What Makes a Finance Guy Leave Everything to Work in Surrogacy
In this podcast, Richard Westoby discusses his own personal surrogacy journey and a complete career change that he never could have anticipated.
Intro: You’re listening to the Australian Family and Fertility Law Podcast. Here’s your host, Stephen Page.
Stephen Page: Good day, it’s Stephen Page from Page Provan again. And we’re talking about our series of Australian family and infertility law. And in today’s podcast, I have the joy of talking to Richard. Richard Westoby, as you will quickly discover, is English. And one of the puzzles is an obvious one, which is he’s English, but somehow he works for San Diego Fertility Centre, which is evidently based in California; it’s nowhere near England. And recently I had the joy of speaking with Richard and Dr Said Daneshmand from San Diego Fertility Centre in the webinar about Australian-intended parents going to the US.
Richard Westoby: Thank you.
SP: Tell us why someone who would be in England would be working for San Diego Fertility because it seems counterintuitive, you’re on the other side of the world.
RW: It does. But the one thing about SDFC or San Diego Fertility Centre is we’re global. We have clients all over the world because unfortunately, infertility is not geographically bound, should we say, transcend sexuality. It goes through countries. It doesn’t matter if you want to have a family and you can’t, you can’t. We have a lot of European clients. We have a lot of Australian clients. We have a lot of clients in China. We have clients all over the world. And so, therefore, from a time zone perspective, obviously, it helps having somebody here in Europe, because obviously, as we are doing at the moment, if your evening is my morning, that my evening is California morning.
So it just works. It’s just nice having somebody boots on the ground to be able to help in the same time zone, really.
SP: I didn’t ask that question very well. The reason that you worked there is because you presumably have a passion and an interest in this area.
RW: Absolutely. So I’ve got twins. I’ve got boy-girl twins who are currently on their eight and a half. And I live in England.
SP: So just this morning your time just before we talked, you have the joy, as every parent does, of getting them to school on time.
RW: [laughs] The joy of the school run. The joy of “Can you get your uniform on? Have you got your water bottle? Finish your breakfast. Brush your teeth. Brush your hair.”
SP: [laughs] “Have you eaten yet?”.
RW: Yes, exactly. It’s really very. I mean, everyone’s like [inaudible]. I wasn’t like being a gay parent. I’m like, you can just drop the gay. I’m a parent. Every parent has the same struggle every morning. We’re desperately trying to get to school on time. I’m always late and we’re always running. And it’s always like, “Just gotta move on!”
Yeah. But anyways, I live in England, and we went through the process in the US, so IVF and surrogacy, based in the States. At the time, I ran my own a company, I was in finance.
SP: Oh let’s just stop there for a second. You you weren’t in this field at all?
RW: No, I knew nothing about fertility. Zero. Apart from the fact that I wanted to have a family, and even after years of trying, I couldn’t get pregnant. [laughs] So, you know, we had to go down the easy route.
SP: Well, let’s just talk that. About the innate desire to have a family. I think it was David Attenborough standing beside an albatross. He said it best, that animals will pursue and overcome all types of barriers, because this is just within them. And if they can’t do it themselves, then they rely on others and we as humans do the same. And I listened to that. I thought it was so powerful that, in fact, it’s ended up in a couple of my court matters, so that can form judges you know, who’s going to argue with David Attenborough? [Richard laughs]
But when did you know that you wanted to become a father?
RW: Probably, well, they’re eight and a half, probably about ten years ago. So we have a great life. We have a great house. We have great holidays. But there’s just an innate need, to your point, of something more. I wanted, I wanted something more in my life. And I felt that we had the love to be able to give to a family. We looked at adoption at the time in this country, in England, as it was a lot more difficult than it is now.
So that got ruled out. We looked at co-parenting, but we didn’t actually have anybody that we knew that we could do it with. So that really just led us straight down into the surrogacy route.
SP: And that’s reality, isn’t it? If with adoption, it can be, at least the Australian experience, it can be very difficult. There are no children available, and it’s not your genetic child. It’s not the child who is part of your reproductive journey. Although, of course, you’re helping.
RW: The non-genetics for us wasn’t an issue, because I firmly, both of us firmly believe that to be family, you need love. And for me, it doesn’t matter it’s my genetic child or not. And there are many children out there that need adopting in the world. But international adoption was hard. Adoption in this country was hard. It was not an easy route, and it was security so it probably takes about two to three years, if not longer, to end up with a child who’s already been in care for two to three years.
So it didn’t fit for us.
SP: Yeah. And co-parenting has, aside from the fact that there wasn’t anyone immediately available, it has risks. It has big risks, too. Can go wrong big time.
