For 40 weeks | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Andrea Verino lives in the city of Córdoba, in Argentina, and was born into a very traditional family. Ever since she was a child, her parents always talked about the importance of studying and developing professionally. So when she grew up, she did what everyone expected of her. She graduated as a dentist and put a lot of energy into her work. But she left little time for her personal life, and the dating experiences she had were not very good. In 2003, when she was 29 years old, an unexpected blow came. She was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. She needed to start aggressive treatment to try and contain it.
[Andrea Verino]: They told me I would never be able to be a mother.
[Daniel]: That she would never be able to be a mother. Although having children was not her priority at the time, the news affected her. It was something she had always wanted.
[Andrea]: It was very hard, but I also had to cope with what I was experiencing. The oncologist always told me I had to live in the present.
[Daniel]: Today, going to the radiation session. Today, going to the chemo session. Today, going into the operating room to have part of her breast removed.
[Andrea]: Until the radiation sessions were over and the chemo sessions were over. I got to the point of having to wait two years, because there is always a margin of the first two years to see if there are no symptoms.
[Daniel]: Later, she made it to the five-year goal and then she had to wait until the tenth year to reach a definitive discharge. While waiting, and leaving treatment behind her, one day in October 2011, when she was 38 years old, she went to a bar and met Julián Mondragón. He lived in Tanti, a town about 55 kilometers from Córdoba, and had come to the bar with a friend. He was 37 years old, coming out from a very complicated divorce, and had two children.
[Andrea]: At first I looked at him and thought, “A man with problems,” but I gave myself a chance.
[Daniel]: And although she decided to take the chance, she was very cautious. This is Julián:
[Julián Mondragón]: She wanted to take it easy, slowly, to get to know each other well.
[Daniel]: Andrea was already tired of trying relationships that failed. But, to her surprise, this time things did work out… The relationship progressed and Andrea introduced Julián to her family. They were not to pleased by the fact he was a divorced man with children, but in the end they finally accepted him. Julián’s family, on the other hand, received Andrea with open arms—no “buts.”
[Andrea]: First I met the parents and the grandmother, oh… the grandmother was lovely. And then I got to know the siblings. Romina had recently had her second child.
[Daniel]: Romina, the third of the four Mondragón siblings and the only woman. She is 13 years younger than Julián, the oldest.
[Julián]: Although I get along with all my siblings, the connection with Romina is very, very special.
[Daniel]: Romina remembers that when Julián introduced her to Andrea, she liked her but did not feel they had much in common. Andrea is 14 years older than her, and they were living very different moments in life. Furthermore, they seemed to be like water and oil. This is Romina:
[Romina Mondragón]: She is also like, she is very rigid, very structured and I am very… oh, I’m a shot in the air, I’m a teaser, very… I don’t know, I go through life, and period.
[Daniel]: At that time, they didn’t kind of have much in common to talk about. But that would change about two years later when Andrea and Julián began to consider the idea of being parents.
It was in 2013. Andrea was 40 years old, and ten years had passed since her cancer diagnosis. She then was encouraged to ask that question that she had put off all those years.
[Andrea]: We went to ask my GP if I could try to become a mom. And he says that he would discharge me, but that he didn’t want me to undergo hormonal treatment or anything, because my life was at risk, because my cancer could come back.
[Daniel]: But the doctor told her that she could try to get pregnant naturally. For Andrea it was, all in all, good news. She was suddenly able to get excited again about the idea of becoming a mother. But time passed and she couldn’t get pregnant. It was a cycle of hopefulness and frustration month after month. Until one day, that frustration became more present than ever. Andrea began to feel severe pain in her abdomen and suffered a hemorrhage minutes later. She was very scared and never knew out if she might have had a miscarriage.
After that episode, she and Julián discussed the possibility of adopting a child. They went to a family lawyer, but she did not give them a very encouraging picture. She had to sign up on a waiting list…
[Andrea]: And they gave 20 children for adoption every year. Since I was 40 years old, when was I going to adopt? At 60?
[Daniel]: So they decided to go to two fertility specialists to get more opinions. One of them repeated the same thing their doctor had already said: that due to her medical history, it was not advisable to undergo fertility treatment. Andrea was very affected to hear the same thing again…
[Andrea]: As if he had thrown me out of a window. I felt destroyed for, I don’t know, a full year.
[Daniel]: The other one was a little more optimistic. They said she could try to carry a pregnancy, but by resorting to egg donation. Because of her age, and and because she had received radiotherapy without protecting the ovarian area, the quality of her eggs was not good enough. They moved forward with that idea, but in 2015 Andrea had a cyst burst in her uterus and suffered an infection that hospitalized her for 10 days.
From that moment on, carrying on with a pregnancy would be very risky. Andrea and Julián were devastated, but he tried to stay calm to contain her:
[Julián]: She got upset and blamed herself. I always said, “Maybe God wants it to be that way. Don’t look for reasons, because many times you can’t find the reasons.”
[Daniel]: But nothing Andrea heard eased the pain she felt…
[Andrea]: You don’t know the amount of frustration that I carried. I cried a lot and I even changed my car, because I had a car with a trunk to keep the baby’s things in the back.
[Daniel]: The car thing was something physical, but also a way of visualizing her dream. She imagined herself there with her baby, keeping the stroller, the diaper packs, the bag with the clothes… she needed to get rid of it in order to turn the page.
