By Fred Dickey
Originally published October 29, 2012
Lisa Jenkins is a woman who can give birth to a baby and then walk away with hardly a backward glance.
It’s not that she doesn’t care. She cares for a different reason than would a mother. In the case above, Jenkins is not a mother, she’s a gestational surrogate, which means she has babies for other parents. Through her help, other people can see their own children born when they otherwise might remain childless. She also cares, one can reasonably assume, for the fee she receives for doing it.
Surrogate motherhood is a byproduct of advances in fertility obstetrics that have enabled physicians to unite a father’s sperm with a mother’s egg (or eggs) in a petri dish, then implant the embryo in the womb of a willing woman who will carry the fetus to term. In effect, the surrogate is a woman willing to sign on as an incubator.
Jenkins, a 35-year-old San Marcos wife and mother to three young sons, has found a role that she believes helps both other people and her own family. She’s a well-spoken, friendly woman with a ready smile and inviting personality. Her day job in San Diego is as an international relocation specialist. Her husband is a retail manager in Oceanside.
Five years ago, her life became dramatically more involved when she saw a local advertisement for surrogate mothers. Responding, she started a side career that led to the births of two girls to the same German parents, now ages 4 and 2, and one girl to a single man in Spain, born last May. The man himself had gone to a bank for an egg donor. Jenkins remembers what the Spaniard said to her. “I’m not getting any younger and my parents would love to have grandkids.”
The most intriguing question for a surrogate is what emotional ties she forms for the baby she carries in her womb. “When I was carrying my first I had those concerns, but when I saw the parents take her in their arms, and saw the joy on their faces, I realized that the child was not mine, but theirs. I was able to let go.”
Explaining the emotional tug that surrogacy gives her, Jenkins says, “I’m in awe over what I have with my own kids, and I think others should have that, too. I love being pregnant: the kicks of the baby, the whole experience.”
She maintains friendly relations with her surrogacy parents, including a visit with them last year in Germany, and often receives photos of the children. “Some parents, I’ve been told, take the child, say thank you very much, and disappear. Not mine.”
The path to become a surrogate can be daunting. First, the prospective surrogate must pass muster with the agency that acts as a go-between for surrogate and to-be parents. That requires background checks, emotional and character evaluations, and physical and home-life fitness to carry out the pregnancy. Additionally, applicants-cum-parents and surrogate must be acceptable to each other, and either has the option to back out at any time before egg implantation.
The agency that Jenkins contacted and subsequently “went to work for” is A Perfect Match in La Mesa. Personnel there make all the arrangements between parents and surrogates, then channel payments and supervise health care for fetus and surrogate.
There are rules that surrogates must follow: “If your doctor says to go on bed rest and you don’t, you can be held [financially] liable if anything bad happens. You have to keep an eye on that contract and what it says. Mainly, you just do what you’d normally do if it was your own child. However, you have to be a little bit more careful because it’s not a natural type of conception. You’re implanting a baby into a foreign area and you have to take it easy. A lot of doctors tell you three days bed rest when you do the [egg] transfer.
“I kept the parents updated. Their attitude was, ‘You know what you’re doing.’ However, some contracts cover what you eat; some parents will tell [surrogates] to eat certain kinds of food, or no meat. That’s the kind of thing you have to decide when you’re picking each other. If you don’t agree with what they’re looking for, you decline.”
Jenkins does not know what parents pay the agency, and says her contract forbids divulging what she is paid. However, when asked if $30,000 to $40,000 is the correct range, she acknowledged that as accurate.
Additionally, she is reimbursed for time lost from her job, and for any pregnancy costs not covered by insurance. She is paid an initial amount, then monthly payments, then a final sum when the baby is born. If she incurs any additional expenses, those are covered also. By contract, she also releases all parental rights.
Since Jenkins’ last two surrogate births were by caesarean section, she was required by doctor’s orders to take eight weeks off work. For that period, she went on state disability. Asked if the state arched an eyebrow at that, she said both the state and insurance companies do not question the nature or circumstances of a pregnancy. If disability payments do not equal her job salary, the parents make up the difference.
In the event of her death, the parents would have the right to harvest the living baby from her body. If a lifesaving issue arose, she says her family, doctors, the parents and the agency would confer on a course of action. However, she says the age-old rule would prevail that the life of the mother comes first.
To prepare her body for the implanting of the egg or eggs, and to cease egg production by her own body, she had to take shots every day for a month and also abstain from sex during that time. There is also the issue that hovers over every in-vitro pregnancy — eggs gone wild. Jenkins tells of one of her surrogate colleagues who, in three pregnancies, first had twins, then triplets, then quadruplets. If multiple eggs are implanted because of concerns over their strength, and result in more than one child, the surrogate would be paid additionally.
