I have four children—four girls— and I feel so blessed to have had easy pregnancies and to be a mother to them. I have a few friends who have struggled to get pregnant, and friends who have lost pregnancies and babies, so that kind of just struck something within my heart. A close friend of mine also had struggled for years to get pregnant and was trying IVF, which also made me think about surrogacy as a way to help others like her.
I saw an ad to be an egg donor or a surrogate, but I realized that I was more comfortable helping in a more personable way with intended parents by going through a surrogacy pregnancy with them, rather than giving up my own eggs as an egg donor and knowing that I had a biological child of my own out there who I wouldn’t know. So I decided to do surrogacy instead.
Although helping others have a family was very important to me, money was also a factor in my decision to be a surrogate. I was recently divorced and a single mother of four young daughters, ranging in age from four to fourteen at the time. Although I worked full-time as a nurse then, money was still tight. I would be earning $30,000 as a surrogate—-pretty much the equivalent of my entire year’s salary as a nurse. I hoped that this second income could cover the down payment for a home for my family. And I figured that I could still keep my full-time nursing job while I was pregnant, as I was an office nurse at the time, so I didn’t have to be on my feet all day and had regular hours.
When I signed up with the surrogacy agency, the woman who owned the agency had intended parents in mind who lived in New York who she wanted to match me with personally. Learning how badly the couple wanted a baby and knowing in my heart that I was done having a family, I thought, yes, I could do this for them.
I talked on the phone and skyped with the intended parents about what kind of things we expected, and then we met in person when I did all my screening with the doctors. The intended parents offered to pay me $30,000 for a single pregnancy, or $40,000 if there were twins. We signed a contract. I was told it was pretty much a standard contract, but I did some negotiating. For example, I wanted to revise the wording that said how little caffeine I was allowed to have and other little things like that. I was not going to go without coffee. I felt like saying, “You can’t tell me how to do every single thing with my body.” They were sometimes very nit-picky.
The intended parents used both an egg donor and a sperm donor for my surrogate pregnancy, so genetically this wasn’t going to be their child. I know that the husband was not infertile – he had a 12-year-old from a previous marriage--but he was older, he was 50. The wife had had cancer, so she couldn’t use her own eggs, as the medication she was on risked causing birth defects. They just wanted a chance of better genetics, so that’s why they used donor sperm as well as donor eggs.
I had to travel the 200 miles from my home in Fairborn, Ohio to Cleveland, Ohio to meet with the IVF team at a clinic there that the couple selected to handle my medical exam, and later the embryo transfer. They may have had great medical expertise, but the team at the clinic there treated me kind of like I was a peasant or something. They acted so scornful, as if I was there just for the money.
The hormone injections I took every day, from one or two weeks before the transfer of the embryos until three months after the transfer, were pretty intense. The needle was very large, and the injections I had to administer myself were painful. My hips and buttocks were covered in bruises. And the effect of the hormones I was injecting had quite an emotional impact as well—very intense emotions—-different and more intense than what I had experienced when pregnant with my own children.
As part of my surrogate contract with the intended parents, I actually agreed to have two embryos transferred, and to carry twins, as they—like many people in their situation— wanted to have two children for the price of one. During the thawing of the frozen embryos, however, one of the embryos did not survive. The intended mother was pretty devastated, thinking she was going to have twins and then having the chance of only one child, at most. The doctors weren’t very warm or sympathetic about her loss, and instead explained that because the remaining embryo was multiplying fast, a quick decision had to be made whether to go with just that one, or start all over again from scratch. The intended parents decided to go ahead and have just the one embryo implanted in my uterus.
I got pregnant on the first try. The intended mother came down to be with me for my six-week ultrasound, and the head of the surrogacy agency came down as well. That was kind of a bonding moment, when we saw the heart beat for the first time.
Because of the many risks associated with IVF, the doctors wanted me to do another ultrasound at twelve weeks, just to make sure the baby was developing fine. At the twelve-week ultrasound, however, we found out that the single embryo implanted in me had split, and that I was now actually carrying two fetuses—identical twins. However, it also turned out that the twins were conjoined at the abdomen.