[Andrea]: But the desire is apparently very strong. The dream is so strong, it keeps calling you, it keeps calling you, it just keeps calling you.
[Daniel]: During that difficult and painful search, Andrea found in her sister-in-law Romina not only a friend who comforted her in the face of every piece of bad news, but also an ally who would help her achieve her dream in a totally unexpected way.
We’ll be back after the break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Our producer Aneris Casassus brings us the story. Here is Aneris:
[Aneris Casassus]: Let’s start with Romina. Something in particular struck her on the day of the birth of her third child, Jeremías. Her first baby had been born in a public hospital, but Romina’s experience had not been good. They did not allow Pablo, her husband, to accompany her during labor. At 21 years old, about to give birth to her first child, Romina felt alone and vulnerable.
So, when she became pregnant with her second child, she decided to try a private clinic. She didn’t like that, either. Another doctor who was not hers ended up attending the delivery, so she was not happy.
During the third pregnancy she had no doubts—she would prepare for her child to be born at home and avoid in this way the bad experiences she had had in medical institutions. Pablo agreed. He came from the countryside, and had often heard the story of how his grandmother had given birth to all her children at home. So he supported Romina in her decision, and she began immediately to prepare, to read a lot.
[Romina Mondragón]: And, well, I discovered this doula vocation and well, I loved it. This is my thing.
[Aneris]: Over time, Romina would study to become a doula, the women who physically and emotionally accompany other women during their pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum.
Jeremías was born in Pablo and Romina’s house at 2 in the morning on April 25, 2015, and everything went well. At 9 in the morning, Andrea and Julián went to meet their new nephew, and an image would remain forever in Romina’s memory: her sister-in-law Andrea holding the baby and looking at him in such a special, unique way.
[Romina]: When they left, I started crying, sitting there on the bed, because it was terrible to say, “It’s her wish to be a mother. She has her job, her house, her car, her career, everything you could want. But her dream is to be a mother.” That’s when it really hit me. A lot, a lot, it touched me.
[Aneris]: Andrea remembers that, some time later, Romina told her:
[Andrea]: That day I saw you with Jeremías in your arms, I felt ashamed to have my son because I know how much it hurt you not to be able to be a mother.
I was seeing a mother who cried out for a baby. You had that very living gift of wanting to be a mother, but without a child to hug.
[Aneris]: Just over a year after Jeremías was born, Romina became pregnant again. While Andrea and Julián’s plans to be parents faded away, Romina couldn’t stop thinking about them. She felt strange, like with a sense of guilt.
[Romina]: Because if I decided to get pregnant and we said, “We want a child, Pablo,” we just wanted one, well, the following month I was pregnant. Or that same month. And they don’t have that, so I ask why? In other words, it’s easy for me to have one, but not for her.
[Aneris]: It broke her heart.
For that reason, for Christmas 2016, Romina prepared a special gift for Andrea. It was a little box wrapped in cellophane. Andrea opened it and read the note inside:
[Andrea]: “Baby Jesus asks you if you want to be Isabella’s godmother.”
[Aneris]: Isabella, the fourth daughter of Romina and Pablo, who would be born in May. Andrea remembers that when she read the message she started to cry.
[Andrea]: You have no idea how I hugged her belly and her. It was as if she gave me the gift of being a mom. That’s how I experienced being a godmother. So it felt I was fulfilled through Isabella.
[Aneris]: Being with her nephews and nieces was the closest she could get to the idea of motherhood. But more than a year and a half later, in August 2018, the hope of being a mother would be renewed in an unexpected way. Andrea was in the kitchen when she received a WhatsApp message. It was Romina, who wrote to her while watching TV.
[Romina]: And they were showing the news that a homosexual couple had been able to have their child through surrogate motherhood here in Argentina. And automatically, I sent a message to Andrea.
[Andrea]: It was a Friday, I was at home, and I don’t know why I was watching the same show, and I didn’t watch the whole thing, but I watched a little bit and, oh, something remained inside me.
[Aneris]: In the show, they talked about the first case of surrogacy for a gay couple in Argentina. In 2015, three years earlier, two men had become fathers thanks to the fact that a friend had lent them her womb. So inside, there grew an embryo formed with the egg of an anonymous donor and the semen of one of them.
[Andrea]: I said, “Oh, how nice, it happens to others,” because I had to forget about motherhood and you have to push it out of your brain because otherwise it hurts so much that you end up getting sick.
[Aneris]: Andrea and Romina were struck by the story they were talking about on television.
Until then, they had heard very little about the topic, and the cases they knew of were those of some famous people who had traveled to the United States to do it. The issue is that in Argentina there is a legal limbo regarding the surrogacy of wombs. It is not banned, but it is not regulated either. For that reason, until that moment, Romina and Andrea thought it could not be done in the country. Andrea and Julián had never even considered it. For them, paying for this type of treatment abroad was totally impossible.
Surprised by the news, Romina and Andrea continued to exchange messages.
[Romina]: I say, “How crazy,” I tell her, “It can be done here. You saw,” I say, “it is truly incredible”. “I wish, it would be nice to be able to do it here,” she tells me. But how would we do it?” She asks me, “who would lend us a womb?”
[Aneris]: For Romina, the answer was obvious.
[Romina]: “I will, Andrea, here I am. I’m here for whatever you need.”