Post-delivery, she said that some parents ask that mother’s milk be shipped to them, but that all three of her babies have gone directly to formula feeding. Upon the advice of a physician, she found an interesting way to dry up her own milk. She puts green cabbage leaves in her bra, and in two days, she is dry. “It really works,” she says, somewhat to her own amazement. (To recent mothers reading this: No charge.)
She says there is an age limit at her agency of between 21 and 36 to become a surrogate, adding, however, that she knows of one surrogate of age 39. “If your doctor says you’re ready to get pregnant, that’s all you need.”
Surrogates who work for her agency get together for lunch once a month to discuss experiences. She knows of two women who developed gestational diabetes, and thus were disqualified for further surrogacies, including the 39-year-old. “Another girl was 22 weeks along and her cervix started to open, and it would have led to miscarriage. So, they had to sew it closed, and she was on strict bed rest the remainder of the pregnancy.”
When Jenkins first started, there were about 15 other surrogates in her agency, which she says is one of several in the county. Now, she says, that surrogate number has grown to as many as 50, and there is still a waiting list for surrogate mothers. One can only wonder if the tight job market has contributed to the growing number of volunteers, which includes both single women and mothers.
Jenkins says a large majority of others to whom she explains her role are understanding and approving, and the support she gets from her husband and sons is total. “On the second C-section birth, my husband was there alone with me, and he told me later, ‘I was awe-struck to hold that tiny baby in my arms, then give her to the parents and see the looks on their faces.’”
She is often asked what her kids think. “I tell them that I say to my boys, ‘Your mommy’s giving a gift to someone who can’t have a baby.’ They are proud of it, and tell others, ‘Mommy’s having a baby for someone in Spain.’ ”
When she is pregnant and meets others with her husband, she says, “It’s a running joke: People say, ‘Oh, I see you’re pregnant.’ Then, my husband says, ‘Yes, she is, but it’s not mine.’ We love to see the looks on their faces.”
Not everyone has been sold on the idea, including, initially, her own father. “My dad was really against it the first time. He didn’t want to know anything about it. He didn’t speak to me the whole pregnancy. After the birth, he said, ‘I can’t believe you gave up your own child.’ I said, ‘It wasn’t my child.’ He had assumed it was my egg. I told him ‘I’m just the oven that was baking the cookies, and that’s it.’ Finally, he said, ‘I get it now.’ ”
Others are not so easily convinced. “There are some people I come across who do judge.” As she says this, the distaste comes through in her voice. “A lot of them think it’s against God’s plan. They’re usually the Christian type, but they’re also the ones who believe: That’s the way I think, and that’s the only way. A lot of people don’t give us a chance to explain it [surrogacy]. But I think it’s not worth arguing about. I know what I’m doing is right.”
As with almost every public question involving pregnancy these days, the issue of abortion is always in view. Jenkins says that in accordance with her contract, she would submit to an abortion if her agency told her to, so long as it was within the law and her doctor agreed. She has no philosophical or religious compunctions against it, and, “I would feel bad to give birth to a child that was not wanted.”
In the event of miscarriage, the contract and compensation would cease upon the surrogate’s medical release. If any part of the contract had to be arbitrated, then Jenkins says the agency would fill that role. (However, where the agency’s primary legal loyalty lies has a tinge of vagueness.)
A stillbirth would be treated as a full-term birth and paid accordingly, barring any careless conduct on the part of the surrogate.
The parents for whom she labors—in both senses of the word—are from the U.S. and other countries, especially Europe where Jenkins says laws make it difficult to have a surrogacy baby. California, on the other hand, has laws friendly to the process.
The reasons for would-be parents to seek surrogacy almost always result from physical inability to have children. However, it’s not unheard of that parents who have the financial means simply want someone else to bear the burden of pregnancy and the birthing process.
Jenkins says that if the parents should decide for whatever reason that they do not want their child, or if they should die or become incapacitated, every contract requires the naming of third parties, usually family members, who agree to take responsibility for the infant.
However, enforcing contract or child welfare laws between countries is a pretty iffy proposition. One OB GYN physician familiar with the agency-surrogacy process says it is not unknown that an unwanted baby is turned over to public welfare with resulting taxpayer cost, especially in the case of premature babies or babies with birth defects.
Will Jenkins sign up for a fourth surrogate pregnancy? After taking a year off, a respite required after a C-section, she says yes. She enjoys being pregnant, she loves helping people have families, and the money is good. From her standpoint, what’s not to like?
If you’re waiting for this columnist to make some concluding observation about all this, well, that’s not going to happen. I know that as a wary member of the male gender, pregnancy is not a topic on which readers are clamoring for my judgment. Besides, I am smugly pleased with the modest, but enjoyable, role I have three times played in the process.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.