a baby girl in September who will be given to new parents after she is born. (CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning)

'I started from scratch'

Because of the complexity of Canadian reproductive laws, there are few surrogate consulting companies in operation.

Existing ones operate at a risk. In 2013, a surrogacy service in Brighton, Ont. was shut down for illegally selling sperm and eggs.

Lisa Casselman and Liz Ellwood, two Ottawa women, know the struggle of finding an appropriate match. 

Ellwood was diagnosed with cancer when she was 24 and she used a surrogate when she had her daughter, who is now five.

"I looked at the different agencies in Canada and none of them were agencies that I felt comfortable working with, so I started from scratch," Ellwood said. 

She found her perfect fit on Kijiji, back when the site allowed personal ads. During her online hunt for the right match, she met Casselman, who has been a surrogate twice for two sets of twins. Though the two didn't match up, they kept in touch.

What we were noticing is that potential parents were getting left on their own, they weren't getting the support they were needing.- Lisa Casselman

When Casselman delivered a set of twins to their new families, she said she felt like there was no support.

That's why the two women decided to start Fertility Match, a surrogate consulting agency based in Ottawa. 

"What we were noticing is that potential parents were getting left on their own, they weren't getting the support they were needing," Casselman said. "We said, 'There should be an agency out there that guides people through that ... We can be that agency.'"

Fertility Match pairs surrogates, donors and parents together by profiling and matching them based on their desires for the pregnancy and future relationship. 

Demand for surrogates increasing

Even with potential legal repercussions, surrogacy is a fertile market.

Between 2014 and 2015, the number of embryo transfers to surrogates increased by 23 per cent, from 413 cycles up to 533, according to the Canadian Fertility & Andrology Society.

The issue, however, is there are far more parents looking for surrogates than there are women willing to become pregnant. 

On top of that, the journey from matching with a surrogate to holding your baby has a hefty price tag. 

Fertility Match tells their parent clients to expect fees around $70,000. That amount covers medical exams, lawyer fees, a psychological evaluation and more. They said the legal contracts can be "novels" — about 60 pages long.

Ellwood and Casselman take a cut of about $12,500. 

They have yet to match their first pair, but they said they have matched several profiles and will set up meetings soon. 

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning