But maternal attachment is hard to predict, especially when dealing with a woman’s most intimate experience. California gestational surrogate Melissa Cook last year filed a lawsuit against the biological father of the triplets she was carrying after he demanded she abort one of them. She had signed a 75-page contract permitting him to “reduce” a multiple pregnancy and now faces financial ruin for her refusal. Cook told The New York Post, “I bonded with these kids.”
Many states, including New York, Indiana, and Michigan, ban commercial surrogacy, while other states either have laws prohibiting compensation or contracts, or no laws at all. California is unique because it allows for paid surrogate contracts that give IPs legal, full-custody rights to the child prior to birth. That’s different from adoption, where birth mothers give up parental rights only after children are born.
The internet is now littered with ads seeking women in states that allow paid surrogacy: “Earn up to $67,000!” “Guaranteed speedy match!” “Perfect for my college loans,” and “Surrogacy helped our Military Family buy a home.”
The surrogacy agencies placing these ads are unregulated. Some agencies pop up for a few months and then disappear. Many fail to screen would-be parents. Scandals and fraud are rampant. In 2012, authorities caught San Diego surrogacy broker Theresa Erickson running an international baby-selling ring. She told NBC San Diego her case represented the “tip of the iceberg” of a corrupt industry.
Men Having Babies, the nonprofit that hosts surrogacy conferences, recently drafted “ethical guidelines” that will purportedly rein in abuses. The guidelines proclaim a woman’s right to act as a surrogate and call for uniform laws establishing enforceable contracts between surrogates and “intended parents.” At one New York City conference, state legislator Brad Hoylman, a gay father, encouraged “iron-clad, enforceable agreements.” He told men, “The more we press our political leaders, the more willing they will be to consider it.”
But iron-clad, enforceable agreements often put women and babies at risk. The Center for Bioethics and Culture’s Jennifer Lahl says too often “things go terribly wrong.” Some surrogates suffer health problems. Some IPs bully them. One 41-page redacted contract, sent by a California surrogate, required her to “substantially reduce” soda and processed and fast-food intake: She had to get permission for hair dye, herbal supplements, and routine teeth cleaning. The contract gave IPs the legal right to “make all fetal reduction decisions,” including “therapeutic” abortion, killing one or two triplets, and killing children in the womb “for any medical reason, or if there is any indication of any physical or neurological defect or abnormality.”
HEATHER RICE DECIDED to try commercial surrogacy after seeing an ad on a parenting website. At 19, the Arizona single mother of two was working two low-paying jobs. She wanted to stay home with her children. Rice’s first experience was “amazing”—she conceived easily and birthed twin girls for a couple, earning $1,750 a month. “I thought, I can do this again,” she said in a phone interview.
But Rice’s second experience for an infertile, heterosexual couple turned bitter. She miscarried twice—the second baby, a girl diagnosed with Down syndrome, died at 31 weeks. Rice’s third pregnancy for the couple was twin boys. One died at 8 weeks. Then a routine 20-week ultrasound revealed the other boy had a rare brain cleft. During the ultrasound, Rice says, “Mom just got up and left the room.”
Rice’s mothering instincts kicked in when the genetic mother called her a week later and told her to abort: “To her it was just an embryo made in a lab. To me it was a living, kicking, moving human being inside of me.” Naming the boy “M.J.,” Rice hired a lawyer and began researching his condition, feeling hopeful after talking with brain experts and sending them medical scans.
At 28 weeks the boy’s cleft had closed in what Rice called “a miracle from God.” The parents indicated they wanted him, saying they had set up a nursery and bought baby clothes, but when Rice went into labor, the mother never showed up at the hospital. Rice called the father crying and begging him to come see the boy and cut the cord. He came, cut the cord, and took the baby.
Rice, now 32, has no idea what happened to “M.J.” She recently found the couple on Facebook but saw no trace of him. She suspects they decided on adoption. Especially on Mother’s Day, the day “M.J.” was born, Rice wonders, “Is he hungry? Is he dirty? Is he OK?” She says, “I’m still determined to find him one day.”
Kids as commodities
Catholics have clear teaching opposing IVF and surrogacy. Evangelicals aren’t as clear. Some accept surrogates helping infertile heterosexual couples have biological children, provided they do not have abortions. The CBC’s Jennifer Lahl said many couples tell her they received their pastors’ consent and even sought financial support from their congregations.
But have those who applaud use of surrogates thought it through? Children born to surrogate mothers are more likely to suffer emotional problems, according to a 2013 University of Cambridge study. Jessica Kern was “devastated” at age 17 when she learned from her medical records that she was “bought” for $10,000 in a traditional surrogacy arrangement. She describes an abusive upbringing and further rejection after she met her biological mother. At a recent CBC event, Kern said many people tell her “you should just be grateful you’re here … as if that makes it all OK and we shouldn’t look deeper into these issues.”