Spanish celebrity Ana Obregón shocked the world when she announced that she had a child via surrogate, using a donor egg and the sperm of her deceased son. Her story takes us to the new frontiers of fertility, where technology challenges our ideas of family, motherhood and the law.
If you live in Spain, you will have heard of Ana Obregón. You might have come across her when she was an 80s “it” girl, or maybe you watched her on television every day when she had a stint as a sitcom star. More recently, you’ll have seen her presenting the country’s most popular television shows, and, most likely of all, you’ve flicked past her in the pages of the prensa rosa – Spain’s thriving tabloids. It is said that her annual bikini shoot, splashed across the cover of ¡Hola! magazine, marks the start of summer.
But in March of this year, Ana Obregón sold a different kind of exclusive – one that would transform the public’s perception of her. The 68-year-old appeared on the cover of ¡Hola!, but not as the star of a glossy, posed cover shoot. This time, she was sitting in a wheelchair on the steps of a Miami hospital, a tag still on her wrist, sunglasses concealing her face, and a newborn baby cradled in her arms.
the headline read.
ANA Obregón, MOTHER TO A CHILD BORN VIA SURROGATE IN MIAMI
Obregón later posted the same picture to her one million Instagram followers. “A light full of love has arrived in my darkness,” said the caption. “Now I won’t ever be alone again. I’VE COME BACK TO LIFE.”
Why this story
The story of Ana Obregón and the birth of her daughter/granddaughter began as a wild tabloid tale: the story of what happens when an ageing, wealthy megastar, grieving her only son, can bypass her country’s laws and end up with a brand-new baby.
But the more time we spent investigating this topic, and the more people we spoke to, it became clear that this story is much bigger than that. It’s not just good tabloid fodder, and it extends far beyond the surrogacy debate.
Ana’s story takes us to the new frontiers of fertility, where technology will challenge our ideas of family, motherhood and the law. In an age where assisted reproductive technologies are developing at breakneck speed, we’re going to have to start asking ourselves, at what age are we comfortable for a woman to be a mother? And, inevitably, at what age are we comfortable for a man to be a father?
Ana’s story raises questions about the rules of consent in creating a child, too. What we found in this investigation is that there largely aren’t rules; or they’re variously interpreted. If the Roe vs Wade debate has forced a lot of people to ask themselves, “who decides who can end a pregnancy and when?”, there’s a big argument coming about who chooses to begin a pregnancy. In other words, I found myself asking: who decides who gets to be born?
Patricia Clarke, Reporter
In 2020, Obregón lost her only son, 27-year-old Aless, to cancer. Spain rallied around her, mourning alongside “the nation’s mother”. But now, she was at the heart of a heated debate. The public had turned against her, calling the surrogacy, and the message that went with her announcement of it, a selfish act.
It’s an election year in Spain, and Ana’s story quickly moved beyond tabloid fodder, into the upper echelons of Spanish congress. All forms of surrogacy are illegal in the country, but children born via surrogate can be registered to live there. The Equality Minister Irene Montero, of the far-left Podemos party, told reporters, “It is legally recognised in our country as a form of violence against women”.
A few days after her first exclusive, there came another. Obregón confirmed what many people suspected: that she had used a donor egg and her dead son’s sperm to conceive the child. She said he had always dreamed of being a father – it was his final wish.
In that moment, it became clear that the debate in the case of Ana Obregón far exceeds the rights or wrongs of surrogacy. Her story takes us to the new frontiers of fertility, where technology will challenge our ideas of family, motherhood and the law.
In the past year alone, there have been huge leaps in assisted reproductive technologies, from the development of the world’s first synthetic embryo, to the first baby created from three genetic parents. For those who don’t conform to the traditional nuclear family, options for having children will be more widely available. For many, it will be liberating. From LGBT+ families to single parents, older women to couples struggling with infertility, these technologies create new opportunities for people to have biological children.
“The debate in the case of Ana Obregón far exceeds the rights or wrongs of surrogacy. Her story takes us to the new frontiers of fertility”
It will also throw up significant questions. We can see Ana Obregón as a test case. How should we respond – socially, legally and ethically – to the boom in these reproductive technologies?
In April 2022, Ana Obregón published a memoir. The way she tells it, having a child was her son’s dying wish, and a decision that mother and son made together while he was alive. She hints at it throughout the book – calling it their “secret pact” – but she doesn’t make the big reveal until the final chapter.