[Aneris]: Andrea remembers perfectly how she reacted when she received that message:
[Andrea] “What??” Just as you are hearing me now, and I could have scared you with such a loud scream. But I started shaking, shaking because what she was telling me was very profound. “Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you sure?” I was shocked and ran out to the shed: “Julián, Julián,” I was shouting. “What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong?”
[Aneris]: Julián was fixing a car in his home workshop when he heard Andrea shouting. Almost out of breath, she told him what his sister was telling her—that she was willing to lend them her womb so that they could be parents.
[Julián Mondragón]: The truth is that we were surprised, frozen. Everything, everything, at the same time, because we could not believe it.
[Aneris]: Still in shock over the proposal they had just received, Andrea and Julián called Romina on the phone. They talked for almost an hour and a half. Romina remembers that Julián told her…
[Romina]: “Are you being serious?” he asks me, and I say, “Yes, yes, if there is a possibility, yes, let’s see what happens. We heard about this case on television, we don’t know how everything works, but if it can, yes, it’s fine.”
[Aneris]: Julián cared about one thing above all.
[Julián]: “It’s all fine,” I say. “But you and Pablo,” who is my brother-in-law, I asked, “did you talk about it with Pablo,” I said, “because… Talk about it with your family, I say, because it’s big and what you’re saying is a very big deal.”
[Aneris]: When Romina told Pablo the idea, she spoke quickly and hastily.
[Romina]: He came home and I didn’t even say hello to him. I just shot away.
[Aneris]: And she realized she wasn’t explaining it clearly when Pablo answered her:
[Romina]: Then he says, “You’re crazy if you think we are going to give away our child,” he told me. And I tell him, “No, no, no, it’s not ours, let’s sit down and talk, and I’ll explain.”
[Aneris]: After calming down, Romina explained that she would only lend her womb, that the embryo would be formed in a laboratory with genetic material that would not be theirs. If he agreed, they could find out more about exactly what the treatment would be like. Pablo said he would be willing to accompany her, but under one condition.
[Romina]: He tells me, “I’ll go with you, but I’m going to ask you to talk to the children and see what the children say too, because this decision is theirs, because if they’re going to have a bad time, that’s not good either.”
[Aneris]: Let’s imagine the situation for a moment. It is not an easy thing to process. Romina was presenting an idea to Pablo that would alter everything in the family. If they decided to move forward and everything went well, Romina would carry her nephew. For nine months, her four children would see her belly grow, but when the time came for the birth, that baby would not stay in their house, but would go with Andrea and Julián. The children would have to understand that this child would not be their sibling, but their cousin. And Romina needed to be aware that she would always be in contact with that child that she carried, but in another role, that of aunt.
Above all, Pablo wanted to know what Bautista and Joakim, his two oldest children, who were 9 and 7 years old at the time, thought. Jeremías and Isabella were three and one. Two or three days later, Romina and Pablo sat down to talk with the children. Romina told them, “you know that your aunt Andrea cannot be a mother…”
[Romina]: “There is this possibility.” “I am going to have a baby in my belly, who is not your sibling, not even my child.” We explained what it was like. They understood. We told them to consider if they agreed. They said yes automatically, “As long as our aunt becomes a mother.” They said, “Yes, that’s for the better.”
[Aneris]: Romina already had the approval of her family, but that was only the beginning. She and Andrea began to investigate further. They had only seen that bit on television, but they didn’t know where to start.
One day, Andrea told a co-worker about the idea and, through some acquaintances, she went to another fertility center. It wasn’t either of the two she had previously visited with Julián. She called on the phone and asked for an appointment.
[César Sánchez Sarmiento]: They came to see me… September 2018.
[Aneris]: This is doctor Cesar Sánchez Sarmiento, a gynecologist who specializes in fertility and director of the center that had been recommended to Andrea.
Andrea and Julián went to the appointment, and as soon as they walked in, they explained the whole situation to the doctor: Andrea’s illness, the obstacles to being a mother, and Romina’s offer to lend them her womb. But before giving them any details about the medical treatment, the doctor gave them a warning:
[César]: Medically it is not an aggressive treatment, but emotionally it is very strong.
[Aneris]: The doctor was concerned about the bond that existed between Andrea, Julián and Romina. They had to have things very clear before making any decision. So he went on:
[César]: You have to be able to manage with your family that my sister is carrying my baby and I will have to deal with it for the rest of my life. On the other hand, I’m carrying this baby but when it’s born I don’t get to take it home with me. Let’s put ourselves in that place, and you begin to realize the magnitude of how big all this is, right?
[Aneris]: Dr. Sánchez Sarmiento explained that if they decided to go ahead, the embryo could be formed in a laboratory with an egg from an anonymous donor—which the same center would provide—and with Julián’s semen. To find out if Romina could be the surrogate mother, she should have some routine check-ups. If all went well, once they got an embryo they could transfer it to her uterus.
But it wasn’t just about medical treatment. The doctor informed them that, since surrogacy is not legislated in Argentina, they needed to take the case to court to obtain special authorization. They would not only have to deal with medical studies and medical records, but also with court files.
So they went to the office of lawyer Nicolás Gigena. This is Nicolás:
[Nicolás Gigena]: They wanted to know in detail what Argentinean law said. If it was regulated, if it was not regulated. What the process before the courts would be like, how long it could take.
