'I love giving the gift of a child to a couple that can't have one'
It can be a magical experience – or a degrading disaster. Jerome Taylor hears a surrogate mother's story
Saturday 02 May 2009
Artist Gina Scanlon was half way through illustrating a book for a client when she decided that she wanted to become a surrogate mother to help him have a child.
As someone who had never had difficulty conceiving, the Pittsburgh-based artist was pregnant with her third baby at the time and relished the feeling of having a tiny life form slowly growing inside her womb. But every time she went to her client's house, she was wracked with guilt.
Each day as she sat down to draw, the man and his wife would talk about their heartbreaking but ultimately futile attempts to have a child of their own. Over the years they had spent a fortune on IVF treatment but had miscarried every time.
"I felt so guilty for being pregnant when they were trying so hard to have a child themselves," she recalls. "I absolutely adore being pregnant. So I did some research into surrogacy, talked it through with my husband and then asked the couple whether they would be happy with me carrying one of their fertilised embryos."
In the end the couple declined and decided to adopt. But since then the 41-year-old artist has given birth to three surrogate children for two couples who desperately wanted a child of their own but for various biological reasons simply could not.
Her first experience of being a "gestational carrier", as the multi-million dollar US industry somewhat clinically prefers to call surrogate mothers, was for Tom and Jeff, a same sex couple from New Jersey whom she delivered twins for in 2006. Four months ago she was back in the delivery room giving birth to a baby boy for a heterosexual couple that she had met through one of the hundreds of agencies that help link surrogates with childless couples.
"My experiences of the two pregnancies couldn't have been more different," says Mrs Scanlon, who regularly gives talks to women who are considering becoming surrogate mothers. "The first time, the whole process was an absolute joy. I became very close friends with Tom and Jeff and we're still in contact. But the second time round was an awful experience. Instead of treating me like a human being, like someone who was trying to help them have a child, they treated me like a product, like my body was some sort of baby-making factory and nothing more."
For many people the whole idea of carrying a baby in one's womb for nine months only to give it away will always remain deeply controversial. When Sarah Jessica Parker and her husband Matthew Broderick announced earlier this week that they were having twins in the summer through "the generous help of a surrogate", it made global headlines.
The Parker-Brodericks were the latest in a line of Hollywood couples to take the surrogacy route and the more cynical celebrity blogs have gleefully suggested that, for the elite of Los Angeles and New York at least, surrogate birthing is simply the ultimate expression of being too posh to push. But for hundreds of relatively wealthy but otherwise ordinary families in the States, where surrogacy laws are less strict than in Britain and Europe, women like Mrs Scanlon are their final chance to have a genetically-related baby of their own.
In US pop culture the surrogate mother is often disparagingly portrayed as an uneducated, money-grabbing piece of trailer trash, something supporters say has done terrible damage by attaching a needless stigma to the surrogacy process.
"That image couldn't be further from the truth," says Mrs Scanlon. Those looking for surrogate mothers are equally varied. Tom and Jeff (they have asked The Independent not to print their second names) opted for surrogacy because of Jeff's cultural background. A gay couple living in New Jersey, they had always wanted to have children but Jeff knew his parents, who come from Taiwan, desperately wanted their grandchildren to be directly related to them.
They sourced eggs from an anonymous donor which could be fertilised with Jeff's sperm in a lab and then set about finding a womb. Using Melissa Brisman, a specialist in America's reproductive laws who runs the East Coast's largest surrogate agency, they were put in contact with Mrs Scanlon.
"We were incredibly lucky because we found Gina almost straight away. Some people have to wait years to find a suitable surrogate," says Tom. "What really impressed us was that in Gina's file was a photograph of her family and her husband Brian. The fact that he was supportive made us much more comfortable so we agreed to meet Gina and became close friends."
The result of that meeting is Ivory and Iris, a pair of beautiful two-year-old girls who can boast that they have two fathers and an "auntie" who brought them into the world.
"We always wanted the surrogate mother to play a part in our kids lives," says Jeff. "It's good that alongside us they'll have a strong female figure as they grow up."Tom and Jeff will the twins everything as soon as they can.
In stark contrast to the happy relationship that she has with Ivory and Iris, Mrs Scanlon is unlikely to ever again to see the boy she gave birth to earlier this year. His parents collected him within 24 hours of her giving birth and they no longer talk.
"The second couple were incredibly domineering," she says. "My doctor became so exasperated that he eventually banned them from attending my appointments. That experience has been difficult I guess because I didn't have the same level of closure."
But despite her less than satisfactory second surrogacy, Mrs Scanlon says she has no regrets.
"Being a surrogate mother is incredibly taxing on your mind and body but it is also the most wonderful and rewarding experience. You are giving the gift of a child to a couple that for whatever reason can't have one themselves.
"Never through either of the two pregnancies did I have ever have an issue with the idea of handing over the baby because that was the ultimate goal," she says. "The whole reason I was doing what I was doing was to provide someone else with their child – a child that isn't even yours in the first place."
Things of course are often more complicated if the mother is directly related to a surrogate child. But contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of American women who agree to be surrogates are not, in fact, related to the child they carry.
There are very few agencies that are willing to deal with genetically-related carriers because of the legal problems that can occur if there is a disagreement between the two parties. So most surrogates are simply women who agree to give their womb to an fertilised egg that is not theirs.
The real reason surrogacy works and is popular in America of course is that, unlike in Britain, wannabe parents are, under some state laws, allowed to financially reward their surrogates. But the money, advised Mrs Scanlon who agreed to become a surrogate mother the second time around because her husband had to undergo extensive surgery, should never be the only reason.
"If you think you'll be able to remodel your kitchen after a surrogate birth, you're probably not doing it for the right reasons," she says. "[Surrogacy] is nine months of solid work, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If money is all that you're after, you're probably better off just getting a part-time job."
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