It’s a tidy account that takes up no more than a few pages; she and her son made the decision, and then the child was born. But assisted reproductive technologies are not quick or tidy processes; they can take years of careful planning, and Obregón would have had to jump through several legal and ethical hoops.
“There are several different issues,” says Dr Fernando Akerman, Medical Director of the Fertility Center of Miami. “One is the age by itself. What most people will comment is, ‘how could it be that someone that is 68, that should be enjoying grandkids, wants to have their own kid?’”
As the director of a fertility clinic in Florida, Dr Akerman is in charge of making decisions about who should or shouldn’t become a new parent. In Florida, he explains, there are no legal guardrails, only guidance from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. And he is emphatic: if she went to see him, Obregón’s age wouldn’t rule her out.
Dr Akerman is keen to stress that 68 isn’t what it used to be. These days Ana could have 30 years left; she’s in good health and immensely wealthy. “There were some unwritten rules in the past in fertility… that when the sum of both of their ages is more than a hundred, you shouldn’t be doing the treatment,” he says. “That has been changing because, you know, they say 60 is the new 40. But the reproductive age is not changing.”
There’s no US data on the age of so-called “intended parents”, but the doctors we’ve spoken to suggest that they’re older than the average first-time parent. In fact, Dr Akerman said he’s worked with clients older than Obregón.
Of course, it’s not just the fact that Ana is 68. She is also a single woman. Within months of Obregón’s announcement, Al Pacino and Robert de Niro had children at 83 and 79 respectively. Both stories made some people uncomfortable, but neither actor suffered the outrage that followed Obregón in the months after her announcement.
Both de Niro and Pacino have much younger female partners, who can care for their children long after they die. But women are often seen as the primary caregivers, responsible for the emotional and physical wellbeing of their children. Part of the intrigue in Obregón’s case is that she is an ageing woman with no obvious successor.
Dr Akerman says none of this would worry him either – all clients must sign paperwork that appoints a guardian for the child after they die. From the fertility clinic’s perspective, Obregón’s child will always be cared for. Other doctors – across Florida and California – said the same.
“Al Pacino and Robert de Niro had children at 83 and 79 respectively… neither actor suffered the outrage that followed Obregón”
What’s trickier than her age, Dr Akerman says, is the fact that her son wasn’t alive to consent to this process.
Obregón’s son Aless froze his sperm in New York, where he was receiving cancer treatment. His mother says having a child was his dying wish, and she transferred his sperm to Miami for the surrogacy.
The Spanish tabloids have questioned that narrative, as have other sources I’ve spoken to. They say Aless froze his sperm only to have a baby with a future partner should he survive the cancer treatment, although his girlfriend at the time of his death has refused to speak on the matter.
All the talk of consent is academic, though. Several US lawyers told Tortoise that her son wouldn’t necessarily have had to sign anything in order to conceive a child in this way.
The law is surprisingly permissive when it comes to this issue – both in Florida and elsewhere. In the UK, a 2022 High Court judgement allowed a man to use an embryo created by IVF with his wife after her death, even though she didn’t provide written consent.
In cases like Obregón’s, consent from the dead would-be parent isn’t crucial. Nor, it seems, is intent: a landmark 2019 judgement in New York granted grieving parents permission to extract their son’s sperm after a fatal motor accident. In Israel, male soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces can have their sperm extracted up to 72 hours after they die.
“The legal and regulatory frameworks are incredibly permissive. All Obregón had to do was find someone who was willing and able to carry out her procedure and she was off”
Dr Akerman says that he would be likely to reject a patient like Obregón if they didn’t have an explicit consent form. But the legal and regulatory frameworks in this area are incredibly permissive. All she had to do was find someone who was willing and able to carry out her procedure – at a hefty price – and she was off.
Three months after she revealed the news about her daughter-granddaughter, Ana Obregón hosted a press conference for the release of her memoir. With a knowing smile, she told a room of journalists that her child “will be better cared for than de Niro’s”, but she refused to answer any questions about the surrogacy process. She said, “when you bury your only son, any criticisms you receive feel like tickles”.
And perhaps she’s right. In Spain, the surrogacy debate swiftly moved on. And while fertility lawyers and ethicists grapple with the consequences of cases like Ana Obregón’s, the ultra-rich can travel to places where they can access the latest reproductive technologies, surrogates, and a gaggle of lawyers and doctors – all above board, so long as they pay a hefty fee.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ana Obregón is laughing off her critics. They’re inconsequential.