[Aneris]: Nicolás explained that Argentinean law says nothing about surrogacy. The new Civil and Commercial Code of the Argentinean Republic, which had not been modified for 144 years, went into effect in 2015. It included, among other things, five articles on the rules of kinship for assisted reproduction techniques. Of the five articles, there is one that we will focus on: Article 562. That article says, and I quote, “Those born by assisted human reproduction techniques are the children of the person who gave birth and of the man or woman who has also given his or her free, prior and informed consent.” In other words, according to the Code, the baby is the child of the person who carried it and of the person who gives consent, regardless of who provided the genetic material.
[Aneris]: The lawyer told them that, in practice, there were people who first went through the medical treatment of surrogacy and then requested the court to recognize the baby as their child. But that was risky because for a time, the child was left in limbo regarding their parentage. That is why he said that it was so important to get a court ruling before starting treatment.
[Nicolás]: So that way that child is born and will have a birth certificate where it states that this child is not the child of the surrogate mother, but of the intended parents. The parents who decide—whether due to a biological limitation, let’s say, if it is a same-sex couple, or because of a pathological limitation, if it is a heterosexual couple—decide to carry out this practice.
[Aneris]: The family of the case that Romina and Andrea had seen on television is still dealing with that problem. The child was registered as the child of the surrogate mother and only one of their fathers. The couple continues to fight in court to have their kinship recognized and to free the surrogate mother from any type of legal bond over the child, who is now 7 years old.
Precisely to avoid this type of situation, some prefer to travel and do it in places where it is regulated and there are clear rules for this practice. It can be done in countries like Canada, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Australia, and in some states of the United States. In Latin America, only the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Tabasco have laws that regulate surrogacy. Some of these regulations impose restrictions on intended parents: in certain cases they do not allow it for homosexual couples or single parents. As for the surrogate mother, some states require that it be an altruistic act, while others allow commercial surrogacy. Other countries, like Spain, on the other hand, have laws that prohibit surrogacy outright.
But let’s go back to Argentina. Because there is a legal limbo, everything is based on case law, on those initial cases where lawyers resort to legal strategies to obtain authorizations. To file a request, Nicolás explained to me, there has to be a valid cause for the surrogacy:
[Nicolás]: I don’t see it as feasible for a woman to say “No, I don’t want to gestate because I don’t want to go through a pregnancy, so, well, I’ll go for surrogacy.”
[Aneris]: And another important thing, very important. In Argentina, the surrogate mother has to do it altruistically, without any financial compensation involved. It has to be an act of solidarity. Andrea and Romina’s case combined both, so the lawyer told them they were in a good position to submit their petition to the family court.
In addition to explaining all this to them, at that first meeting Nicolás tried to make sure that Romina was fully aware of what she was willing to do.
[Nicolás]: A surrogate mother is a special being. It seems to me that the act of love carried out by the surrogate is an act of supreme love, because here it is not about being supportive by donating blood, but by lending her body for nine months with everything that a pregnancy implies.
[Aneris]: But Romina had thought about it at length, and she was sure. She had already given birth to four children, and although each pregnancy had been different, she knew very well what she would face.
The lawyer told them that in order to move forward with the process, they would have to start gathering a number of documents. First, they had to sign a notarized document called a “procreative intent agreement.” That document stated the role of Romina as the surrogate, and Andrea and Julián, the intended parents, throughout the process. By signing that paper, Romina renounced any right to the future baby. In addition, they had to attach Andrea’s medical history stating that she could not carry a pregnancy, and Romina’s medical tests to corroborate that she could. They also had to include the medical history of Julián, who would provide the sperm.
Nicolás took the case and made sure to tell them that from that moment on, he would inform them in detail of every step he took. He knows that part of his job is also to manage the anxiety of the intended parents and the surrogate mother, since it is a situation where the biological clock comes into play.
That’s why he tried to move the case as fast as possible. With all the evidence gathered, he filed court proceedings. He legally argued the request citing, among other rights, the rights to equality, reproductive health, self-determination of one’s own body and the use of scientific advances to carry out a family project. And he asked that article 562 of the Civil Code be declared unconstitutional so that the baby could be registered at the time of birth as the child of Andrea and Julián.
In October 2018, Nicolás submitted the file to the family court. And now Romina, Andrea and Julián could do nothing but wait.
A few days later, the file was on the desk of family judge Mónica Parrello.
[Mónica Parrello]: When we came across this, we of course said, “Wow, what process do we follow?” Because the Code does not provide any procedure for this.
[Aneris]: It was the first womb surrogacy request that came to her court, and she was filled with questions. It was not just one more case among all the ones that come to her every day; it was one that was challenging her to review the traditional concepts of motherhood.
[Mónica]: Because it is a cultural construct that we all have embedded, saying that a baby born from a belly belongs to that mother who gestated it.
[Aneris]: She called several of her colleagues to seek further opinions. They all agreed on one thing:
[Mónica]: Our greatest fear, if you will, is to be covering up a business transaction.
[Aneris]: Based on the relationship between Romina, Andrea and Julián, it seemed very clear that it was an act of solidarity, but she still had to be completely sure before making any decisions.
The judge put her technical team of psychologists and social workers to work to evaluate the case. Like the lawyer and the doctor, she was concerned about one thing in particular: did Romina know what she would be up against?
[Mónica]: Because not everyone lends their womb to gestate a baby knowing it will be their niece or nephew.
