Jessica Kern

What happens when you learn that you were born through commercial surrogacy?

Jessica KernJessica Kern

I couldn’t figure out why, when my mom was 100% Korean, that I was white. At sixteen, I learned the truth. I was sixteen the day I found the missing puzzle piece that finally made my life make sense. 

Growing up, I had always suspected something wasn’t right about my family and  household.  It was more than just the emotional and physical abuse I suffered at the hands of my parents. It was a deep and unsettling feeling that somehow I didn’t really belong.

I grew up in an interracial home – my father is white and my mother is South Korean.  I was raised as a half-Korean girl, and made to attend Korean school on the weekends as well as my mother’s Korean church.  But my appearance lacked even a trace of Asian ancestry.  At times, I wondered if I’d been adopted. But the truth turned out to be much more complicated than that.  At sixteen, a therapist I was seeing to help me deal with my parents’ abuse shared something hidden within my medical records: I was the product of a surrogacy arrangement.  The woman who had raised me from birth was not, in fact, my biological mother.

In a single moment, I was given an answer to the question that had been in the back of my mind all my life – but simultaneously presented a lifetime’s worth of additional questions that may never fully be answered.

I think that there is a very important voice missing from the ongoing cultural debate over surrogacy: the voices of the children themselves.

I think commercial surrogacy is wrong. It really is the buying and selling of babies, and the commodification of women’s bodies. There’s a huge difference between the adoption world and the donor-conceived world. The institution of adoption was not created primarily for the benefit of people wanting to be parents. It was created for the opposite--for the benefit of children--to respond to the catastrophe of children already here but with no parents or family, and who need a loving home.

With commercial surrogacy, on the other hand, we’re creating and bringing children into the world with the deliberate intention of separating them from their biological mother, and you know, that is a vastly different thing.

My own life is a perfect example of what can go wrong when science and the culture of entitlement meet – pitting the selfish desires of adults against the ultimate well-being of children.

In 1983, my mother wanted a child, but found herself infertile.  She had just undergone a new, radical treatment for cancer that left her in remission, but she was still given only a five percent chance of surviving the next five years.   Her health situation made adoption impossible – no responsible agency would place a child in such a high-risk situation. She and my dad would never have passed an adoption agency’s home study requirements. I also don’t think my mother would have passed any psychological testing. And my dad, who was 46 year sold at the time, and had a family history of all men dying in their early 50s, would also have likely flunked any screening for adoption.

Surrogacy, being comparatively unregulated, offered my parents a loophole.  My parents, although living in Virginia at the time, traveled to Michigan to make arrangements with a surrogacy agency.  They never told anyone else what they were doing.  Throughout the surrogate’s pregnancy during which I was being created, my mother apparently wore pregnancy prostheses of increasing size in order to fool friends and family into thinking she was the one carrying me. When my surrogate mother went into labor three weeks early, my parents were at a cocktail party, which made it a bit of a challenge for my mother to explain, the next day, how she suddenly had a baby.

My early arrival into the world turned out to be a stroke of luck for my parents, if perhaps not for me myself. Apparently, weeks before, my surrogate mother had mentioned her surrogacy arrangement to her doctor at a routine appointment, and out of concern for my well-being--her unborn child--the doctor called social services.  A social worker was supposed to be present at my birth in order to interview my parents, but on the advice of an attorney, my parents fled the state with me before social services could intervene.

I went through an evolution in my attitude toward surrogacy after I learned the truth about my  own origins. At first I was relieved. I knew something was not right, and honestly, my family household was extremely abusive, so to a point, it was like, "Thank God I’m not completely related to these people; there’s hope for me yet."

But as time went on, and as I gave the issue more thought, I began to feel increasingly conflicted. When you’re a teenager and you hear you’re a product of surrogacy, you don’t think too much in depth about it. I don’t know if that’s because it’s just too big a thing to think heavily about, or just because as a teenager you’re kind of self-involved. But once I began to process the information, I started to become curious about the circumstances surrounding my conception and birth.  

Despite my growing need to know, I kept my newfound knowledge hidden from my parents, even after I moved out of the family house when I was seventeen years old.  I was nineteen or twenty years old before I mustered the courage to tell my dad what I knew, and asked him for my biological mother’s name and contact information. He refused to provide the details, even though he had allegedly promised my surrogate mother that he would arrange contact when I turned eighteen. I think because I was so unhappy with our family, he thought it would reflect badly on him.  

So I turned to the internet for assistance, signing up for multiple websites where adopted children can seek to be reunited with their birth parents. I knew I didn’t fit the profile completely, but I hoped that maybe she was out there looking for me.

It turned out that my biological mother wasn’t looking for me.  She assumed that because she had provided her contact information to my dad, I would come to her if I decided that I wanted to.  She was just kind of waiting on me.

I had to wait six more years, but when I was 26 year sold, I became completely fed up with my dad’s refusal to give me the information I so desperately wanted, and so I stole two personal phone books from his house.  When my dad realized they were gone, he contacted my birth mother to warn her to expect  my call.

