Paul and Chantele Montover are high school sweethearts who married in 2013 and decided at age 50 to raise a child together.
“Is there an age limit that you want that?” asked Chantele.
Each had children from previous marriages, but Chantele couldn’t have a baby anymore. So the Cedar Rapids couple placed an advertisement on Craigslist to have a surrogate carry a child for them, using a donor egg and Paul’s sperm.
What followed, the couple says, was a “nightmare.”
A potential gestational carrier from Muscatine responded to the advertisement, a contract was signed and in vitro fertilization was successful. But just weeks later, their relationship with the woman fell apart.
Communication broke down so badly that the 37-year-old surrogate gave birth to twin girls without the Montovers knowing of it.
Born premature, one of the children died a few days after birth. The surrogate was determined to keep the surviving child.
It took several weeks for the Montovers to learn of the birth, precipitating a legal battle that might reach the Iowa Supreme Court.
Their case raises central questions about surrogacy law: Are gestational surrogacy contracts enforceable in Iowa? And is a birth mother who is not genetically related to the child a biological mother?
By statute, surrogacy is legal in Iowa and 44 other states. But a host of legal questions remain.
To the high-profile attorney for the gestational carrier, surrogacy raises troubling issues.
“Such contracts exploit the birth mother and create a class of women as breeders for men to use as they please,” said Harold Cassidy, the New Jersey lawyer who is known for the 1988 case of “Baby M,” in which that state’s Supreme Court ruled that a surrogacy contract with birth mother Mary Beth Whitehead was illegal.
The Montovers say that the gestational carrier, who is identified in court documents only as “T.B.,” voluntarily signed the contract, which promised she would terminate her parental rights and surrender the baby to them after its birth in exchange for $13,000.
She intended to use the money toward her own in vitro fertilization procedure, which she couldn’t afford, according to court records.
The case packs emotional punch on a basic aspect of human nature — the desire to create and raise a baby — while wrestling with the questions of whether such arrangements amount to selling babies or exploiting poor women.
“This is the first case that is being litigated with the potential to be heard by the Iowa Supreme Court, so I think that not only here but throughout the country it’s going to be watched closely,” said Carmen Janssen, a Des Moines attorney who specializes in surrogacy law.
No agency chronicles surrogate births in Iowa, but national estimates show roughly 2,000 occur each year, and the practice has grown in the past 10 years.
The Montovers said they are sharing their story (the gestational carrier declined to be interviewed) because they want others to know of the potential pitfalls of surrogacy.
It can turn ugly very fast.
Paul and Chantele attended Marshalltown High School together and were sweethearts.
Chantele got pregnant but miscarried, she said, creating an emotional bond between them that remained even as they went about their separate lives.
Paul Montover joined the Navy, married and had two children before he divorced and returned to Iowa.
Chantele lived in other states, was married and had four children before she divorced and came back to Iowa.
They met again through mutual friends in 2011 and married in Las Vegas two years later.
Of their six children from previous marriages, ages 18 to 29, three still live in their Cedar Rapids home.
After they decided in 2016 to advertise for a surrogate and raise a child together, they were warmed by the good nature of the woman from Muscatine who responded.
She was married, with four children, and wanted another but couldn’t get pregnant, though doctors assured her she could carry a child, according to court records.
She saw surrogacy as a way to pay for in vitro fertilization treatments.
“We met in a restaurant near Iowa City, and they seemed like nice people. Her husband was a Marine; I was in the Navy,” Paul said. “We thought we had a mutual bond. They wanted a child, too.”
The Montovers hired an attorney to draw up a gestational carrier agreement, and after signing it the couples traveled together to a clinic in a Chicago suburb.
The Montovers would pay T.B. $13,000 for an in vitro fertilization of Paul’s sperm and a donor egg, payable upon the live birth and surrender of the child.
The couples joined to attend the first ultrasound after the fertilized eggs were implanted.
That’s when things went south. T.B.’s husband videotaped the ultrasound appointment.
“We thought something was odd about that,” Chantele said.
They were also concerned the video would be shared on social media. A flurry of text messages followed between Chantele and T.B. in the days afterward.
T.B. said in a text that they wanted to chronicle “our surrogacy journey,” according to court documents.
Chantele responded in a text: “OK but you understand it’s our child right?” And later, “… We are in charge we hired you so just let us be parents and enjoy this ok?”
The exchanges also included disputes over whether the carrier’s insurance would cover some of the procedures, and the relationship soured fast.
T.B. refused to let the Montovers in the examination room for the next ultrasound and began to communicate only through an attorney.
“After that, we had no way to contact her, and she said, ‘I will contact you only if something happens,'” Paul Montover said.
Panicked, the Montovers hired a private investigator to find out how to reach the carrier and get information about her. They managed to get contact information, but the relationship eroded further.
Paul Montover said he got desperate and reached out to the family of T.B.’s husband, using some harsh words. Montover admitted he said to them that the husband was a “dirty Mexican.”
T.B.’s husband is Hispanic, and she is African-American. T.B. also accused Chantele of using the “N-word” during one exchange, according to court documents.