[Aneris]: The other thing that concerned her was very similar to what Julián feared at the beginning: would Romina’s children be able to process the situation? So she instructed the team to split into two groups: one would work with the adults and the other would focus on the children.
The psychologists and social workers interviewed Andrea and Julián and visited them at their home in Córdoba. Then they did the same with Romina, Pablo and their children at their house in Tanti. They drew up a detailed report, which they submitted to the judge.
But that would not be enough. She wanted to meet them in person and only then would she make a ruling.
And once again, Romina, Andrea and Julián could do nothing but wait.
We’ll be back after a break.
[El hilo – Midroll]
[Daniel]: We‘re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Before the break, we met Andrea, who had dreamed of being a mother for years. And Romina, her sister-in-law, who was willing to lend her womb to make that wish come true. After much investigation, they approached the courts seeking authorization to carry out this practice that is not banned, but not regulated either, in Argentina. They had undergone psychological evaluations and social workers had visited their homes. But it hadn’t been enough. A judge wanted to meet them to make sure she made the right ruling.
Aneris Casassus picks up the story:
[Aneris]: In December, before the year’s end, the judge sent a summons to Romina, Pablo, Andrea, and Julián. She set a hearing for March 2019 in the family court.
That summer became eternal for everyone. There was a lot of anxiety; they needed the hearing to arrive quickly in order to know if they could go ahead with their plan. They were already very excited.
Finally the day arrived. Romina, Pablo, Andrea and Julián met with Nicolás, the lawyer, at the family court in Córdoba. When they entered the office, they saw the psychologists and social workers who had evaluated them. There was also the government attorney who had been involved in the case. Romina was very nervous, but she remembers that moment perfectly and the first words the judge said to them:
[Romina]: We walked in and sat down, and she said, “I didn’t sleep all night thinking about you,” she said. Oh, I wanted to die. “Is that good or is that bad?” I wonder.
[Aneris]: The judge had carefully read the report of the technical team. They said that Romina was sure and firm in her decision. They also highlighted that her situation as a mother of four children and her profession as a doula allowed her to empathize in a special way with Andrea, with her desire to have a child. But also, that strong ties of affection and collaboration were observed between them.
But she didn’t want leave it at that. She wanted to know more about them. So she started asking them questions…
[Romina]: About my children, about Andrea, Julián. All that. We were chatting more like friends, even though we were in a session talking to a judge.
[Aneris]: And although they felt a little more relaxed as the hearing progressed, they were still very anxious to know what the ruling would be. Until at one point, Julián remembers that the judge told them:
[Julián]: “The truth is that what you say today,” she says, “changes my…” I don’t remember if she said it changed her life or had her rethinking how she saw life.
[Aneris]: With that statement, they sensed that things were going well. They talked for a while longer, and then the judge told them that…
[Mónica]: They had demonstrated that all the parties involved knew exactly what role they had to play in this relationship. There was no confusion. Not even with the children.
[Aneris]: That meant, in other words, that she ruled in their favor.
[Andrea]: And when she finished saying it, Romina and I started to cry.
[Julián]: I hugged my sister a lot. Andrea hugged her, I hugged my brother-in-law too.
[Aneris]: Monica, the judge, was also moved:
[Mónica]: Maybe you should follow protocols a little sometimes, but the truth is that we all ended up hugging each other in a state of very beautiful emotion.
[Aneris]: Accustomed to ruling on disputes over property after a divorce, disputes over child care, non-compliance with alimony…
[Mónica]: Seeing these gestures of so much love makes us want to continue saying, “I bet on people who are still capable of so much generosity.“
[Aneris]: The judge told them in advance what her decision would be, but she explained that they had to wait for the final ruling. Only then could they go to the fertility center to start medical treatment. The waiting continued.
The ruling was issued a month later, in April 2019. The judge granted authorization for the substitute gestation and declared the unconstitutionality of article 562 of the Civil Code. With this, the baby could be registered at the time of birth as the child of Andrea and Julián. But not only that. It included something that would establish a legal precedent for future cases of surrogacy: It ordered that both Romina—so that she could recover from childbirth—and Andrea—so that she could take care of the baby—be granted a period of maternity leave.
In addition, it stated that Andrea and Julián must commit to letting their child know their gestational origin when they was old enough to understand the situation.
The sentence was soon made public and did not take long to reach the media. The story aroused a lot of interest: the aunt who would gestate her own nephew.
[Journalist]: Pay attention to this case. Romina Mondragón is going to become the womb for her sister-in-law’s child.
[Journalist]: She is from Córdoba and is going to carry her brother and sister-in-law’s baby in her womb. The justice of that province allowed the procedure and set a framework in the absence of a law on the subject.
[Aneris]: Until then, Andrea, Julián and Romina had shared their plans with their closest circle. Andrea’s parents, as well as Romina’s and Julián’s, raised in another era with more conservative views, thought that what their children were about to do was extremely strange. After much explanation, they ended up supporting them, but for other loved ones it was not easy to understand or accept. And now that the ruling was made public, they were on everyone’s lips.
[Andrea]: It was very hard, because it was something intimate, private. And they began to ask me if I wanted an article and I didn’t want any. I am N. N. and I wanted to continue being N. N. I wanted to be a mom.
[Aneris]: Julián was also asked a lot of questions…
[Julián]: Even co-workers asked how the deal really was, because they thought it was twisted… but hey.
