Why you should care
Because surrogacy is challenging for both parties.
Kelli Auerbach is a writer in Los Angeles who is trying to have a child via a surrogate.
A P.T. Barnum–esque story is spreading like wildfire about a California surrogate who birthed twins for a couple from China. The catch? One baby was biologically hers. The surrogate, Jessica Allen, claims to be the victim, describing her dramatic fight to get back her child.
Perhaps she is a victim. But equally so are the Chinese parents, who are being vilified — subtly and openly.
Allen’s version is that the parents’ biological embryo was placed in her uterus at an in vitro fertilization clinic. Her six-week ultrasound discovered twins. Everyone assumed the embryo had split, to create identicals. But after the birth, the Chinese parents noticed their babies looked significantly different. A DNA test confirmed that one baby was Allen and her now husband’s. Allen says the parents wanted nothing to do with the baby, demanded she compensate them and considered putting the child up for adoption. Allen fought and finally won custody after a “nightmare.” The subtext? That the Chinese parents were horrible to her.
Imagine the shock. You trusted your surrogate, your doctors. How would you feel?
But that’s only one side of the story. A lawyer for the surrogacy agency that oversaw the journey released a statement that all parties are contractually prohibited from discussing details, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act restricts the release of medical information. But the agency considers elements of Allen’s story “to be not only false, but also made with reckless disregard for the truth.”
To comprehend this story, we must also see it from the parents’ side. In full disclosure, I’m trying to have a biological child through surrogacy. While I can’t speak for the couple who, no doubt, are recovering from their version of this nightmare, I can say that virtually no one turns to surrogacy before suffering a tremendous amount of heartache — miscarriages, stillbirths, failed IVFs, failed adoptions, emergency hysterectomies, etc. And because it costs tens of thousands of dollars, no one approaches surrogacy lightly. The majority of us save and scrimp for years to make this possible. The Chinese parents traveled to the other side of the world because surrogacy is illegal in their home country.
Put yourself in their shoes: After desperately wanting a child, you find out your surrogate is pregnant. You’re excited but cautious. When you learn it’s twins, you’re even more nervous because they carry a higher risk of prematurity and other health issues. But you embrace the surprise with joy, celebrating with friends and family. You buy two cribs, two car seats, two of everything. Then after the birth it becomes clear that one baby, already legally yours, is not your biological child. Imagine the shock. You trusted your surrogate, your doctors. How would you feel? Would you want to keep the child? Imagine if these parents did.
Back to the beginning: Surrogacy has many requirements to ensure a surrogate doesn’t become pregnant while carrying someone else’s child. She takes medications weeks before and after an embryo transfer to make her uterus receptive to the embryo and to temporarily stop her from ovulating. Since it’s possible to ovulate even on these meds, reproductive endocrinologists — the doctors overseeing IVF — restrict surrogates from having sexual intercourse around the time of the embryo transfer. Such restrictions can be weeks to months and are often clarified in the legal contracts between the surrogate and the parents.
Allen claims she followed the orders about sex restriction. It’s possible doctors did not restrict her long enough. Another possibility is superfetation, an exceedingly rare and disputed phenomenon when a woman ovulates after she’s pregnant. Nothing in Allen’s account states the babies were significantly different in size or gestational age, which suggests she conceived close to the embryo transfer. Regardless of when she conceived, this could have been prevented.
Allen is disparaging the parents for asking to be compensated between $18,000 and $22,000. The parents had every right to ask if they suspected Allen was in breach of contract for not following sex restrictions. Plus, they no doubt had extra financial and time burdens related to changing Allen’s child’s legal parentage. They do not appear to have held a baby hostage for ransom.
Jennifer Lahl, a prominent critic of surrogacy and IVF who is advising Allen, recently wrote on Facebook that America should “close our borders so couples from China (like the ones in this story) can’t come here and exploit women and children.” Lahl tells OZY that she “opposes all surrogacy, so my position has nothing to do with xenophobia,” but her comment is xenophobic on its face. This story is also being propped up by the false narrative that American surrogates are exploited, coerced and desperate. A battalion of doctors, psychologists, lawyers and medical associations ensure this isn’t true. A woman can’t even qualify as a surrogate if she’s financially unstable.
The vast majority of surrogacies go delightfully, boringly well, while rare stories like these garner media attention and give surrogacy a bad name. The takeaway from this story is not that surrogacy is the problem. Instead, the problem may be reproductive endocrinologists’ nonstandardized sex restrictions, surrogates who don’t follow requirements or even an atypical medical phenomenon. But not surrogacy itself.
We need to hear from the Chinese parents in this story. But I understand why, legally and emotionally, they remain silent. Plus, they’re probably too busy with a new baby to chase their 15 minutes of fame.