In France, the words “merchandizing of the body" or "slavery" come up when you talk about gestational surrogacy. In another world, that of the blogs of American surrogate mothers, people only tell happy stories.
It was to protest surrogacy that the “Protest March for All” mobilized at the beginning of October. In the Parisian march, the protesters talked with concern about a "return of slavery:” If a law one day authorizes this practice, it will be unstable and poor women will "rent" their wombs.
It's an intuitive argument that works by default. If not for the money, why would you want to carry the baby of a couple you don’t know? Truly, why? Pregnancy is (also) difficult, anxiety-producing and painful.
In the United States, where surrogacy is allowed — in California and Texas, legislation is particularly favorable — there exists, however, a profile of a surrogate mother, distinctive and very far from cliches.
A common point among these Americans: they blog. What they tell us about surrogacy is always extremely positive. And for good reason: Their sites are as much diaries as they are promotional windows.
These women are married with children, educated, well-off. They have found a meaning for their lives and a new family. Like Kelly, probably the most famous of them.
Kelly, Gay Rights Activist
Kelly, a teacher in a university psychology department, is married to Rick, and they have three children. She lives outside of Sacramento, California. Her family is fine the way it is: They no longer want to get up at night, take care of a fourth child, raise it and put money aside for college.
Two other characteristics make her a good candidate for surrogacy: She loves being pregnant—and she says it's not pathological—and she is very sympathetic to the rights of homosexuals and thinks her uterus has a role to play.
In 2008, she contacts one of the "big agencies" in her area, whose job it is to supervise the surrogates. The one she chooses works a lot with gay couples. Kelly passes the medical and psychological tests. Approved, she receives a packet with the profiles of the candidate couples while her profile is also sent to them. This step is joyful, "like Christmas.”
Her first “journey" is arranged with George and Sanj. When she meets them, it's love at first sight. Reading the blogs shows that friendship seems to be a determining factor — in order to get involved, the surrogate needs to feel a big dose of empathy. Another blogger, Mandy, says about the mother of the child she is carrying: “I love her. She loves me. Enough said.”
It's because they love the future parents, called Intended Parents or IP, that the pleasure is possible — double pleasure, actually. Throughout the pregnancy, they greedily watch the emotions of the couple becoming parents, like spectators of a film. They are also the ultimate source of those emotions, even the heroines.
Stuffing Bras with Frozen Peas
When the process fails, they feel hopeless and responsible. On her blog, Carrie-Lynn describes the sadness that she feels at the idea of having to tell a couple that the implantation of eggs hasn't worked.
When it works, a photo of a positive pregnancy test ("This is a big fat positive," they write) is sent to the couple. This moment constitutes the emotional high point of their story. Inside they’re clapping their hands. At this stage, the bloggers have all pretty much told the same story: painful injections of Lupron and progesterone to prepare the uterus; the transfer of eggs to the inside of their uterus at the clinic—two embryos, most of the time; the drawn-out wait, to maximize the chances of implantation.
What you notice is that throughout the process, all the women are crazily enthusiastic. All the difficult aspects of the pregnancy are put into perspective. Sometimes, this seems almost forced. About the painful lactation that follows delivery, one of them raves: “I can enjoy a few days … stuffing my bra with frozen peas (it is totally fun).”
As for Mandy, she sends the future mother photos of her enormous belly with the words “Hi Mommy!" written on it.
Between $0 and $30,000 in "Compensation"
With the money that she is going to receive, the blogger, who lives in Pennsylvania, imagines taking her whole family to Disney World. Mandy is one of the few to talk about money.
The bloggers talk little about the contract. The back and forth between lawyers and the sum of the financial "compensation" clearly vary. Some elements here and there allow us to establish a range: between $0 (like Veronika) and $30,000 per pregnancy, in general.
Gayle East, from the Surrogate Solutions agency, explains that “first-time surrogates are typically paid between $20,000 and $22.000. Surrogates with successful past births can earn up to $30,000.” The agency’s commission “typically runs between $7,000 and $15,000.”* She guarantees that that sum of money is not hard to get together in the United States, and that these clients are not just rich couples.
"Surrogacy Blues" and Consequences
For George and Sanj, Kelly gave birth to identical twin girls. The connection lasted beyond the birth: Kelly receives photos and is invited to birthdays. Despite that, she suffered from "surrogacy blues.” “You feel empty in a way,” like after the wedding you’ve spent a year planning or getting “fired from a job [you] loved.”
“[M]ost people, including my friends and strangers would see me crying and might think I missed the babies. Not so. What I THOUGHT it was, was me missing the contact with the IPs, but that wasn't it either.”*
This depression is classic; to treat it, many of surrogate mothers do one surrogacy after another. In the interval, they feel the lack of that particular bond with the parents when friendship and care come together. Kelly did two other surrogacies very quickly: twins again, and a little boy. Added to her own children, she has eight kids in total.