RW: Luckily, we know a number of people who co-parent, and it works well. We also know some people who it hasn’t worked so well. And there’s the legal implications around it. We wouldn’t necessarily be both of us be parents, we didn’t have anybody either. It was ruled out pretty quickly anyway. But again, I think the legality around it being recognised as parents who has the rights and responsibilities.
SP: But what you are doing is what often happens, which is well, we’ve got an end goal in mind, which is we want to become parents. What are the options to get there? We know that. Well, sadly, sex doesn’t work.
RW: It does, just can’t get pregnant. [both laugh]
SP: But we don’t get there. And so we look at what are the other options to become parents? And you are going through the list and it really narrowed down to that surrogacy, which was something you didn’t know anything about.
RW: Really didn’t. So we had some friends in the States who had done it. Bear in mind, this was ten years ago when…now there’s information left, right and centre. And the problem now is trying to figure out from all the information, how to assimilate it in a way that works for you. Right. Hence my job, in fact. But ten years ago, there was nothing. It was literally I’ve got a friend who’s done it. Okay, follow them. That’s what we did. There was no due diligence on the agencies, the lawyers.
I’d seen a…the doctor that we used, who no longer practises, but the doctor that we used was I’ve seen him on CNN. I mean, that was how we came about doing this. There was no for online. There were no reviews online. There was nothing like that. And so we kind of stumbled into it, which looking back on it now, I wouldn’t change anything that we did because it led me on a path to find my passion, to find fulfilment, to be able to help others, to navigate in an impartial way.
I mean, I work for a clinic, but at the same time, my role is to give people and educate them, given the information so that they can make the most informed choice for them. And that entails literally step by step of the process, walking it through from A to Z. And, you know, I wrote a book on it as well, which always sounds so I don’t know…pretentious. So what’s that?
SP: Tell everyone the name of your book.
RW: It is what it says on the tin. It’s “Our Journey: One Couple’s Guide to U.S. Surrogacy”. I mean, you can’t mistake what it’s about. [laughs] It’s like the dummy’s guide to surrogacy because I was literally a dummy when we started this. I had no idea what we were doing. And that’s why I wrote a diary for my children to say what we did, why we did it so that when they were older, they could read it and start understanding some of the thought processes that we’d been through.
And I turned it into a book and now literally, it’s a best seller. I mean, it’s up there with Dan Brown. No, I wish. I probably sell a book a day to somebody somewhere in the world, which is amazing. It’s enough to buy me my coffee in the morning. My royalties go on coffee. I literally make, I think, £1.73 or something per book that I sell. It’s crazy. Amazon takes everything, but that’s fine because I didn’t do it for the money. I did it for the info.
But that propelled me into public speaking. That propelled me onto talking on stage about our journey, what we did, why we did it. And then I came across Dr Daneshmand, Said who you have interviewed at a conference. And he was like, “I think this, the information you’re giving to people is amazing. I would love you to come and work for us.” And I said no, so I don’t want to do that. I want to help people impartially. I’m going to end up back in finance.
That’s what I did. That was what I did. My children were still very little. And about six months later, he’s like, “Come and work for me.” I said I will only come and work for you if I can be impartial. If people don’t want to work with your clinic, then they dont want to work with your clinic. He was like, “That’s why I want you, because I want you to be impartial.” And that was seven years ago.
SP: Wow. And I was just thinking that a couple of things that you were kind of saying is every surrogacy journey is different. And that was driven home to me when I went, when my husband and I went through surrogacy because giving advice to countless intended parents and I actually counted the numbers recently. It’s scary. It made me feel very old. But one of the things that that struck me was there were things that happened in our journey that I didn’t expect. We had a miscarriage. We had difficulties with our surrogate in terms of medicine.
We had difficulties with our egg donor. In terms of medicine, they had to be overcome. Then we had a miscarriage. Then we had an ectopic pregnancy. And then at the end of the day, well, not even the end of the day, but when our child was born, she almost died during childbirth. So I’ve had three children. And two of them have almost died during childbirth, which is scary. You just don’t expect to get there. And then when we had to go for the order from the court, because in this part of the world, it’s post-birth process, there was great uncertainty about who would be recognised on the best I can in the first place.
The law was uncertain and at which point I thought from an academic point of view, it’s great having a test case, except when it’s your own matter. [laughs] And I didn’t expect after having done it for so many years. Practise in this area, Sony used to be in the same boat.
RW: But that’s the thing. It is every [inaudible] process management to a degree. There’s the roller coaster of emotion, every single person irrespective of the journey that they’re on. Is it’s going to be different because we react differently to different things? And to your point, there’s biology involved. So no matter how amazing the team is, no matter how amazing, we can’t stop stop an ectopic pregnancy, we can’t stop a miscarriage. It’s brutal. Right. So a lot of our heterosexual couples that I talk to have been through infertility, right?