[Aneris]: They had a hard time understanding how it was possible for his sister to gestate his child.
[Julián]: Andrea was bothered by people’s opinions, but I tell her, “You have to attribute it to people’s ignorance. You know very well what you are doing. We took all the steps properly. But since people don’t know, the first thing they do is get a wrong idea about this whole thing.”
[Aneris]: Many congratulated Romina for the gesture of love that she was willing to make, but some acquaintances, on the other hand…
[Romina]: They said it was like committing incest with my brother, and well, I told them, no, I’m not committing incest with my brother. So it was a matter of explaining, right? But I always explained it well… the important thing was that they understood what we were doing, that it wasn’t a depraved thing or anything like that.
[Aneris]: To explain it as simply as possible, she always gave them the same example:
[Romina]: If your brother comes to you and asks you to take care of his baby for a year because he has to leave and can’t take it, what are you going to do? Are you going to take care of it, or are you going to leave it lying around? Of course not, I’m going to take care of it.
[Aneris]: She would do the same, but from the very beginning: She would take care of her nephew or niece for nine months in her belly. Although she always tried to explain everything very patiently, there were some comments that were hurtful. She read them on the internet, where stories of surrogacy were shared:
[Romina]: There were women who answered saying, “How can someone give a child away, how can women who do this be so unloving?” It’s shocking that women would attack another woman like that, because we are talking about all that’s going on with women, we are talking about solidarity, about this, about that. And that bothers me and hurts me a lot.
[Aneris]: In addition to this type of questioning, in countries where surrogacy is regulated and allowed commercially, other criticisms are added. One feminist sector considers that this practice puts women in a situation of reproductive exploitation. Because it is impossible to verify that there is no pressure or abuse of a disadvantaged socioeconomic situation leading the woman to make this decision. They also mention the physical and psychological consequences that this practice entails for the pregnant woman. According to this position, surrogacy is an international business and women who—as in the case of Romina—want to do a favor for someone close to them are the exception.
The topic generates so much controversy that the draft bill to modify the Civil Code that we mentioned before included an article to regulate the surrogacy of wombs, but no consensus was reached… so it ended up being discarded. It is a debate that is still pending.
Despite the criticism, Romina, Andrea and Julián went ahead with their plans. With the judicial authorization in hand, they could start the medical treatment.
So they went back to Dr. Sánchez Sarmiento’s clinic to start everything. As they had been told, they needed the eggs from an anonymous donor. Women who donate eggs must take medication for 10 or 12 days to stimulate their ovaries and generate several eggs in the same cycle. Then, in an intervention in the operating room under sedation, the eggs are removed. Although there are no laws regulating womb surrogacy in Argentina, the donation of eggs and sperm is covered in the Law of Medically Assisted Reproduction. There it is described as “donation,” that is, it can have no commercial purpose, either. What is admitted in practice is a financial compensation to cover expenses and the time invested. Donors go through many filters—medical tests, clinical tests, genetic studies, and a psychological evaluation. Once they overcome all that, they must sign a consent form stating that they have no procreative intent. That is, they cannot claim any type of rights over a possible baby formed from their eggs or sperm. When grown, that person does not have the right to know who donated the egg or the sperm. Here is Dr. Sánchez Sarmiento again:
[César]: The only reason why medical centers must give information is purely and exclusively medical information, when a judge requests it. But everything else is anonymous.
[Aneris]: The fertility center was in charge of finding the donor and extracting her eggs. Then Julián gave his sperm sample. They united these ovules with the sperm in the laboratory, but would not know if an embryo had managed to form until after the fifth or sixth day.
During those days, the doctor informed them constantly how the embryos were evolving. The hours seemed endless, not only for Andrea and Julián, but also for Romina:
[Romina]: The doctor told you, “I’ll call you at two,” and it was half past two and he hadn’t called, so we didn’t know how they were doing.
[Aneris]: But when they did get the call on the fifth day, the news was not good. The doctor told them that no embryo had formed. They had to try again.
This second wait was perhaps even more difficult than the first. Julián has a very clear memory of his emotions during those days.
[Julián]: I counted those five days, and you know what? They seemed eternal. Why didn’t time pass faster?
[Aneris]: Once again the news was not good—there was no embryo. Andrea and Julián were tired and made a decision. They would try just one more time. There had been many years of accumulating frustrations: 16 since the cancer diagnosis when Andrea was told that she could never be a mother, six since she had been told that there was a chance that never came, and over a year since Romina had offered to help them. But towards the end of December 2019, when they were about to give up, the doctor called to let them know that this third attempt had worked: there was an embryo. It had been sent for analysis and everything was perfect. They also knew the sex: female.
[Andrea]: Oh, I was jumping with happiness.
[Julián]: A total jump for joy.
[Aneris]: They called Romina right away to let her know. It was incredible that they received the news that day, because a few hours earlier a cousin of Andrea’s who was on vacation in Mexico had told her that she had left her letter at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was a message in which Andrea asked the Virgin Mary for everything to go well. At that moment, she decided that if things went as she had dreamed, her daughter would be called Guadalupe.
[Aneris]: It was one more step, but there was still a long way to go. Now they had to prepare Romina with medication. She was given some pills which she took for a month to strengthen the uterus so it could receive the embryo.
