After the birth of her second child, Samantha Mathews and her husband, Dan, decided two was enough. They went camping and traveled frequently, and they worried that a larger family would hinder their lifestyle. Samantha didn’t want to be done getting pregnant, though. In fact, she loved every aspect of bearing children, including laboring and giving birth.
Fast-forward three years, and she is now getting ready for her fourth pregnancy, her second as a gestational surrogate. The opportunity to be pregnant again, along with her desire to help couples with fertility challenges, led her to pursue carrying babies for others.
“At that point, I had no clue what surrogacy entailed, other than that movie Baby Mama,” she told me, laughing. “It’s not an accurate portrayal.”
Samantha and Dan are the 30-something content creators behind WeAreDanandSam, a YouTube channel with just under 300,000 subscribers and an even bigger Instagram account. The Missouri-based couple shares travel and lifestyle content, but their surrogacy videos are the most popular, drawing viewers eager to take a peek into the experience of carrying someone else’s child. Understandably so: Samantha may be the only highly visible surrogate whose life otherwise seems so endearingly normal.
Her desire to be pregnant for someone else isn’t as rare. Among the few other women who have shared their journeys as surrogate mothers online, several mention a love of pregnancy and the desire to go through it without keeping the child. In a recent video, one woman named Sarah Rose recounted thinking, “How amazing would it be to help somebody else, while also getting to enjoy pregnancy, and no baby for me!”
“Women have a demonstrated preference for caretaker work.”
Women have a demonstrated preference for caretaker work, heavily self-selecting into fields like education and health care. What could cater more to their strengths than the work of nurturing a child in their own wombs? This is what surrogacy offers women, and as influencers like the Mathewses normalize it for Americans, it is likely that more women will offer their healthy bodies to help others: most notably, infertile couples and same-sex ones. And they get to help their own families, as they bring in sizable incomes doing what they love from home.
The fact that a love of pregnancy and motherhood is an entry point into surrogacy is something of a cosmic irony. Radical feminists like Shulamith Firestone championed assistive reproductive technologies for their potential to free women from biological limits on when and how they decide to have babies. Egg-freezing, in vitro fertilization, and surrogacy were supposed to neutralize some of the biological disparities between the sexes. Yet today, surrogacy is only possible because of women like Samantha Mathews, who happily embrace the work of motherhood, even for someone else.
When I asked Mathews how much she was getting paid as a second-time surrogate, she demurred, citing her contract, which prohibits her from publicizing the exact amount. Instead, she gave me a similar range to the one yielded by a recent Google search, about $30,000 to $60,000, adding that second-timers usually start at rates $5,000 to $10,000 higher than those of first-timers.
This was the only part of the story Mathews seemed to feel icky about: “I felt really weird saying, ‘This is my rate,’ so it was more of a conversation, and we went back and forth until we agreed on something.”
Before my call with Mathews, I had been applying to surrogacy agencies myself, to learn how the process worked. One agency, Worldwide Surrogacy Specialists, offered me a range of $45,000 to $55,000 to serve as a surrogate—more than my first full-time salary as a journalist. As a young, married, stay-at-home mom with one easy pregnancy and delivery behind me, and no medical history to speak of, I had an inkling already that I might be a prime candidate to give birth for a living. I didn’t expect to be offered the upper end of the bracket, even before negotiation, as a first-time uterus lessor.
I wasn’t planning to sign up, but the deeper I dug, the more I began to understand the draw. The aesthetic is captivating: Agencies’ literature for potential “carriers,” as they are called, is replete with all the cute phrases and photo ops that make pregnancy both a brand and a plot twist to keep followers engaged in the Instagram era. While the money-power dynamic is balanced inescapably toward the intended parents, another, more intrinsic power dynamic seems to tilt back toward the women who have enough youth and fertility to share it at will. I soon found myself browsing empowering birth videos and reading up on prenatal health, full of nostalgia and the desire to do it all again for myself.
