With their twin girls nestled in their arms, and proud son Spencer looking on, these two devoted dads’ broad smiles are a picture of family bliss.
Yet the first three months after the babies were born have been a harrowing nightmare for Steve and Marc Winchester-Horscrafts.
Because they were denied access to Aria and Autumn after a disagreement over money with the surrogate mother, who refused to hand the girls over if it wasn’t resolved.
What ensued was a heartbreaking legal battle that threatened to wreck the men’s marriage and left them and their five-year-old son Spencer – also born through a surrogate – devastated.
The dads had to borrow thousands, risking bankruptcy and losing their home, to take their fight for custody to the High Court after their surrogacy arrangement fell apart – leaving them banned from seeing their premature girls in hospital.
Steve, 27, says: “What we’ve been through nearly destroyed us – the fear we’d lose the babies we’d been trying to have for so long was overwhelming.
“It threatened our marriage, our mental and physical health. And it’s plunged us into huge debt.”
Marc, 36, adds: “We’d been with the girls since the day they were born and suddenly we weren’t allowed to see them.
“I went to the ward every day and gave the nurses clothes, nappies and cotton wool for Aria and Autumn. Then I’d sit by the doors and cry, wondering if we’d ever see them again.”
Now the couple are backing a campaign to change UK surrogacy laws to give more protection to the intended parents.
There was no hint of the hell that lay ahead after Steve and Marc carefully chose the mum, who we are not naming.
The families took their dogs for walks and their children on days out together. They regularly had dinner together and a strong bond of trust grew.
“We invited her to our wedding before she agreed to be our surrogate,” says Steve.
“We had no reason to expect problems – she’s been a surrogate before. We’d become close friends before trying for a surrogacy with my sperm.”
All had signed a surrogacy agreement.
In the UK, surrogacy for profit is illegal, but mums can be paid pregnancy-related expenses such as trips to hospital, childcare for appointments or maternity clothing, with the sum usually agreed up front.
Steve and Marc paid her £16,300 for her expenses, including £3,500 upon discovering she was pregnant with twins.
The twin pregnancy was even more special for Marc and Steve as they had been trying for a sibling for Spencer for two years, experiencing miscarriages with two other surrogates.
Aria and Autumn were born prematurely at 28 weeks on August 24 and put in neo-natal intensive care.
Delighted Steve and Marc were involved straight away, regularly at the hospital helping with feeds and giving the girls cuddles.
The bombshell dropped when they were five weeks old – one week before the Parental Order is usually instigated, fully transferring the surrogate’s parental rights to the intended parents.
Steve and Marc had received a visit from a friend of the surrogate at their Shropshire home asking for more expenses as the figure they’d agreed on wasn’t enough to cover her costs.
But the couple told her they had used all they had left to pay the extra £3,500 for birth involving twins.
Days later veterinary nurse Steve was at the hospital. “I was feeding Aria when a doctor came in and asked me to see him when I had a minute,” he says. “I started standing, but he insisted I enjoy the cuddle as long as possible first.
“I thought that was odd – but after a few minutes I went into a side room with him and he told me our surrogate had banned Marc and I from visiting the girls. I couldn’t believe it.” Steve received a text from the surrogate.
“It said until the expenses issue was settled, she wouldn’t consent to parental rights. We were devastated.”
She registered the girls’ births and changed their names – including the middle names their dads had picked in tribute to their own mums.
Even though Steve was the biological father, under current law he and Marc had no legal rights to the children until the Parental Order was signed. The couple hired a lawyer and scrabbled to secure £26,000 in loans from friends and family to pay fees.
“We’d paid our life savings to our surrogate but I didn’t care if we lost our house or were bankrupt, I was determined our girls would come home with us,” Steve says.
The couple’s lawyer, Beverley Jones of JMW Solicitors, secured an emergency family court hearing within days of the hospital drama in October.
The twins were made wards of court and a children’s guardian assigned. Both the couple and the surrogate were granted hospital visiting rights. Meanwhile, bewildered son Spencer, then four, was suffering from what had happened.
“I picked him up from school one day and he saw I was upset,” says Marc. “He asked if our surrogate was trying to take his sisters away. It was heartbreaking.”
After a three-month legal battle which involved Steven having a DNA test, the surrogate agreed parental consent at a High Court hearing in November. Now Autumn and Aria are at home for good.
Steve says: “Over the years, we’ve forged amazing links with the surrogate community. Without these typically selfless women, we wouldn’t have children. Most surrogates wouldn’t dream of behaving this way.
“I also feel sad our girls won’t have a relationship with their other genetic half as Spencer continues to have.”
Now Steve and Marc want better laws so others can avoid their plight.
Their solicitor Beverley Jones said: “These sorts of cases are very rare, but surrogacy agreements are not legally binding in the UK at the moment. Here, everyone is working on trust.”
- To support Steve’s campaign visit gofundme.com and search ‘Steve Winchester surrogate’.
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