I first met Dawn Bennett in 2007 at my fertility doctor's office. Her long black hair was pulled back from a face with almond-shaped eyes and a casual smile, as if the idea of carrying my baby in her body was no bigger deal than a night of babysitting. With five failed IVFs, a trio of miscarriages, and my 41st birthday behind me, I didn't know whether to shake the hand of this potential surrogate mother or hug her, so great was my fear that she would disappear if I made one wrong move.
That early spring day, the bees busy pollinating orange blossoms, my FSH level (a monthly test that measures a woman's fertility) had fallen dramatically; lower is better and mine was 14. Since most fertility doctors won't do IVF on a woman with a level higher than that, I felt breathless with hope. In another miracle of timing, Dawn and I discovered that we had both started our menstrual cycles two days earlier—which meant that our bodies were already synchronized. From a biological perspective, we were idling at the starting line, ready to go.
"I have to talk to my husband and kids first," said Dawn, whom I had met through a mutual acquaintance, "but I think we should do it." As a long-time television news journalist who had investigated bank fraud, identity theft and corrupt politicians, I knew that "just do it" might not be the smartest slogan when it comes to outsourcing your reproductive needs, but logic was steamrollered by desire. Applying the usual metrics for deciding to move forward with surrogacy—chiefly, a legal contract, a psychological examination, and a detailed, pre-set fee schedule—would have been the reasonable thing, but if things went well, the takeaway from this meeting would be a baby, something I ached for. And so, after a quick conversation with my skeptical husband, we decided to go ahead on faith.
The number of babies born via surrogate mothers in the United States has almost doubled in the last decade, according to the American Society Of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), a trade group that tracks gestational surrogate births. In 2004, the number was 738, compared to 1,448 in 2010, but since ASRM tracks only those surrogacy arrangements that are reported by clinics that belong to The Society For Assisted Reproductive Technologies (an ASRM affiliate), some slip through the cracks. Andrew Vorzimer, a reproductive law attorney in Los Angeles who has been practicing since 1994, says his office handled more than 400 U.S. based surrogacy arrangements in 2011 alone, nearly doubling business from 2010.
"People used to only be comfortable with traditional family-building," he says. "That, or adoption, was all there really was. But now, people can get their minds around that it might take the involvement of three or four parties to get their baby. And then, there's the Internet."
Type the words "surrogate mother" into Google and more than seven million hits come up. You can peruse the Wikipedia entry or a website called "What It Costs" (ballpark estimate: $100,000), and then watch a surrogacy spoof by Saturday Night Live writer Christine Nangle ("I hate babies and I love getting fat!" are her qualifications for the job).
But the bulk of the hits are agencies advertising for surrogates, ads that run the gamut from straightforward—Surrogates Wanted!—to bizarre. One Craigslist ad featured a female Super Hero urging, "Become A Super Surrogate!" The combined explosion of the Internet and reproductive medicine has fueled the commercialization of what used to be a very personal business.
"Instead of sitting across a table from someone, you Skype or see a video on YouTube, and that serves as the consultation," says Vorzimer. "It's not about relationships anymore, it's about business—getting couples in the door and getting their checks."
Plenty of intended parents (IPs in the parlance of surrogacy and adoption) are also taking their search for a surrogate online, trying to avoid the costs of using an agency.
"Looking For Babysitter For 9 intense Months" writes one couple. "We're normal, and boring, and stable: Volvo driving, casserole burning, trips to Lego Land..." The writer goes on to request a surrogate willing to terminate a pregnancy for medical reasons, and closes with a friendly, "If you're our girl, please get in touch!"
This kind of electronic outreach might be quick, convenient, and cheap, but it comes with significant risk. Shirley Zager, a mother via surrogacy herself and director of the support group Organization of Parents Through Surrogacy, says the sheer number of choices now out there coupled with the intricacies of a surrogacy agreement—such as when a surrogate must abstain from sex or how much of a bonus will be paid for twins—can be as frustrating as a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
"If they're thoughtful and do their homework, they can put the pieces together and navigate it," says Zager. "But not everyone is that sophisticated. They can be exploited and get hurt."
Newlyweds Donna and Yaniv Calif of Las Vegas, Nevada wanted a child of their own. Donna had two girls from her first marriage, but a hysterectomy had ended her ability to carry another. Since they couldn't afford to use a surrogacy agency (the average cost is between $85,000-$115,000) the Califs advertised on Surromomsonline, a popular resource center, hoping to save money on their baby hunt. A woman from New York responded, saying she would carry their child for $15,000.
"We didn't know anything," says Donna. "We were using all our savings and everything was so on the wire. We jumped at the chance."
The Califs flew the woman, whom I'll call Jane, to California, a surrogacy-friendly state. There, Jane passed a psychological screening test and signed a legal contract drawn up by a surrogacy attorney. Via IVF, Donna and Yaniv produced three embryos, which their doctor transferred into Jane's womb. Medically, everything went well, but something didn't feel right.
"Jane was always asking for money in advance," says Donna. "We both had misgivings, but we were already invested, so we just kept believing in her."
Between travel expenses, the surrogate's initial payment, and medical bills, the Califs had spent over $30,000 by the time Jane flew back to New York, so when she called to say she was pregnant, Donna and Yaniv were cautiously optimistic. But when Jane sent her pregnancy test results to the Calif's doctor, he told them he thought they were fakes. Frightened and confused, the Califs called their surrogate, who then dropped any pretense of politeness.
"She said, 'Look, I am pregnant,'" remembers Donna, "and if you don't pay me another $400 by Thursday, I'm going to get an abortion." Held hostage by the remote hope Jane was indeed carrying their baby, the Califs paid up. But when the woman kept changing her story and demanding more money, Donna finally tracked down Jane's mother, who ensured them her daughter was not pregnant. The Califs now believe Jane never took any of the expensive hormone shots and pills necessary to sustain a surrogate pregnancy and had never planned on delivering a child.
"She killed our three healthy embryos for money," Donna says, and Yaniv laughs, gallows humor fueled by the bitterness of being scammed.