This was a big unexpected bombshell that we now all had to deal with. Neither the intended parents nor the surrogacy agency were there for this twelve-week ultrasound. The doctor seeing me explained to me that although the twins shared an abdomen, each of the babies had their own brain, spine, heart, bladder, genitals, and all four limbs. They were just sharing a liver and portion of the bowel. Given this, the doctor recommended that I go to 18 weeks of pregnancy and then get another fetal MRI and meet with a surgical team, to learn more about the possibility of the twins being separated and their chances of survival.
Up until then, the intended mother and her husband had been very kind and supportive of me, and we had gotten close. They took me out to dinner, and we had Face Time chats. They also Face Time chatted with my daughters and thanked them for letting me do this pregnancy for them. I wanted my daughters to know something about the people who this baby was going to. I thought it was better for them to know that the child was going to be with a family who really wanted it. I didn’t know how my kids would handle it, but they seemed pretty much on board, and they were proud that I was doing something so important.
When the intended parents first learned about the results of the twelve-week ultrasound and the plans in place at 18 weeks, they told me that they weren’t sure what they were going to do. I was taken aback, thinking to myself, “What do you mean you don’t know what you are going to do?” Four days later, they told me that they had now come to accept that this whole situation was a loss, and told me that I must abort the two babies. I was in shock. These conversations were all over the phone, not face-to-face. I said I would think about it. But they said, “We really need you to get this abortion right away. By next week.”
It turned out that there was an ‘abortion clause’ in my surrogacy contract, which required that I terminate the pregnancy if the babies were shown to have abnormalities. The doctors advised me, however, that there was a best-case scenario for these types of twins sharing a liver and abdomen, which would allow them to be separated and to develop normally.
I was horrified that the intended parents gave all of this no thought--that they didn’t seek any advice or information themselves. I felt like saying, “Don’t you guys want any more information or more answers? I don’t know why someone who wants a baby so much would just give up so quickly. There are still answers to get. There is still a possibility that you could get your healthy twins, with maybe just a little scarring.”
I thought the intended parents should want to continue with the pregnancy, because we didn’t have all the answers yet. On my own, I sought out second medical opinions, including from a high-risk perinatologist, who told me that these babies could have a normal and healthy life.
I knew in my heart that I wasn’t going to—that I couldn’t— terminate the pregnancy, when all of the doctors I spoke with recommended that I should get more testing done at 18 weeks, and meet with a surgical team then. I took the time to explore all of my options, both medically and legally. I sought out lawyers who looked over my contract, and I sought out opinions from still other doctors.
During this time, I did not feel at all supported by the surrogacy agency. It became clear that the head of the agency was acting on behalf of the intended parents and cared only about serving their interests and that my feelings didn’t matter. She said, “Britni, the intended parents don’t want to have babies with deficits. They don’t want to have issues or babies that have to go through surgery.” She went on to say, “My son has autism, and it is so hard for me. You have to understand where they are coming from.” She was really on their side, insisting on an abortion right away.
It was awful, because I put my body through so much for these people. I was willing to have a high-risk pregnancy for them, and take time away from work and my own children. I felt like once they found out I wasn’t carrying the perfect baby, I was disposable. But I was determined to keep these babies. Although money was tight, I was determined to hire lawyers to get the rights to the babies turned over to me and keep them, or to find someone who wanted to adopt them.
Unfortunately, at 14 weeks, with my follow-up ultrasound, the babies no longer had heartbeats. I was devastated because at that point I felt like everything was going right: the lawyers gave me good news, the doctors were still hopeful, and I was hoping to fight the contract and maybe even keep the babies. So when I found out there were no heartbeats, it was my loss as the surrogate mother---not the intended parents.
I was given a choice by my ob-gyn. I could have a D&C where they pretty much suck the babies out quickly, in parts. You don’t get to see any part of them and it would just be done with. But I said I can’t do that. I wanted to do it the natural way and bring the boys into the world that God intended them to be. So I had labor induced to deliver them naturally. The doctors put medicine around my cervix to make it dilate. It took twelve hours to deliver them. I was pregnant 14 weeks and three days when I delivered. They were twin boys. When they arrived, curled around each other, I held them close.
My oldest daughter—the 14 year old—was there at the clinic with me. She wanted to be there to support me. But the surrogacy agency and the intended parents—they knew I was there, but they didn’t reach out, they didn’t come, they didn’t want to be any part of it.