In a traditional surrogacy arrangement, a woman is artificially inseminated for the agreed purpose of transferring the child to a couple upon delivery. While the sperm typically comes from one member of the couple who will keep the child, the egg comes from the woman carrying the baby and is therefore genetically related to the surrogate.
The more common approach today, and what Samantha Mathews does, is “gestational surrogacy.” Enabled by the invention of IVF in 1978, a gestational surrogate is implanted with someone else’s embryo, the fertilized egg, meaning she isn’t genetically related to the child she carries. These embryos may be created by the would-be parents from their own gametes, or it can be created using “donor” eggs and sperm purchased from third and fourth parties. This is a much more expensive way of making babies than traditional surrogacy, given the five-figure costs of IVF alone, not to mention buying eggs or sperm if needed, but it is preferred for the obvious reason that the resulting child is genetically related to the purchasing couple—or at least, not genetically related to the surrogate mother.
The importance of a genetic break between a surrogate and the child she carried became abundantly clear in 1985, when a New Jersey woman named Mary Beth Whitehead agreed to be a traditional surrogate for biochemist William Stern and his pediatrician wife, Elizabeth. Whitehead was a high-school dropout; her husband, Richard, was a garbage collector with a drinking problem. The Whiteheads had two children together and a house in foreclosure at the time she agreed to be a surrogate.
The Sterns, meanwhile, were pursuing surrogacy out of something more than a whim but less than necessity: After delaying kids until Elizabeth finished medical school, they had decided against conceiving naturally or through IVF for fear of potential pregnancy complications due to her mild case of multiple sclerosis. But they wanted a child: William Stern, a Holocaust survivor, was determined to pass on his genealogy, as he would later testify in court
Stern’s and Whitehead’s contract, brokered by a New York fertility clinic, stipulated that Whitehead would relinquish the baby to the Sterns upon birth, in exchange for $10,000. Whitehead never took the money, however. Instead, she showed up on the Sterns’ doorstep a day after relinquishing the then-3-day-old “Baby M,” hysterically begging to take back the baby for another week, under threat of suicide. The Sterns agreed to let Whitehead keep the child for two days, which became four months after Whitehead and her husband kidnapped the girl, moving between some 20 hotels, motels, and homes to avoid apprehension. They were finally discovered at Whitehead’s parents’ home in Florida.
“The connection between a mother and her baby couldn’t be overcome by money.”
In the custody battle that ensued, the Sterns were awarded possession of Baby M, but the New Jersey Supreme Court overruled a lower court on the legitimacy of the surrogacy contract. The superior court ruled that paying a woman to carry a pregnancy was “illegal, perhaps criminal, and potentially degrading to women.” The landmark case In re Baby M demonstrated to the public eye what all the lobbying in the world couldn’t: The connection between a mother and her baby couldn’t be overcome by money. In order to make surrogacy work, the link between the mother and child during pregnancy would have to be smashed.
There was one more important detail in the Baby M controversy, which foreshadowed the shape the surrogacy industry would take. While much of the commentary on the dispute concerned the exploitative nature of many surrogacy relationships, with the rich buying and the poor selling, Whitehead herself rejected the idea that money was her only motivation.
“Oh God, I think it works out to like 52 cents an hour,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “And I don’t work cheap.”
“With IVF pregnancy, you do have to kind of trick your body into thinking it is pregnant before you transfer the embryo,” Samantha Mathews told me. Since October, she has been taking Lupron, a hormone suppressant originally used to treat prostate cancer and more recently employed as a puberty blocker. The puberty blocker is given to a surrogate mother to suppress her ovulation, ensuring she doesn’t get pregnant with her own egg before the IVF procedure, when the intended parents’ embryo will be transferred into her uterus.
Lupron is delivered in a shot, which means Mathews has had to stick herself with a needle daily, a process she admitted has been a challenge: “I’m not good with needles.” She has also been taking prescription estrogen, to thicken her uterine lining to better support the impending pregnancy, plus a progesterone injection, “to tell my body that I am pregnant so that when you do transfer the embryo, my body doesn’t think it’s a foreign object and try to get rid of it.” She will continue to take progesterone until the end of the first trimester, typically six to eight weeks after the IVF procedure.
