Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Sunday, August 5, 2007
Trusting another woman — a perfect stranger no less — to carry her baby may be the most difficult challenge of Jerri Christensen’s life.
“I do trust that she’ll do the best thing for the pregnancy,” she said of her surrogate. “But you still wonder, ‘What are they doing today ?’”
Like a number of prospective parents struggling with infertility, the Kansas City, Kan., woman found a surrogate mother in Arkansas, just outside Little Rock.
Arkansas laws controlling surrogacy arrangements are seen as some of the most favorable in the country, making the state attractive to hopeful parents. There is a quiet but thriving network of Arkansas women who have been carrying babies for couples from all over the country and Europe, where surrogacy is illegal.
The state gives prospective parents strong control over the birth and baby, leaving little room for a surrogate to assert rights over the child.
Melissa Brisman, a New Jersey attorney specializing in reproductive law, said about 10 percent of the surrogates her agency uses live in Arkansas. She helped connect Christensen with her surrogate, a 29-yearold who has successfully carried babies for three other families.
“When you’re representing intended carriers, you want to be in a state that’s more friendly,” she explained. “They really have a progressive statute in Arkansas.”
Christensen, 42, gave up years ago on being able to feel her own baby growing inside her. She and her husband spent years and a small fortune exhausting every medical avenue, including multiple in vitro fertilization attempts.
But after an untold number of injections and painful procedures, the couple gave up four years ago and adopted their daughter.
And then their marriage failed.
Now a single mother and older than the typical new parent, it would be difficult for Christensen to find an adoption agency willing to work with her. But she desperately wants to complete her family and give her daughter a sibling.
“I don’t want her to be an only child,” she said.
She resolved in January to find a surrogate and plans to use a sperm donor. After looking at numerous candidates, she recently chose Michelle, who didn’t want her last name used.
They’ll meet in person for the first time this weekend.
“I’m terrified,” Christensen said bluntly.
Her choice to use a surrogate is not only an emotional leap of faith. It’s a financial risk as well.
Christensen expects to spend $ 70, 000 or more. The adoption of her daughter was considerably less expensive at $ 10, 000.
A large portion of Christensen’s expense will be the services Brisman provides. Brisman’s firm screens surrogate candidates carefully, an important benefit in an era where online surrogate scams are increasingly common.
Brisman sent Christensen information on a new candidate each week until she selected Michelle.
“I wanted to find someone who had done it before,” she said. “Mine will be her fourth pregnancy. She was also a single mom who has a teenage child of her own.”
Michelle will undergo in vitro fertilization at a Kansas City clinic, using a doctor Christensen used during her failed attempts at pregnancy. She will have her baby in Arkansas under the care of her regular obstetrician.
Although Christensen considered candidates from other states, Arkansas laws may help hold down costs. She won’t have to legally adopt her child, as is required in many states.
“It gets more expensive the more legal wrangling you have,” she said.
Gary Sullivan, a Little Rock fertility lawyer, helps connect surrogates with prospective parents and makes arrangements for necessary court orders.
There are two types of surrogacy, Sullivan explained. In traditional surrogacy, the prospective father’s sperm is used to impregnate the prospective biological mother, who will not become the child’s legal parent.
Gestational surrogacy is far more common. In that case, the surrogate is not the biological mother but carries and gives birth to a child from an embryo parented by two other people.
Traditional surrogacy costs about $ 50, 000, including medical costs and the surrogate’s compensation, Sullivan said. But gestational surrogacy can cost up to $ 80, 000 because one in vitro fertilization procedure alone costs $ 10, 000, with no guarantee that an embryo will lead to a successful birth.
Sullivan started his practice 10 years after the state General Assembly passed a law controlling surrogacy, Act 647 of 1989, codified as 9-10-201.
“Arkansas was one of the first states in the country to have a law that realizes it doesn’t make sense for someone to adopt their own child,” Sullivan said. “We bypass that adoption step, which makes things a lot more cost effective for the clients who are looking to have children.”
Hiring a surrogate is an option for couples who don’t want to or can’t adopt for any number of reasons, he said. Arkansas laws make the state ripe for such arrangements, he said.
“Our law states that the surrogate mother has no parental rights whatsoever,” Sullivan said.
Most states have no surrogacy laws, but it is illegal to use a surrogate in some states. In other states, couples can use surrogates, but it’s illegal for the surrogate to be compensated.
Arkansas is one of six states that specifically permit surrogacy contracts. New Jersey and Washington allow only agreements where the surrogate is uncompensated.
Twelve states expressly prohibit surrogacy in some way. The District of Columbia and six states prohibit unmarried couples from using surrogates.
Many adoption services put strict limits on people seeking to be parents, such as age and even weight requirements. And in Arkansas, the biological mother has 10 days from the child’s birth to withdrawal consent to adoption.
Sullivan works with clients, whom he calls “intended parents,” from all over the country. Some are married couples, others are in same-sex relationships and some are single.
One client, a 61-year-old lawyer who lives in New Orleans, recently advertised for a surrogate in the Arkansas Times. The bright red ads read: “W / M, drug and disease free, seeks white or Hispanic female to act as traditional surrogate for my baby.”
Finding a surrogate for that man will be difficult, Sullivan said.
“He’s an attorney and did his research and found out Arkansas has a good law,” Sullivan said. “He’s out of the age range where he can adopt. He’s a single man, so a lot of surrogates don’t want to work with him.”
Surrogates are often picky about who they’ll work with, Sullivan said. They want assurances that the prospective parents won’t abuse the child, he said.
Sullivan and other attorneys who match surrogates with parents complete background checks on both surrogates and prospective parents to allay those concerns.
