Jennifer Allen, a Canadian surrogacy champion who helped well over 100 families achieve their dreams of having children, has died at age 36.
After being a surrogate four times herself, Allen founded JA Surrogacy Canada in an effort to create a less “transactional,” more supportive environment for both “intended parents” and the women serving as their surrogates, said Michelle Avery, the agency’s chief operating officer and Allen’s best friend.
Allen believed strongly that everyone who wants a baby should be able to have one, but “she couldn’t have everybody’s baby,” Avery said.
“So her goal was that everybody that came to her, she was going to help them to build their families and do it with transparency and integrity and compassion.”
Allen died in Calgary on July 28. Her family is not specifying the cause of death, except to say that she died in her sleep and it was unexpected, Avery said.
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She leaves behind her husband, Phil Allen, their 10-year-old daughter Abigail Maria Allen and their nine-year-old son Daniel John Louis Allen.
Her funeral was being held on Thursday in Calgary.
In Canada, surrogacy is based on an “altruistic” model, meaning that surrogates are volunteering to carry babies for the people wanting to have children, known as “intended parents.” Surrogates cannot be paid for their services, but can be reimbursed for expenses, including travel to medical appointments and lost income if the pregnancy renders them unable to work.
Based in Calgary but with staff working remotely throughout the country, JA Canada matches intended parents with a surrogate and provides services and support before, throughout and after the pregnancy.
Allen created the agency as a “village” that allows the intended parents “to build relationships with their surrogates and to really get to know their surrogates while their surrogates are carrying their babies and build a lifelong friendship with these women,” Avery said.
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“Everybody was a part of the village. You weren’t just a number on a list. You weren’t just somebody that was hanging out on hold waiting for your profile to be chosen by a (surrogacy) candidate.”
Since Allen started the company in late 2018, it has facilitated the birth of about 135 babies, Avery said.
One of those babies is Leah Lipkowitz’s six-month-old daughter Olivia.
“(Now) the family is complete,” said Lipkowitz, who lives in Montreal with Olivia, her husband Jeremie Lasry and her 14-year-old son Nadav.
When Lipkowitz gave birth to Nadav almost 15 years ago, she suffered complications and almost died during delivery.
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When she remarried and wanted to have another child, she turned to surrogacy because it would be too dangerous for her to carry another baby herself.
But plans with two different surrogates didn’t work out.
“I truly believe I would have given up and Olivia probably wouldn’t be here,” Lipkowitz said.
But when she posted her frustrations online, Allen reached out to her and matched her with a wonderful surrogate from Toronto who has become like a “sister,” Lipkowitz said.
“We are extremely close. You know, even after the birth, she came twice already to Montreal. I’ve gone to Toronto. Our kids are close,” she said.
None of it would have happened without Allen’s determination to help, Lipkowitz said.
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“She was just a force to be reckoned with,” she said, noting that she had become good friends with Allen and was devastated to hear she had died.
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“Her legacy lives on in the babies that she helps to bring to this earth,” Lipkowitz said.
“And that lives on forever, because the kids of those kids and the kids of those kids, that’s her legacy. She left the world different and better than she found it.”
Allen’s death has shocked the fertility community, said Carolynn Dube, executive director of Fertility Matters Canada, based in Moncton, N.B.
“She has certainly left her mark on the Canadian fertility world. She has helped so many families who are really struggling at a time when the future of their family is uncertain,” Dube said.
“She certainly left an incredible impression and changed the lives of so many people not only in Canada but across the globe.”
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Dr. Ari Baratz, president of Infertility Matters Canada and an infertility treatment specialist in Toronto, referred many of his patients who decided to pursue surrogacy to Allen’s agency.
“I was always very excited that they were in good hands,” Baratz said.
“My patients would typically reference not just JA Surrogacy, they’d reference Jennifer,” he said.
“She was running quite a large agency with many moving parts and you always knew that if you needed to speak to Jennifer directly … she was there.”
“She was always advocating for advancing fertility care in Canada across the board,” he said, noting that Allen helped many LGBTQ couples to fulfil their dreams of having a baby.
Allen wasn’t just a colleague, Baratz said — she was also a friend.
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She had a great sense of humour, was open-minded, “super intelligent” and determined to solve any problems that intended parents and surrogates experienced, he said.
Michelle Avery remembers her best friend the same way.
“She had the biggest heart,” Avery said. “Every call we had, (it) didn’t matter if it was work-related or personal, it ended with ‘I love you.’”
Allen was also fiercely devoted to her husband Phil, she said.
“He was the man of her dreams,” Avery said. “They were going to renew their vows because they didn’t get the wedding that they wanted when they got married.”
Her children were “also her world.”
“She did so much to make sure that they had amazing experiences and opportunities, and loved them so deeply,” Avery said.