Her body has been devastated. In a blog post, she forces herself to post a photo of her puckered belly. It's a courageous act for her. Further on, she wonders whether or not she will resort to plastic surgery.
She relates that her husband Rick, clearly less present than he was during the first surrogacy, tells her that she has to choose between a new stomach and a pool in the backyard. Toward the end of her blog, Kelly will announce their divorce, which “has nothing to do with the surrogacy.” And she will present her new love: Erin, a lesbian and mother of a little boy. Never a dull moment with her.
A Type of Extreme Babysitting
When she isn't talking about personal things, Kelly does "positive PR" for surrogacy. She talks about the celebrities who have used it (Sarah Jessica Parker and Ricky Martin) and struggles constantly against the cliches spread about surrogate mothers:
-She repeats frequently that a need for money can’t be a reason to jump into a project as crazy as this one. “We’d make more money working part time at McDonald’s,” says another blogger.
She clarifies that she is educated and completely psychologically stable, and reminds us that the agencies choose “stable” profiles. “Online I’ve seen some women that I wouldn’t leave a pet with … searching to become a surrogate, choose[ing] to go independent.”
The agencies also allow her to forestall any problems, she says: The surrogate mother and the couple that "move forward" together decide beforehand what they will do in the case of Down’s syndrome or another illness detected in utero.
Kelly responds to typical questions. "How can you give up kids that grew inside you?" people ask her. The child she carries wasn’t hers to give up, she responds—neither her eggs nor the sperm of her husband.
According to her, the difference in the feeling is immediate, evident, physical, mental. During the pregnancy, the surrogate mother doesn't make any plans for the future. “Think of it as extreme babysitting.”
And her children? Her children experienced her pregnancies well, and it has opened their minds, she says.
A Gang of Girls at Gay Pride Day
What you also notice in reading Kelly's blog and that of others is that surrogacy is a tipping point into a new world.
According to her, surrogate mothers are never the same again. They often keep an eye on the adoptive family. Veronika says that she was jealous when she learned that the parents for whom she carried a child were going to do the same thing with another surrogate (since she wanted to stop.)
Friendships form among bloggers. They talk in their comment sections, on forums, or on private Facebook pages. They meet each other—dinner, Gay Pride in San Francisco. They invite each other to their weddings. They wear activist t-shirts. When there are several of them, they count how many children they've all had.
Surrogacy can also cause a change in personality. Melissa, a former pastor's wife, says that her pregnancy was the first factor in her break with the members of her parish. Ever since, she has been surrounded by “gay couples and liberated women.”*
But others probably got lost along the way. There’s nothing more troubling than those bloggers who stop their story in the middle of their pregnancy. Overnight, there's nothing. That's the case of Emily's blog, whose final entry gives you goose bumps.
Emily: "I'm a Vehicle"
Emily is a tall, thin blonde woman. She is a teacher in a small town in Texas. She has “three … children, two border collies, and one amazing husband.” Her first post is from February 2009. She is getting ready to help a straight couple have a second child. She talks about the disapproval of her loved ones.
“Do they know that this child is not related to me in any way? … Do you they know of the joy I feel when I have a child growing inside me?”
In her belly, there is a girl and a boy. “I am their host, their home, their protector, their nurturer, but never for a single moment have I been their mother.”
She gives birth to twins in November 2009. When she visits them soon afterward, she realizes how strange it is. There isn't even a "subconscious memory," she was “just a vehicle.”
Who cares; she likes it. She starts again. In May 2011, she gives birth to Isabella; she is very happy to have given birth to only one child.
The Blogs without a Happy Ending
In December 2012, she starts her last surrogacy. Emily is expecting twins for the second time. In her last post, which is from November 2013, she is in the last trimester of her pregnancy — and lost.
“My body seems to understand that there are two little humans playing there once more, and she is angry with me!”
“I am afraid my body will give out on me, will not get these babies here safely and on time, and I am afraid that I will fail my IPs. I cannot write, play the piano, enjoy the sunshine. I sit in the darkness of my living room, staring out the window at the light and I am sad.”
Gayle East, the woman who advised Emily through the Surrogate Solution agency, tries to be reassuring: “The twins and Emily are doing well. I don’t know why she stopped blogging suddenly. I’m going to e-mail her so that she can get in contact with you if she wants to.”*
Gayle East says that agencies don't limit the number of surrogacies per woman, as long as the medical and psychological tests are good—and the women are younger than 45. Some surrogate mothers from the agency are now on their fourth surrogacy, she says.
Mandy's blog, the one with pictures of her belly with a message, also ends. She is eight months pregnant, completely happy — and then, nothing more.
*Editor’s Note: This quote, though accurately translated, could not be verified.