[Romina]: Then, well, the fears began to appear. What if everything goes well? What if everything goes wrong? Well, the kind of fears that just emerge, as they always do.
[Aneris]: The doctor had told them that it was not certain that the embryo would take on the first try.
February 26, 2020 was the day set for the transfer to Romina’s uterus. Romina arrived with Pablo, Andrea and Julián at the fertility center. And then Romina and Andrea entered a room.
[Andrea]: We danced in the operating room. Romina dressed in the robe and… because of the adrenaline.
[Aneris]: The transfer was quick and easy, a procedure similar to a routine gynecological study. Romina left there with overwhelming confidence:
[Romina]: The doctor asks, “How are you?” I told him, “I’m pregnant. I’m leaving here pregnant, that’s it.” [laughs]
[Andrea]: When she came out, she said, “I know I’m pregnant. I know, I know.” That’s how she lived her life, and I thought she was crazy, because it had yet to work, but she had so much beautiful energy that she didn’t leave room for doubts.
[Aneris]: To confirm it, they would have to wait 15 days, when the doctor told Romina to do a blood test. Wait, again, wait… The days that followed were very stressful for everyone. Andrea asked Romina every now and then how she felt. Romina’s children asked her how long it would take for her to find out if she was pregnant. And Pablo, her husband, said he noticed a different countenance in her, the same one he had noticed before, in the pregnancies of her four children. She also felt that everything had gone well, but she wanted to be cautious with Andrea and not raise false expectations. So she told her to be patient, that the day of the blood test was approaching.
Twelve days had passed since the embryo transfer when Andrea and Julián traveled to Tanti. The whole family would gather there to celebrate Romina and Julián’s father’s birthday. And Andrea just couldn’t take it anymore. Secretly, she made a suggestion to her sister-in-law. Romina hesitated for a moment but then she accepted:
[Romina]: So we ran to the pharmacy and bought an Evatest, we were so anxious.
[Aneris]: These are rapid pregnancy tests that are done with urine.
They left the pharmacy and returned to Romina and Julián’s parents’ house. Before going into the bathroom, Romina warned Andrea not to worry if she tested negative. Because perhaps too few days had passed for the result to be reliable.
[Romina]: I come out of the bathroom, I must have come out pale. And Andrea, “So???” “Oh,” I tell her, “oh hell, yes.” We thought we would die. We started yelling. No, you won’t be able to imagine it in there. No, no… what a joy.
[Aneris]: When the family heard Romina and Andrea screaming, they didn’t need any explanation. Everyone understood what was happening. They hugged and began to cry. So it was that Romina, at age 32, began her fifth pregnancy.
[Romina]: I said, “This is going to be the same as my other pregnancies, nothing different. Except that, sure, that she is a niece, but it is the same. I want her to have the same things my children had.”
[Aneris]: But then something happened that was not in their plans: the pandemic. Just eleven days after Romina took the test, Argentina decreed mandatory quarantine. So Romina and Andrea could hardly see each other. One was at home in Tanti, the other in Córdoba. To bring her the folic acid that Romina had to take, Julián traveled with the documents under his arm. At each police checkpoint, he explained the situation and showed the documents so that he would be allowed to continue.
They also had to give explanations when the day of the first ultrasound arrived. Due to sanitary measures, pregnant women had to enter without a companion. But this was different.
[Romina]: I told them: “Look, I’m telling you no, I’m not the mother, she’s the mother. I need her to see her, the baby.”
[Aneris]: The doctor then made an exception and let Andrea in too. And for the first time, Andrea saw her daughter in the womb of her sister-in-law. She wanted to save that moment forever, so she took out her cell phone and started recording. This is an audio of that video:
[Romina]: I have four children… My life.
[Andrea]: Oh, tiny little thing…
[Romina]: Look at her heart.
[Andrea]: My love…
[Doctor]: Little heartbeats. [Heartbeat sounds]
[Andrea]: You have no idea what this means to me. At the age of 29 I had breast cancer.
[Romina]: My sweetheart…
[Doctor]: So, all good for now…
[Aneris]: The lock-down lasted much longer than expected. Andrea and Julián sent videos and audios to Romina so that the baby could begin to hear their voices from the belly. And Romina sent photos and videos so that they could be as close as possible throughout the pregnancy. Guadalupe used to move a lot during the early hours and when she did, Romina grabbed her cell phone immediately and wrote Andrea to tell her.
[Romina]: I told her, “I’m going to send these to you at any time. I don’t care if you have to work the next day.” It was three in the morning and I said, “I’m still awake here and I can’t sleep.”
[Andrea]: We were very connected. She took pictures for me; the boys made videos for me. They held her cell phone towards her when the baby kicked so I could see her. All my nephews and niece accompanying us all the time.
[Aneris]: Isabella, the youngest, was three years old and had begun to talk. Every once in a while she talked to her mom’s belly and said, “Come out and play, Guadalupe.” But Romina did not miss an opportunity to remind her how things would be:
[Romina]: Here is your cousin Guadalupe. When Guadalupe is born, she’ll go with Aunt Andrea, who is her mother. Aunt Andrea cannot have it in her belly because her belly is sick, so mom has it.”
