Samuel Ghilain's crib sits empty. It has never been used. Now, it's too small for him anyway. His toys sit in the empty nursery still waiting for him to play with them. His parents pine for the day when he will be allowed to come home with them. He was born two years ago, but he has never been permitted to go home, until, hopefully just now.
For the last year, Samuel has been sentenced to live in a loveless orphanage. Half a continent away, his biological father, Laurent Ghilain, and his partner Peter Meurrens, have been fighting to rescue Samuel. But the Belgian government stood in the way; refusing to budge, seemingly unconcerned of what lasting impact their policies, or lack of them, may have had on the small boy and his fathers.
This tragedy began when Laurent and Peter decided they wanted a child. The couple, who are legally married, considered adoption. But Belgian adoption laws, while saying that gay adoption is possible, made that option difficult. After some thought, the men decided on surrogacy.
A surrogate in Ukraine was hired and Laurent was chosen as the sperm donor. He is Samuel's biological father. The couple was there for the birth. The surrogate was happy for Laurent to take his son. She didn't want Samuel, just her payment and cab fare home.
The two men were excited when they first held their son. They dreamed of their future together, watching him grow up into a young man and perhaps starting a family of his own. But what joy they had was ended when they went to the Belgian consulate for Samuel's passport. The Belgian government refused to issue one, and without a passport, Samuel couldn't be with his fathers.
The bureaucrats said they had no regulations regarding surrogacy. It was neither banned nor allowed. They simply had nothing on the books. They refused to recognize Laurent as the father and told the couple that little Samuel couldn't have a passport. Which effectively meant he couldn't have his family either.
As for Samuel, well, the bureaucrats weren't concerned about him. Laurent and Peter would have to figure out what to do with their son. All the men knew was that they couldn't take him home, but neither could they live in Ukraine.
The horrified, grieving couple found a family that would take care of Samuel -- for a fee. The distraught couple returned to Belgium to try work through the bureaucratic maze. But at each step of the way, they were stymied. They gave Belgian courts DNA proof that Laurent was the boy's father. The bureaucrats were unmoving and uncaring. None of it mattered. They didn't have regulations and no one would help. Meanwhile Samuel was growing up without his family.
A year later, the situation suddenly became urgent. The family that was caring for Samuel told the fathers that they would no longer do so. Perhaps they felt they were getting attached to the smiling little boy. Perhaps they just got tired of caring for him. They made it clear; if Laurent didn't come for his son, they would abandon the boy at an orphanage.
With the courts unwilling to help, with their pleas to stone-faced bureaucrats being ignored, the fathers concocted a plan of sheer desperation, one doomed to failure from the start. Like most parents, they would do whatever was necessary to be with their son. With their backs to the wall, what other option did they have?
The fathers flew to Ukraine with a female friend. She agreed to pretend she was Samuel's mother and drive across the border with him. It failed. She was arrested. And little Samuel was sent off to an orphanage.
Samuel is just one of many children in the home, taken care of by a professional staff that can't afford to love any one child. For over a year this has been Samuel's "home." All that time, his fathers fought for him and kept his nursery waiting for him.
Like many parents who had lost a child, they found it hard to enter the empty room. The emptiness of the room, like the emptiness in their hearts, was too much for them to bear.
In some ways, this was worse than actual death; Samuel was in a bureaucratically created state of living death. Though alive, he was forbidden to be with his fathers, or to sleep in his own room. He was forbidden from having the loving arms of his fathers hug him, or from watching them make funny faces at him, trying to make him giggle. He was denied the normal, bonding and love that every child needs for two years.
Laurent and Peter pleaded with the Belgian government to give the boy a tourist visa so he could be with them, while they try find anyone in the system who would help them. They were turned down for that as well.
Recently, they were in court again. However, this time, the judge confirmed that Laurent is Samuel's father. He told the Foreign Ministry to issue a passport. The thrilled fathers told their friends that they would be applying for a passport for Samuel as quickly as possible.
Literally, within a few hours of that announcement, the Belgian government announced that it would appeal the decision. Nor would they issue a passport for Samuel. The government would continue the fight to prevent Samuel from being with his fathers.
The bureaucrats were worried about regulations, restrictions and processes. They were not worried about the small boy separated from his parents -- perhaps they simply didn't care. Samuel took his first steps without his parents seeing them. He has learned Ukrainian, instead of French. And he learned to live without the love of a family, not because he doesn't have one, but because the Belgian government was intent on denying his family to him.
Then the "Egyptian" miracle repeated. A Facebook page was set up in French, and then the Moorfield Storey Institute set up one in English. People were urged to sign petitions and to send protest e-mails to the nearest Belgian consulate. The media, both mainstream and gay, were told of the fate of these men and their son. The protests for justice mounted and the miracle followed.
On Friday, February 18, the Belgian Foreign Minister, Steven Vanacker, announced a reversal in policy. Hours before his department was appealing the court ruling, something he said he knew nothing about. Earlier they were refusing to issue the passport. Now, he said, the passport would be issued "in accordance with the court order."
Vanacker claimed that government had no regulations regarding surrogacy and excused their past actions by attacking surrogacy and those who help bring couples like Peter and Laurent together with would-be surrogates. Vanacker claimed "exploitation" was possible, which of course it is, as it is in any human endeavor, including those of Mr. Vanacker's department. But exploitation is more likely in any market where exchange is either illegal or treated as if it were illegal, which is how the Belgian government treated surrogacy.
He also complained that there "are often intermediaries who grow rich in a scandalous way." Peter and Laurent obviously thought any intermediaries they used were worth every cent.
Laurent and Peter just wanted their son. No one could explain how denying Samuel a passport addressed the complaints of the Foreign Ministry. In the end, the Belgian government faced down the social network. The social network won.
Laurent turned to his Facebook page, the site where the protests for baby Samuel were organized, to express his appreciation. He wrote:
It's over... We won. There will be no appeal and Samuel will receive all the papers to bring him back next week. The administration will not delay, they may be there next weekend. It is hard to believe, I am writing this with tears in my eyes. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone...really.
If the response on the Facebook page is any indication, Laurent and Peter weren't the only ones crying with joy.
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