They are petrified from start to finish that they’re not going to get pregnant. They’re going to have miscarriage again, they’re going to have a stillborn. They’re going to have problems, which is totally understandable. And so there’s a part of this process that that needs to be managed. And that’s where the team around you needs to be gold plated because when it goes right, it goes right. It’s fantastic. You’re like, la, la, la. We’ve got a baby. It’s amazing.
SP: Yeah, not everyone had as difficult a surrogacy journey as I had.
RW: When it goes, it’s wrong, it’s when it goes wrong that the team around you steps up, because that’s when it’s like, okay, what has happened? How do we solve this? How do we fix this? How do we get you over this hurdle? How do we move you through to the next stage? Because there’s an emotional level that you need to get through. And then there’s a physical level as well. And that from what you and I live, we do this day in, day out. And then all of a sudden, to your point, you’re in it and you’re, like, that’s not expected.
SP: I remember what I was thinking. O, I think when the miscarriage happened, I thought, “Oh, well, that’s a kick in the guts,” and this is terrible. But what do we do? The doctor said, “Well, 99% the time, it’s not the surrogate.” The surrogate, of course, said, “Well, I feel like I’ve let everyone down.” That’s the common reaction. It’s the genetic material. And you go, yes, the next embryo might be a dud too. Let’s go onwards and upwards.
RW: Right. But I was actually having this conversation yesterday with an agency where we’ve had a client who’s had two miscarriages at 15 weeks. And so whilst there’s an emotional toll on us as the intended parents, the surrogate feels like she’s let everybody down. So there’s an emotional time. But there’s also a massive financial implication because you’ve already had in their case, they’ve had 30 weeks worth of payments to the surrogate. They’ve had two frozen embryo transfers. They’ve had legal. I mean, it’s a kick in the guts on every level, every level.
SP: Yeah, I remember the doctor said, well, all that advice. And they said, let’s give it a go again and say, you give it a go again, then you stand out the front of the counter at the clinic, can now say, I remember that the lovely woman on the other side of the counter said, “Oh, that’s $3,000 thanks.” And immediately you think, “Ugh!” You shrivel up inside. And you think, have I got that on my credit card?
Yes. Oh, it didn’t feel great to know.
RW: I know. Yeah. Exactly. And it’s and that at the end of the day, this is business right across the board. And I think one of the things that a lot of people that I talk to understand it’s for profits. But you could be for profits. And you can also not have your eyes ripped out. And I think a lot of people want to know that the team around them are open, honest and transparent about the fees, how it works, what needs to be paid and when absolutely. That’s key.
Right. You can start this process with some people and know to the penny what you’re spending, and then you can start it with others. And it just keeps on going. And you’re like, wow, that’s an unexpected bill of X or Y. So a piece of advice: make sure you understand exactly what payments need to be made.
SP: And when one of the things you said before was with heterosexual couples that sometimes they’ve been through an extraordinary level of pain ahead of time. And I don’t know whether, you know, but I’ve been there, done that, having suffered infertility myself. But certainly what I’ve seen sometimes has been couples micromanaging surrogates. And I haven’t seen that anywhere near as common amongst gay couples, because, of course, this is the only option, isn’t it?
RW: Well, I might have — so Angela, who’s our surrogate is an amazing human being. We’re still in touch. And she’s part of our family, and always will be. And I remember our obstetrician gynaecologist, who is a friend of ours, emailing me and saying, “Richard, she’s been pregnant before. You need to stop.” So there can be the odd homosexual who can micromanage it. But yeah, it is. This is your everything. The resilience of the human being is an amazing thing. And I’ve seen so many people who have been through hell and yet pick themselves up and just keep going.
I was talking to a lady last week who actually has PTSD from the amount of times that she’s had internal examinations by Dr ABCDEFG H.
SP: That doesn’t surprise me. I think I think the highest number I’ve heard of IVF cycles before pregnancy in Australia was 38. And I thought, here is this couple who have endured the rollercoaster of hope and then crashing down the other side. And to do that 38 times, they must have just been roadkill. I just can’t imagine what damage it would have been to their relationship, to their sense of self-esteem and why there wasn’t some discussion about it. And there may have been, I don’t know, but 38 times would say to me there hadn’t been adequate discussion about alternatives such as egg donation and surrogacy.
RW: Correct. And we place a lot of emphasis on mental health. And so anybody who’s going through our process must talk to a psychologist about supports, how the process is working, what they need to do, what the thing impact on the relationship. I mean, there’s a massive emphasis on that because to us, it’s not only physical health, it’s mental health as well and emotional health. But I mean, we’ve got five doctors at the clinic and I always remember one of them, Dr Friedman, sitting and talking to me. We’ve just finished a conversation where a couple had had a seven-year-old died from a brain tumour, and they wanted to go through IVF.
