Our ante-natal babysitter, by the parents of surrogate triplets

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It was a matching of opposites: the grandmother and the childless pair; the surgeon and the pub cook; the Orthodox Jewish couple and the Gentile mother.

But yesterday Julie and Anthony Cohn could not contain their gratitude for Anne Keep, the 41-year-old who acted as the surrogate mother of their triplets Albert, George and Henry. "I believed some wonderful thing would happen and it has," said Mr Cohn.

"We didn't think we would ever find anyone as wonderful and giving, as superb and selfless as Anne," said Mrs Cohn. "She is completely full of goodness and love."

Mrs Keep, who has three grandchildren of her own, acted as "antenatal babysitter" after being put in touch with the Cohns through Cots (Childlessness Overcome Through Surrogacy), which puts childless couples and surrogates together.

Overcoming odds of 1000-1, the triplets were conceived after doctors implanted two eggs taken from Mrs Cohn and fertilised with her husband's sperm. In Mrs Keep's womb, one of the eggs split into identical twins.

The children were born in Birmingham in March, weighing between two and three pounds each, but have doubled in weight after moving to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, London. Yesterday they gurgled as they hugged their teddy bears.

Speaking to the media for the first time since the birth, the Cohns said they had struck up an instant rapport with Mrs Keep and would be keeping in close touch "for the rest of our lives". Mrs Cohn, a 27-year-old lecturer who was born without a womb, said: "We have learnt so much from her about giving and about selflessness. She is a fantastic woman."

Mrs Keep was only paid her expenses. Commercial surrogacy was banned in Britain after Kim Cottonwas paid pounds 6,500 in 1985 to have a baby for an infertile couple.

The Cohns said they felt moral critics of surrogacy were unfair and failed to understand the plight of the childless couple. "The only surrogacy we really know about is the one we went through," said Mr Cohn. His wife added: "It's unfair for people to comment on moral grounds if they haven't gone through it. Anne is a person who has given so much. If anyone looked at our last year-and-a-half, they would see we have no qualms whatsoever."

Surrogacy and fertility treatment have been a vexed question in the Jewish community for some time. For the Orthodox, Jewishness is transmitted only through biological mothers. But it is not clear from traditional Jewish teaching whether a mother is the woman whose egg grows into a baby, or the woman whose womb nourishes it, if the two roles are separated as they are here.

Fraybin Gottlieb, assistant registrar at the London Beth Din, the court of the Chief Rabbi, said yesterday: "It is a very sensitive issue ... and one on which there are various opinions. There is no one single religious ruling either in this country or abroad."

Egg donors should be paid up to pounds 450, the head of a leading fertility clinic said yesterday. Professor Ian Craft, director of the London Gynaecology and Fertility Centre, said the current pounds 15 fee plus travelling expenses allowed for donation was unrealistic in today's commercial world.

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