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Daniela Rodriguez loved being pregnant.
“I felt great and had minimal symptoms,” said the 35-year-old mother of two, speaking from her house in Stamford, Conn. “I would look at myself in the mirror and feel pretty.”
In fact, she enjoyed pregnancy so much that she told her gay friends she would gladly carry their babies for them.
“I was partly joking but also serious,” said Rodriguez, whose kids are now 6 and 4. “I had heard all these stories about people doing it for friends and, you know, how amazing these women are for giving their bodies to help other families, so it was always in the back of my mind.”
Then, last November, her sister suffered a miscarriage. She, her science-teacher husband and her two kids had recently moved back to the New York City area after a stint in Chicago, and Rodriguez — a bridal hair and makeup artist — suddenly had a lot of free time, with all the wedding cancelations due to the pandemic. It seemed like a sign.
“The loss of the baby was the trigger that made me want to do it,” Rodriguez said, adding that she offered to carry her sister’s baby but that her sibling didn’t feel comfortable with the idea. So she submitted applications to a few surrogacy agencies online.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’ll give it a shot and see what happens.’ ”
Now Rodriguez is 14 weeks pregnant, carrying a baby for a gay couple in Spain. On a recent Saturday, she looked radiant, though she admitted that during her first trimester she had “horrible” nausea.
“This has been a rough one but totally worth it,” she said. Because the intended parents live overseas, the two families have only met through FaceTime, yet Rodriguez said the connection was “instant.” She texts them photos of her growing belly, and they check in weekly to see how she’s doing and if she needs anything. (The couple will fly to the States — travel permitting — when Rodriguez finally delivers their baby, who is due in October.)
“They’re great people, they are very grateful, and I think I’m very lucky to have found such a great couple.”
Rodriguez is one of the thousands of women in the US who elect to carry a baby for someone else in a given year. The CDC reported 3,432 surrogacy births in 2013 — the last year for which data are available — though experts say that number has only increased. In 2016, the CDC recorded 5,521 embryo transfers using gestational surrogates, but did not disclose how many of those resulted in pregnancies or live births.
In February, New York state made it legal for residents to become paid surrogates, too. Legalized compensated gestational surrogacy allows women to be paid for carrying a baby who is not hers for someone else. Surrogates use either the intended parent’s egg or a donor egg; they do not use their own. (Traditional surrogacy — where the woman not only carries the baby but supplies the egg — is banned in many states, including New York.)
These are people who just really want to help and they love being pregnant.
The global fertility industry is forecasted to be worth $47.9 billion by 2030, and “a big driver of that growth is surrogacy,” said Ama Gordon, co-founder of Global Fertility Connections, which helps guide intended parents through their options for having a baby. “It makes sense: Same-sex marriage is becoming more prominent, more companies are including fertility benefits in their health-care packages, more women are waiting longer to have babies and experiencing infertility at higher rates than before.” (More single men are electing to have babies, too, as seen in the new movie, “Together Together,” released Friday, in which Ed Helms hires a surrogate to carry his kid.)
Yet, despite the growth of surrogacy, very little is known about the surrogates themselves: Who are they, do they do it for the money or is it a higher calling?
“There is this myth that [surrogacy] exploits women,” said Victoria Ferrara, an attorney and founder of the agency Worldwide Surrogacy Specialists. “But the women who become surrogates do this voluntarily. They are treated with respect and integrity, and they are taken care of very well by doctors, by lawyers.”
She continued: “Just as a woman should have a choice to terminate a pregnancy, we think that a woman should have a choice to actually become pregnant and to earn compensation for her services and the disruption in her life that she’s willing to [take on] in order to really help someone.”
That drive to help is what compelled Michelle Andrade to apply to become a surrogate last year after seeing a post from a friend on Facebook detailing her “surrogacy journey.”
“I was like, ‘Wow! I’d love to help somebody out like that,” said the 37-year-old high-school teacher, who lives in Plymouth, Conn., with her husband, Ryan, and their 4-year-old twins.
“I had a hard time having my kids, and I still remembered those four years of trying and seeing all my friends get pregnant.”
Andrade and her husband eventually decided to try IVF, and it worked the first time.
“I had a great pregnancy with the twins — it was fantastic,” she said. “Selfishly, I think I wanted to be pregnant again without caring for another child, and I remember joking with a friend saying, ‘How do we do that?’ ”
Surrogacy provided an answer.
Most states — and agencies — have strict regulations as to who can become paid surrogates. They cannot be younger than 21 or older than 45 (40 for a first-time surrogate). They had to have carried at least one healthy pregnancy to term — which is why there aren’t many super young surrogates, and why so many of them are married with their own children. After more than three C-sections or more than six vaginal deliveries, women are no longer allowed to work as surrogates.
Once their initial application passes the initial screening by an agency, surrogate wannabes have to go through multiple health and psychological tests to prove that they can safely carry a baby with minimal risks. If they clear those, then the agency works on matching the surrogate with an intended parent.
“We spend a lot of time getting to know the surrogates and the intended parents, asking them about their hobbies, their interests, getting a sense of their personality,” said Dawn Baker, founder of the agency US Surrogacy. “It’s so important when you’re meeting a stranger for this momentous, life-changing thing that you [need to] find some commonality, and have the relationship grow from there.”
There are other concerns as well: distance, finances, communication (how much contact the intended parent wants to have with the surrogate), what to do if the surrogate gets pregnant with twins, how both parties feel about termination should complications arise.