[Aneris]: And the same thing she said to the kids, she repeated to Guadalupe in her belly
[Romina]: I told her, “Guada, here is your aunt, I’m your aunt, I’m not mom.” And when Andrea visited, she would talk to her and tell her, “Here’s mom outside, waiting for you.” Always, see? I never called her daughter or anything like that, no, no…
[Aneris]: The few times that Andrea and Julián were able to get to Tanti with special permission, they brought music on a flash drive or wool for Romina so that she could entertain herself doing the crafts that she likes. These were unique moments and they made the most of them. Romina used to go to bed and Andrea would caress her belly and talk to her…
Throughout her pregnancy, Romina tried to give Andrea peace of mind. And as November approached, the month Guadalupe would be born, she kept her closer than ever. Andrea was too anxious and Romina, with the experience of having already gone through four births and because of her work as a doula, told her:
[Romina]: “It’s not like in the soap operas,” I told Andrea, “where labor starts and the birth is ten minutes later. You stay calm. I know how far, how long, and when I’m there, I’ll let you know.”
[Aneris]: Although Romina had liked the experience of giving birth at home, Andrea and Julián had asked that Guadalupe’s birth take place at a clinic in Córdoba. That made them feel safer. Romina respected that decision.
After a false alarm and with a few days to go until the 40th week, Julián moved into his sister’s house in Tanti. He wanted to be there so he could take her to Córdoba as soon as her contractions started. They spent the nights walking around town, but Guadalupe wouldn’t come out.
[Julián]: And the girl was calm. No, there was no sign of anything.
[Aneris]: Andrea, meanwhile, had stayed at home finalizing the details for Guadalupe’s arrival. If there was no news by Friday, November 13, 2020, the doctor had told them, they should induce labor. So that morning Romina, Pablo and Julián went to Córdoba and picked up Andrea to go to the clinic. The restrictions due to the pandemic were still in place, but the clinic already knew about the case. They would make an exception and let all four of them through. At about 11 o’clock, Romina was given the serum to trigger labor, but a short time later she already had eight centimeters of dilation and she asked to have it removed. She wanted to have as little intervention on her and the baby as possible.
The time was drawing near. Romina and Andrea entered the delivery room while Julián and Pablo waited in the hallway.
[Romina]: And at ten minutes to three, Guadalupe was born. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.
[Andrea]: And it was a beautiful delivery. Seeing that baby come out is something… it’s a gift. No mom gets to see it. And I saw it.
[Aneris]: At 47, Andrea was watching her daughter be born, and at that precise moment all frustrations were left behind.
A few minutes later, Andrea accompanied Guadalupe to a small room where they cleaned her, weighed her, and did her first check-ups. It was the first time, the doctors and nurses told her, that a mother could witness that moment.
Julián went in to meet his daughter immediately, and Pablo went in to accompany Romina. And then Andrea returned with Guadalupe to the delivery room. A while later, they went to the room and for a moment they were all together there, the five of them. They had made it.
[Julián]: When you hold her in your arms, it becomes reality. See? You longed for it so much and you asked for it, and well, it happened, everything happened and everything went well.
[Aneris]: Romina was thrilled:
[Romina]: Seeing the two of them with the baby in their arms. Oh, it’s priceless.
[Aneris]: That first night, Guadalupe, Andrea and Romina stayed at the clinic and couldn’t stop thinking about their journey together.
[Romina]: So well, just looking, looking at each other and looking at the ceiling, remembering everything, we said, “We made it.” We couldn’t believe it. What’s more, sometimes to this day I don’t believe it. It seems to me unreal that Guadalupe is here.
[Aneris]: A few weeks before Guadalupe was born, Andrea had taken some pills to produce some milk and be able to breastfeed her. She managed to do it during those first few hours. And even though Romina had never had a problem breastfeeding…
[Romina]: I didn’t produce a drop of milk when Guadalupe was born. None. It must be the brain, see? I always say that, as if it knew that that baby was not my baby.
[Aneris]: They were discharged the next day, and Romina stayed at Andrea and Julián’s house that night. On the third day, they all left for Tanti. Romina missed her children, and they were also anxious to meet their cousin. On Sunday, Pablo and the children were waiting for them with a barbecue.
[Romina]: When it was time for them to leave, they left and I stayed here. I said to myself, “Well, now I’m going to sleep peacefully tonight.” As I told them, I did my part.
[Aneris]: Now it was Andrea and Julián’s turn.
[Andrea]: Oh… let’s see that little blonde?… beautiful…
[Daniel]: Andrea has two notebooks where she and her whole family wrote messages for Guadalupe while she was in the womb. She also gathered all the documentation and newspaper articles on her case. When she grows up and is old enough to understand, they will tell her that she came into the world in a different way, that it was Aunt Romina who had her in her belly and that she was always surrounded by love. In a few days Guadalupe will be 2 years old. And Romina has just given birth to her fifth child.
In 2017, the City of Buenos Aires became the only district where children can be registered in the name of the intended parents. This, as long as the consent of the pregnant woman is presented. In all the rest of Argentina, it is still necessary to process each case with a judge.
This story was produced by Aneris Casassus. She is a producer for Radio Ambulante and lives in Buenos Aires.
This episode was edited by Camila Segura and me. Désirée Yépez did the fact-checking.
The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano, with original music by Rémy.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Nicolás Alonso, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Diego Corzo, José Díaz, Emilia Erbetta, Fernanda Guzmán, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Bruno Scelza, David Trujillo, Ana Tuirán, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Natalia Sánchez Loayza is our editorial intern.
Selene Mazón is our production intern.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.