I remember when my water broke, the nurse lifted up the sheets and looked down and just had this scared look on her face, because my ‘water’ was nothing but blood. I’ve never seen a nurse’s face look like that. It’s not something you want to see. After I delivered, I had postpartum hemorrhaging. I was given an injection, which only helped with clotting but didn’t help me stop bleeding. I lost consciousness and a substantial amount of blood, and had to get a blood transfusion before I could leave the hospital. I couldn’t even stand without passing out. Since then, I have had to go on birth control to regulate my hormones due to the stress the loss put on my body and the irregular bleeding after the loss.
The intended parents and the agency have not tried to contact me even once since this happened. They have not inquired after my welfare at all. The monthly payments stopped immediately after my pregnancy came to an end.
I felt awful. The intended parents had once sat there at dinner with me and said how we’ll always be like each other’s family. They wanted to have a baby shower when the baby arrived, and have me be there for it, and have me come to New York, and do all of these other things. But the minute something went bad, they were gone. I mean, it turned out that their words meant nothing. That was a front they put on, to make them look good, to get a baby.
Once you decide to be a surrogate, you hear all of these amazing good stories and you never think to research the bad ones. You never think to ask what could go wrong, and if it does go wrong, is the surrogate contract in my favor? What I experienced was that when things went wrong, nothing was in my favor. I was the one affected, physically and mentally. I was the one locked into a contract. It was devastating.
I think the doctors connected with the agency should have gone into more detail with me. They did say, “oh yeah, you could have a loss,” but they did not sit down and go over scenarios, and explain how it would affect me and how those scenarios are reflected in the contract. I think they should discuss all the risks in more detail when you are agreeing to something this major.
And the lawyer who represented me? I was just money to her. I didn’t feel like she was really on my side at all. When going over the surrogacy contract with me, she was just rushing through and saying, “I recommend this part and this part and that part.” When it came to the section where I was to agree to abort the child if he or she had abnormalities, I told her I was uncomfortable with that and didn’t know what ‘abnormalities’ meant exactly, and she said, “Well, just list the things you think it means.” I was like, "Well you know, I think it’s impossible to list everything it could mean. It’s a very vague word.” But then I ended up not making a list of what it could mean, because I talked with the intended parents and they assured me that they would never want to abort a baby that was developing normal. And they assured me that if the embryos split and we were going to have triplets even, they would not insist on reducing the number of fetuses I was carrying. Well, I thought that applied in my situation. How do we know that they’re not developing normally, just because they’re conjoined?
It’s been two years since all this happened. But even two years down the road, the pain and the hurt are still there. It feels like it’s always going to be there. I feel like when those boys died, a piece of me died with them. I’ve never been the same. I used to be this confident young woman and now I feel so different and I can’t explain why. Since this experience, I’ve had a harder time connecting with people.
I saw a therapist afterwards, and got on depression and anxiety medication and it helped. After a year I felt better, and so I decided to go off the medication because I didn’t want it to be a long-term dependency thing. And then the anniversary of the twin’s death rolled around and I just fell apart again. I had panic attacks again. I didn’t really leave the house. I was depressed, and that anniversary of their passing is always going to come again and again, you know. So I had to go back on medication. So it will be a forever-thing now. I’m afraid to go back off it. I have children to provide for and look after. I can’t be a mess every day.
And having to explain what happened to my daughters? How do you explain to your children? They knew about the babies and I think they were as invested as I was, talking about the babies in Mommy’s tummy and they were always asking me how the babies were. When they found out that there wouldn’t be any babies, they were really upset. I just—well, we’re religious, and I explained that God took the babies to be angels because he needed them. And after it happened, my children drew pictures of angel babies and God taking them. Still to this day, my little one, who is now five, she’ll say, “Babies are with God.” She still remembers.
I would never consider surrogacy again. It was too hard for me emotionally to go through that loss. One of the reasons I did it was because of the women who experience loss by not being able to have a family, and I couldn’t imagine that. But now that I know what it means to lose a child myself, I couldn’t go through the sort of physical and emotional pain I went through again.
I felt I really wasn’t valued for what I was doing, or even valued as a human being. I felt like ‘hired help’ and when things didn’t go right, “Well, we’ll just throw her to the curb.”