After a surrogate and intended parent are matched, they meet and the surrogate has to take a series of hormones and shots before getting an embryo transfer. But complications, such as failed embryo transfers, miscarriages and stillbirths, can happen, which is why New York has laws placing strict boundaries on the relationship between the surrogate and intended parent: giving surrogates the right to disability insurance, life insurance and mental health counseling, as well as the right to terminate or continue the pregnancy or to reduce the number of fetuses or embryos they are carrying. The surrogate can also sever the agreement with the intended parent before becoming pregnant.
Rodriguez said that while her husband was fully supportive of her surrogate journey, not everyone in her family understood her decision. “With my parents, there were a lot of concerns,” she said. “At the beginning they thought it was going to be my egg, so I had to explain to them that it came from a donor, there was no way the baby was related to us. That made them more comfortable. I think for my mother, she couldn’t understand how I could give the baby away, but when you go into this journey you fully know it’s not yours. It feels different. You’re not planning announcements and worrying about buying clothes or diapers or baby showers.”
Before February, New Yorkers who wanted to have a child via surrogacy either had to find a surrogate in another state or get a friend or family member to carry the baby without compensation.
That’s how Andrew and Leah Kabatchnick, both 37, of White Plains, ended up with a surrogate in Alabama. The couple had tried getting pregnant for four years, suffering two miscarriages and trying IVF before deciding to go with a surrogate.
“She was the second person we matched with and we liked her right away,” said Andrew, a CPA. “She had three of her own kids and just seemed responsible and on top of everything.”
“She and her husband have similar personalities to us — like we’re all pretty laid-back people and it just seemed like a good fit,” added Leah, an occupational therapist who works with kids.
Now the pair have a 2.5-year-old daughter and are currently embarking on a second surrogacy journey.
“Even though I’m missing out on the nice parts of being able to carry on my own — really what is most important is having a healthy baby that we can raise ourselves and who is part of our family,” said Leah.
“We are so lucky that we get to do it not once but twice,” added Andrew.
Surrogates typically make between $35,000 and $45,000 per pregnancy, and the intended parents pay for any medical-related expenses on top of that. Yet that doesn’t mean that a rash of New Yorkers will suddenly start applying to be surrogates, despite increased demand during a pandemic.
Most agencies require that their surrogates have financial stability, and some disqualify applicants who are on government assistance.
“It takes a special person to be a surrogate because it is not easy,” said Melvin Thornton, an IVF and fertility doctor in New York and Connecticut. “These are people who just really want to help and they love being pregnant. It’s a long process — from the time that you’re being considered for a surrogate candidate, it may take a month before your match. And you have to make sure that you’re matched with the right couple. And sometimes the first transfer attempt doesn’t work.”
Yet he said that the results are rewarding: “Often the surrogates remain in the intended parents’ lives. And sometimes the parents will reach out when they decide they want to have a sibling” and ask the surrogate to carry another baby for them.
That’s what happened with Molly Corcoran, who was inspired to become a surrogate while working in a fertility clinic in 2017. As she got to know the surrogates and people who came in desperate to have a child, “a light bulb went off: Why don’t I pursue this?”
Now the 38-year-old is on her third surrogacy journey, due in the fall. This latest will be the sibling for the baby she carried during her second surrogacy — for a couple she met while working at the IVF clinic.
“They’re almost like my best friends,” said Corcoran, who has three kids of her own and now works as a surrogacy screener at Worldwide Surrogacy Specialists. “We text every day. They’re very close in age to me, and we are planning a family vacation together.” She keeps in touch with the parents from her first surrogacy journey, too. “Their baby calls me Auntie Molly.”
It’s the same for Andrade, who struck up a deep friendship with the NYC couple she was first matched with. She is now 30 weeks pregnant with their baby, who is due in June.
“We talk about literally everything — there are times where I’m like, ‘Oh, crap, it’s been an hour!’ ” she said.
While the parents can’t come to appointments with her due to COVID restrictions, she makes sure they attend virtually via FaceTime.
“I remember when I went for the initial ultrasound and they heard the baby’s heartbeat for the first time,” Andrade recalled, her eyes welling with tears. “I didn’t watch the monitor, I watched their faces on my phone, and saw the tears and the excitement and the smiles. I said, ‘This is why I’m doing what I’m doing.’
“I can’t wait to see their faces when the baby is born.”
Ama Gordon began her fertility journey eight years ago, and was overwhelmed by the lack of reliable information about the process. Last year, she and co-founder Ella McNamara launched Global Fertility Connections, which helps intended parents navigate the fertility process by finding suitable IVF, egg freezing or surrogacy services that meet their needs. Here, she gives advice to intended parents interested in surrogacy:
“Believe it or not, there is some deception and poor business ethics in the fertility industry — especially within the world of surrogacy. It’s like the Wild Wild West. There’s no regulation. You can literally win a lottery ticket and start a surrogacy agency with no credentials, no training, no certification, no experience, nothing.
“One challenge is the mismanagement of funds. When money is not kept in escrow, intended parents risk being overcharged for surrogate services such as travel or insurance coverage. We’ve had parents say, ‘I paid for this, and I’m not even sure where the money is going or see clear refund policies.’
“Surrogacy is illegal in many countries outside of the US; compensated gestational surrogacy was illegal in New York up until February. So it’s important to understand resident requirements, parental rights and surrogate qualifications within your appropriate state, and it’s critical to specifically use an ART [Assisted Reproductive Technology] attorney licensed in the state in which the baby will be born.
“Then there’s the birth itself: There are some great surrogacy agencies that help with transportation and legalization needs for the baby. We have agency partners that have even cared for a baby while intended parents experienced delays arriving in time for a birth.
“There are good agencies and also bad ones. We promote ethical behavior in the industry, and so do our partners who are members of the Society for Ethics for Egg Donation and Surrogacy (SEEDS). Intended parents make so many sacrifices on their path to parenthood and deserve to be protected.”