Paul Montover said he used the racial slur to incite enough anger that the carrier would respond to them, and they could find out what was going on. He said he regrets it because it made the situation worse. Chantele doesn’t deny using a slur and said she was provoked by the surrogate’s threat of an abortion.
They knew nothing until they got information in October from a person associated with the carrier that two babies were born at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. One was later identified in court documents as Baby K, the other as Baby H.
The gestational carrier would not speak to the Register, but Cassidy, the New Jersey lawyer, supplied a statement detailing why she stopped communicating with the Montovers and went to the hospital without notifying them.
She said after the racially charged exchange that she was convinced the Montovers wouldn’t be good parents, and she began questioning the moral implications of surrogacy.
“Make no mistake about it, when I realized that (Paul Montover) would not be a good custodial parent of Baby H, I was forced to face the reality — that if I handed her over to him just because he promised to pay me $13,000 after I did so — of exactly what this was: the purchase of a child.”
The Montovers say they are not racist. They claim T.B.’s motivations involved money — that she pressed for more and threatened abortion or adoption if the Montovers didn’t comply.
Cassidy denies the threat and said the Montovers’ control and harassment, as if they owned the birth mother, further alienated the parties.
The Montovers learned of the birth of twin girls nearly two months after the Aug. 31 birth — and they each weighed less than 2 pounds.
One child, Baby K, had died.
“A father is supposed to be there for his child,” Paul Montover said, his voice cracking. “I’m a Catholic, and there were no last rites. How can someone do that?”
T.B. stayed at the hospital with Baby H through surgeries and medical treatments for the next two months. Her name is on the birth certificate.
Paul Montover filed for a temporary injunction to prohibit the carrier from acting inconsistently with the terms of the surrogacy agreement, and a judge ordered genetic testing.
The results in November 2016 showed that Paul Montover was the genetic father and that T.B. was not the genetic mother.
In a District Court in Linn County in February, a judge ruled that the gestational agreement was enforceable and didn’t violate Iowa public policy or the constitutional rights of the birth mother or the baby.
The Montovers were given custody of Baby H.
She sat in their lap on a recent afternoon in their Cedar Rapids home overlooking a wooded slope. She will be 1 soon.
But the Montovers know the fight is not over. The carrier has filed an appeal. Documents were filed this summer with the Iowa Supreme Court for its decision on routing the case.
Philip De Koster, a Hull attorney who with Casey Rigdon of Cedar Rapids represents the Montovers, said the case is clear — gestational carrier agreements are enforceable.
“Paul is the genetic parent of the child. The gestational carrier is not. Her husband is not,” he said. “The Montovers had this genetic material created. They would have never given it to anyone if they didn’t believe it would come back.”
De Koster said past cases in Iowa have shown that “DNA is the touchstone of parental rights, so let’s apply that here. An emotional relationship is not enough to create parental rights.”
Iowa doesn’t have a code that lays out gestational agreements in detail. However, Iowa Code 710.11, which deems it a felony to attempt to purchase or sell another person, specifies that “this section does not apply to a surrogate mother arrangement.”
But Cassidy, in his appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, said the lower court erred in ruling that the gestational carrier doesn’t make a biological contribution to the procreation of Baby H.
Fetal growth and development are guided by genetic blueprints but also depend on maternal factors during the pregnancy, he wrote.
“The bonding process between the pregnant mother and the children she carries during pregnancy is the same physical process and experience, whether or not the mother is genetically related to the children,” he wrote. “… A woman who gives birth is, in fact, a biological parent.”
Cassidy also asserts that it isn’t in the child’s best interest to be raised by the Montovers because of the evidence of “hateful emails” using racial slurs, and that the gestational contract violates the baby’s and mother’s due process and equal-protection rights.
He also says it violates Iowa public policy because it’s a contract that is against the public good.
A poor woman who is used to create a baby for the more well-to-do is troubling, and he questions how the people of Iowa can authorize a woman as “a breeder” who is required to give up a baby that she gave birth to and wants to protect.
De Koster says Cassidy’s argument is an affront to women.
“When it’s argued that these agreements exploit women, are you saying a lower-class woman is not intelligent enough to make a rational choice to be a part of this really cool thing?” he said.
Surrogacy professionals recommend that intended parents go through an agency to properly screen candidates, file the extensive contracts and mediate issues.
“In the first interviews we talk about the huge sacrifice this is, that it’s totally different when you are risking your life for someone else,” said Monica Villa, co-owner of Heartland Surrogacy in Des Moines.
She said this case “wouldn’t get past our doors,” because a surrogate who couldn’t have children is a huge red flag.
The Montovers said they have also incurred enormous legal and medical fees, the latter of which approach more than $2 million that they can’t pay. They are raising money online.
The result of this bitter fight is nothing but sweet, sitting on Chantele Montover’s lap and peering out with wide eyes.
Baby H’s medical issues from her premature birth are largely behind her now.
“She is an angel. She brings us a lot of joy,” she said. “We are grateful.
“But not a day goes by that we don’t miss our dead baby. And we feel guilty that we put the children through this.”