I mean, she and I, at this time, both had seven-year-olds. We were both in tears, obviously not during the conversation with the intended parents, because you need to help them through it. Right. But the minute that conversation was over, we were like, this could be us, literally. We were bawling, basically. And she said these intended parents now need to grieve. And they also need to grieve for the child that they had and grieve for the child that they are not going to have.
And that really struck me because a lot of people, you know, in a heteronormative world, gonna get married, like my daughter in the car stage, we started talking about periods because she’s now eight, and it’s going to happen. And she was like, “Well, what does it mean?” And is like, it’s a way that we know that you can start to get pregnant. And all of my head, I was like, wow, all of a sudden I’m planting in her mind that she’s going to get older, she’s going to have a baby is why is that at aged eight, something that we need to be talking about, then we do, anyway.
SP: You are saying before about the intent to become a parent that you realised about ten years ago. So I knew when I was about four or five, it was part of me.
RW: It’s part of you, exactly.
SP: Forever. And it wasn’t because my parents said to go out and have a child and will become grandparents and give the child back. None of that. It was just I knew that was me.
RW: It was just intrinsic. So you get to 28, 30, 32, 35, whenever a new struggle, you’ve got to work through that grief that you’re never going to have, the child that you’ve grown up thinking you’re going to have. And how do you do it? And it happens a lot with egg donation, when a woman, for whatever reason, can’t use her own eggs, there’s a massive process to go through to get to the point of OK, I can go down the egg donor route. And Dr Friedman said the grief of the child that she’s not going to have. It was really impactful.
And I think that, again, comes into that whole mental health aspect of it. We deal with infertility day in, day out. And it’s very easy just to forget the human element of this, and to understand that was huge.
SP: So you were saying before that compared to when you went through your surrogacy journey when there was especially no one, no information. Now there is a plethora of information. And there was so much information, it’s information overload. Rich Vaughn, who I interviewed recently in this podcast, said there were hundreds of US surrogacy agencies. And what that’s said to me, you reminded me of the old statement, apparently, that if you have a box of chocolates in front of you and you’ve got a dozen, it’s easy to choose, but you start putting ramping those numbers up.
How is it possible to choose? So what are your words of wisdom? If someone starting out on a journey today, what should they be looking out for?
RW: You’ve got a really valid point. Surrogacy. And there’s a move to try to self regulate within the surrogacy agency world. And it’s happening now, and I’ve seen it. A friend of mine, Jennifer’s, pushing that forward. Surrogacy agencies are unregulated. Clinics are. Lawyers are. But agencies aren’t. And so anybody, because I could start an agency tomorrow. I’m never going to you. It’s not on the cards.
SP: But if you start an agency tomorrow that would only add to your woes [laugh] [inaudible]
RW: I struggle to find time to do everything I need to do anyway. But to your point of I think there are agencies and their agencies. There are big agencies. There are small agencies. The larger agencies typically have been around for a long time. They have experience. So if you are looking at international surrogacy, for example, you’ve got an Australian intended parent who’s looking at doing this in the United States. You really want a team around you who have been through it. They know what they know the legal process, so they can sit there and go, okay, well, we’re not Australian lawyers, but we understand the parent order process.
We understand that you need to go through this. You need to talk to a lawyer in Australia. You need and in fact, here you go, talk to Stephen because it’s not just “Oh, great. Let’s have a baby.” There are implications on everything that you do. And so I would always recommend that you, first of all, talk to anybody you know, who’s been through surrogacy, get that first-hand information. Who did they use? Why did these, what did they like? What they did not like, start doing your due diligence once you’ve got a list of names.
Do you want a big agency or a small agency? Do you want, so, for example, some of the smaller agencies, they will go to every single appointment with the surrogate. So they are our eyes and is medically speaking, although they’re not doctors, they will be there because they do it. The bigger agencies do they do that? Not necessarily. But they will do home cheques. They will do background cheques. They will do a much bigger support network. Maybe. These are questions you need to ask those agencies.
It’s, to your point, it’s a minefield. But talk to the lawyers, talk to the doctors who do they recommend and why. And then start narrowing that down. And then call me ultimately. And I can help. I know pretty much most of the people in the industry, so I’m happy to chat.
SP: Thank you, Richard, for talking to me your morning, my evening. This is Stephen Page with the Australian Family and Fertility Law Podcast. Thank you.
Outro: Thanks for listening. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate, reaching out to Stephen at pageprovan.com.au.