Most women who decide to become surrogates are motivated by a desire to help a childless couple, he said. But most also expect to be compensated for the demands of pregnancy and childbirth, Sullivan said.
A first-time surrogate can expect to be compensated $ 18, 000 to $ 20, 000, he said, and a secondor third-time surrogate can make as much as $ 30, 000 to carry and give birth to a healthy child.
Stella, who also didn’t want her real name used, is preparing for her first egg transfer, hoping to help a couple who live in Austin, Texas, have their baby.
Later this month, Stella will drive from Little Rock to Austin for the in vitro fertilization procedure and plans to stay with the prospective parents for two days. Stella, a 23-year-old single mother, will take her 2 1 / 2-year-old daughter with her.
“I’m helping create a family,” Stella explained of her decision to be a surrogate. “It’s spectacular to create the miracle of your own child, but to help another couple feel that feeling is just overwhelming.”
Stella takes classes at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Central Arkansas, working toward a double major in engineering and business.
She’s struggling to take extra classes this term in case she needs to lighten her course load next semester if she gets pregnant. She also works as an executive assistant for a local corporation.
“I think the perception is that most surrogate mothers are broke and dumb and just in it for the money,” she said. “That’s not the case. If you do the math, it’s a 24-hour, nine-month job. You make about $ 2. 50 an hour.”
Stella talked to several pairs of prospective parents before choosing the couple she’s now working with. She worked with an agency called Simple Surrogacy in Dallas. Texas law allows for court-approved “gestational agreements.”
“When I first met my intended parents we talked for a long time before we signed any contracts and became more friends,” Stella said. “With most of the other couples I talked to, the mother’s not really ready for it but she’s doing it for her husband. They’re not ready for us emotionally.”
She said she’s encouraged the prospective mother to seek counseling during the surrogate process.
“You can get professional help to deal with this. It’s a hard issue. Someone else is carrying your husband’s child,” she said. “I try to relay to her that this is not my pregnancy. This is her pregnancy. I want her to experience all the joy.”
Stella isn’t sure if she’ll tell her employer that she’s a surrogate mother if she gets pregnant.
“You have to be really careful, because you don’t know how people are going to react,” she said. “There’s a lot of hidden discrimination. You don’t know whether you’ll be fired for this or whether they’ll be angry that they’re paying for someone else’s pregnancy.”
Typically, if a surrogate has her own health insurance coverage, the prospective parents pay any medical expenses not covered by her policy.
Stella has had a difficult time explaining her choice to be a surrogate to some of her closest friends.
“A lot of people don’t agree with it. They say, ‘ You’re giving up your baby.’ I tell them it’s not my egg, and it’s not my baby to begin with. It’s not about the money. It’s an overwhelming need to help.”
Stella has entered an active network of surrogate mothers living in Arkansas. She uses online support groups and talks with other surrogates on the phone.
“There’s a bunch of us in Arkansas,” she said.
Kristie Cheyne, a 27-year-old stay-at-home mom in Foreman, waited until she and her husband completed their family with three sons — 7, 5 and 4 — before becoming a surrogate.
Helping couples who couldn’t conceive was something Cheyne wanted to do since she was a child.
“It was something I’ve always known I was going to do,” she said. “I’m just a helpful person I guess.”
Agreeing to be a surrogate isn’t as simple as carrying a baby for nine months, she explained.
Months ago, Cheyne began preparing for what surrogates call a “transfer,” or in vitro fertilization, scheduled for the end of July.
She started daily injections of Lupron in mid-June to prepare her uterus for implantation. Her husband helped her with the shots, taken in her stomach with an insulin needle.
Lupron reduces levels of certain hormones to help synchronize menstrual cycles of the biological mother and the surrogate to make the uterus a more hospitable environment for the embryo.
In addition, she took estrogen injections in her hip twice a week and an oral steroid to reduce the risk of her body rejecting another woman’s embryo.
The actual implantation, Cheyne said, is painless and comparable to an extended pap smear.
Add prenatal vitamins and check-ups with an obstetrician before the implantation, and the price tag even before Cheyne has a chance of being pregnant can be substantial.
The prospective parents pay the tab, Cheyne explains, and compensation after the medical costs is negotiable. Terms are worked out between the prospective parents and the surrogate, sometimes with the help of an attorney.
Cheyne was working with another couple to have a baby, but none of the three attempts led to a successful pregnancy. Two embryo transfers were unsuccessful and a third produced a pregnancy but ended in a miscarriage at eight weeks.
“It was three days after Christmas 2006,” she said, her voice fading before returning to its bubbly norm.
Now, Cheyne is starting fresh with high hopes for a new couple. On Wednesday, doctors informed her that none of the couple’s embryos implanted on July 20 properly attached to Cheyne’s uterus.
Undeterred, Cheyne said she was already preparing to try again with another batch of embryos on Aug. 31.
Cheyne e-mails the prospective mother frequently, keeping her posted on prenatal doctor visits. She’s eager to have good news for the woman, who has no children.
She expects this prospective mother to be involved with the pregnancy.
“Some people don’t show up at all until the end, and some people want to be there for every bitty thing,” she said.
Cheyne loved being pregnant with her own boys and is eager to watch her body transform again.
“I get big very, very fast,” she said. “I love the feeling of the baby moving and having the belly. I would love to be able to carry twins.”
But Cheyne has no fears about bonding with a baby during nine months of pregnancy and then having a difficult time letting go.
“It’s more of an emotional bond to the intended parents,” she said.
Cheyne stands to gain up to $ 20, 000 for a successful pregnancy that produces a healthy baby. But that’s not the point, she said.
“I decided to become a surrogate before I knew there was any compensation,” she said. “I’m willing to talk to any level income family.”