Money-wise, the surrogacy ordeal was also a disaster. I was supposed to be paid monthly during the pregnancy and get the remaining amount upon delivery. I ended up getting nothing at the time of my delivery, so I ended up making only $7,000 or so rather than the $30,000 I expected. I was able to pay off some credit card debt, but I also had expenses. Because mine turned out to be a high-risk pregnancy, I had to miss days of work, and had to get on the Family Medical Leave Act so that my company wouldn’t fire me.
If someone came to me asking whether they should be a surrogate, I would tell them—even if they were really financially strapped and felt they understood the risks and that earning $50,000 could be life-changing for them and their family—I would tell them that it’s not worth it. None of it is worth it. The emotions that you feel, how it affects you and your family—it’s impossible to understand in advance. I mean, even if everything goes perfect, and you give this baby away, how are you going to feel then, you know? Your body’s not ever going to be the same. Your feelings are not ever going to be the same. The loss—it will still be there, always, you know.
For the embryo transfer, I had to take estrogen which is the same thing that doctors give post-menopausal women, but if you take too much, it can cause cancer. That’s now also a worry for me. Am I more likely to get cancer later on? And the pregnancy hormones I took—how will all of that affect my body in the future? I don’t get medical evaluations that would detect for this. Who has the money for these kind of long-term exams? I’ve never been examined even once for any possible long-term side effects. And if I told my health insurer, “Look, I had this pregnancy involving lots of injected hormones and it ended this way, requiring a blood transfusion, and I took all of these drugs to make it happen, and I would like to have check-ups now and again to see if everything seems okay,” would this be covered under my policy? Probably not. No clear-cut medical need. If there’s not a medical need indicated, it won’t be covered.
I would advise any woman considering surrogacy to really think about how they could handle it if things go bad, physically and emotionally. The surrogacy agency says you get your own lawyer, but then they refer the lawyer for you to use, so that lawyer knows what they want to say. I didn’t feel like I was fairly represented by someone looking out for me.
I now understand the views of those who object that surrogacy is a business transaction in which women are not treated fairly, and that laws can’t protect women’s health. And I honestly don’t think there is any way for laws to be passed that adequately protect the women and children involved. I can’t, because now that I'm facing my experience and learning other stories, there are so many scenarios that can’t even be envisioned before they happen, there’s so much that can go wrong, that no legislation can handle. I mean, I agreed to abort if something was wrong with the baby. I thought I could do it. I signed that I could do it, but then when it came around, I couldn’t do it. And intended parents can fake and lie about who they are, and pretend to be who they’re not.
If I ever had the chance to talk to the intended parents, I would tell them how hurt and disappointed I am. It’s not okay to treat anyone like that. For people that wanted a baby so badly, they were so quick just to dispose of these two ‘imperfect’ ones. But babies aren’t disposable, they’re humans and I was the one who felt life inside me. I’m the one that held the babies in my arms after I delivered them. They didn’t realize what this did to me. They didn't deserve to be parents.
I want to get my story out to warn people what can go wrong and to educate women who are seeking to be surrogates. They need to keep in mind that not all people are good and not all people have the best intentions.
At the start, I wanted to do something great. It didn’t turn out so well. You know, I was proud to be a surrogate. When I discovered the bad, it wasn’t what I thought it would be, I didn’t feel good about doing it anymore. I know there are still people out there who are going to say that surrogacy is a great thing, and they had a great experience. But things can go wrong.
Once I decided to be a surrogate, I looked up surrogacy groups on Facebook. You don’t really see anything bad out there on social media---it’s all happy stories and people supporting people. If anyone ever made one little negative comment on the Facebook group, everyone would gang up on them and shut it down. I didn’t go on those Facebook sites any more after my loss and I didn’t say what had happened to me. I was too broken at that point. I didn’t need any negative comments and I was going through so much, so I just deleted everything.
To anyone out there thinking of doing surrogacy, I would just say, you think it’s going to be a happy ending, but when things go wrong, you are the one left with the effects forever. This loss is going to stay with me forever. For the intended parents, this loss is far away and it’s not real. It’s sad.
Recorded and transcribed interview conducted with Britni Walker