When I finally reached my biological mother, we talked for two hours. I learned that I was one of six children born to her  – three of them she raised, and three were surrogate children like me.  I immediately traveled to Michigan to meet my birth mom and three of my half-siblings, and also more than a dozen aunts and uncles.  I was also able to establish contact with one of the other surrogate children born to my biological mother--a half-sister. 

My birth mother told me that she went through three surrogate pregnancies out of “compassion” for infertile couples.  But she also acknowledged that in giving birth to me, she was paid $10,000 for her trouble -–more than a person would have made in a year of working a minimum wage job in the early 1980s.

My biological mother and I have had a rocky road since our first meeting. As I have become more publicly outspoken against surrogacy, our relationship has cooled.  But I’m determined to keep speaking out, in the hopes that increased public awareness might cause people to think twice before intentionally creating children who will spend nine months in a mother’s womb before being ripped away at birth to be raised by strangers. I personally am 100 %against it; I don’t understand the purpose of it. There are too many children who need homes in this world.

I write a blog called “The Other Side of Surrogacy,” where I share my views on being a donor child and tracking the rapidly developing legal landscape surrounding surrogacy.  There needs to be more education on the downfalls of surrogacy. I think that it’s too easy to look at surrogacy from the point of ‘What are my wants, what are my desires and how do I get them met?’ But it’s a lot harder to look at how it could possibly affect the child. 

One of my biggest concerns is the lack of oversight and transparency at every stage of the assisted reproductive process.  Not only are would-be parents not required to go through the same vetting process to which they would need to submit for traditional adoption, there are no requirements for donors of eggs or sperm to keep agencies apprised of their own health status post-donation.   An egg donor who later developed breast cancer, for example, would not be required to report that, even though any female child conceived using her eggs would be at an increased risk of developing the disease and should therefore be monitored more closely.  That means donor children are often left totally in the dark about potential health problems down the line.

When I’m filling out routine forms at doctors’ offices, I’m reminded of what a slap in the face these forms are for donor children who have no idea about their genetic history.  If they’re lucky, they will have information about at least one of their genetic parents.  But for those born to surrogate mothers who are sometimes implanted with both donor eggs and donor sperm, it’s like, “I don’t know, your guess is as good as mine.”

People like me often suffer from a deep primal wound as a result of being separated at birth from our biological mothers. Babies know their own mother through all their senses, and when a baby is separated from that mother, the prenatal bonding is interrupted, and there is a trauma that happens to both the baby and the mother, and we both feel as if something is missing within us.

I'm deeply saddened to see another piece of legislation—New York State Governor Cuomo’s proposed bill-- aimed at legalizing surrogacy, where I don't see anything that protects surrogate children at the most basic of levels. From my perspective, when I read this bill, I see that the goals of the bill are to clear up any legal custodial issues that might arise from a surrogacy agreement. I see that we want to ensure that surrogates have a right to be paid for their services. But why am I not seeing requirements of screenings of would-be parents, and background checks, and home visits to confirm their suitability to be parents, before they pay for children to be conceived through these technologies?

One thing that is highly agreed upon within the donor conception community is that anonymity should not be allowed. In reading Governor Cuomo's bill, I see that there are provisions for using anonymous donor gametes.  But I know from personal experience that there are parents who fear that if their donors were known it would complicate the custodial issues for them, so they would prefer not to know the donor or allow the children to know their biological parent.

The word "donor," from the get go, is a misnomer. Very few men or women actually "donate" their sperm or egg--they're usually financially compensated. But this profit-driven industry has captured all the feel-good vocabulary and pushed it so much that we as a society don't even question it. These feel-good words take the place of more accurate words and phrases, like “bought and sold” and “abandoned.”

If you consider the provisions of any legislation legalizing commercial surrogacy, including those in Governor Cuomo’s bill,  I ask you to try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is donor-conceived. Notice how the “parents” commissioning the purchase of children are protected, but never the children. Try and imagine the feelings you could have towards this industry, when we see from the get-go that donor-conceived children aren't treated as a blessing, but a right.

Surrogacy is not in the best interest for children. Instead, surrogacy is a great way to circumnavigate the background checks, screening, and home studies that are required of would-be parents who seek children for adoption--meaning that there is no guarantee that the children being born are being ensured a safe home. 

I myself lived in an abusive household, and had to flee just after turning seventeen. My reality is that I don't have a relationship with my birth father, or adoptive mother, and they no longer have a child. Surrogacy isn't a magic answer for creating families.

The majority of all surrogacy transactions involve either donor egg or sperm, or both. This means when we are creating children via a technology with the deliberate intention of separating them from one or both of their biological parents at birth. There is so much evidence within the world of psychology that shows the detrimental effects of separating a child from their biological parents. In a letter to a mental health journal written by E.  Wellisch, he rightly states that the "...knowledge of and definite relationship to his genealogy is necessary for a child to build up his complete body image and world picture. It's an inalienable and entitled right of every person. There's an urge-- a call--in everybody to follow and fulfill the tradition of the family, race, religion and community into which he was born.” 

To deliberately deprive me and other surrogacy-conceived children of this inalienable right by legalizing commercial surrogacy births is unconscionable, and should not be condoned.


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