Every medical protocol is slightly different, but these three components—suppressing ovulation, thickening the uterine lining, and making the body believe it’s already pregnant—are consistent. Without the delicate balance of hormones mimicking the environment of a natural pregnancy, IVF doctors run the risk of the woman’s uterus rejecting the foreign embryo, a very expensive loss. Mathews said she has experienced unpleasant side effects, however, including weight gain, fatigue, and crying for no reason: “It’s definitely an emotional roller coaster with the estrogen and progesterone.”
Compared to the hormone schedule beforehand, the IVF procedure itself is quite simple. The doctor injects the embryo into the surrogate’s uterus via catheter, and 15 minutes later, she walks out. (“You have to sit there with your knees up for about 10 minutes,” Mathews said; apparently the old practice of staying on your back in order for the pregnancy to “catch” is still informing conception, even in the doctor’s office.)
In her own pregnancies, Mathews never experienced morning sickness, but she did with her first surrogate pregnancy. She also had a subchorionic hematoma, a pooling of blood underneath the amniotic sac during the first trimester, which resulted in heavy bleeding.
“It felt like I was having a miscarriage,” Mathews recalled. “I had extreme cramping and blood clots. I had never experienced that before, but it is apparently fairly common with IVF pregnancies.”
Despite her natural concern, a healthy baby boy was safely burrowing in Mathews’ womb, where he would stay until the 38th week of pregnancy. At this point—the same week of pregnancy at which Mathews had delivered her own babies—the baby (Mathews calls him “Surro Babe”) didn’t appear to be moving at a healthy rate in a non-stress test. The doctors recommended inducing labor, and Mathews delivered him naturally after only 20 minutes of active labor.
Mathews described each of these symptoms calmly. In her experience, pregnancy as a surrogate was largely uneventful, even with the added weight of carrying someone else’s child, and feeling pressure—mostly self-inflicted—to do everything just right. But this is not true for every surrogacy case.
Jennifer Lahl, the founder and president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture in California, said she began to advocate against surrogacy after her 20-year career as a pediatric nurse, during which she had seen an abnormally high number of surrogate babies end up in the neonatal intensive care unit.
“In surrogacy cases, you see overwhelmingly small birth weights, like severely premature birth weight, which has lifelong consequences,” said Lahl. “Even if they have a singleton, and definitely if they have a twin or triplet pregnancy, often those babies spend weeks, if not months, in the NICU.” Health problems are more likely to rack the mother, too, according to the findings of a study published in the journal Dignity by Lahl and several other researchers, including a clinical director of inpatient mental-health services for the State of Minnesota. Surrogate mothers, they found, are more likely to have high-risk pregnancies, more likely to have adverse outcomes, and more likely to experience postpartum depression, compared to natural mothers.
Here, too, Samantha Mathews’s experience was different: “I did not have any postpartum depression,” she said, attributing this to the fact that, beginning one week after delivering Surro Babe, she and her family packed up in an RV for an action-filled, six-month-long road trip around the United States. This was an intentional decision, to help Mathews keep her mind on her own kids, rather than mourn the baby she just gave up.
“I think because I was able to focus on something else, it really cleared my mind,” Mathews said. “I don’t think I really gave my mind or body a chance to be like, ‘What’s going on?’ Because, you know, your body doesn’t know that the baby wasn’t yours. Your mind does, and your heart does, but hormonally, you’re definitely all over the place.”
“This idea of mental training is a frequent refrain among surrogates.”
Likewise, before and throughout the pregnancy, Mathews schooled her own mind and her children’s minds in this “not-my-baby” language: “Mommy is having a baby for someone else,” she would tell her kids, Canyon and Ember. This idea of mental training is a frequent refrain among surrogates who share their positive surrogacy experiences online, whether in testimonials for the agencies they work with—some agencies offer referral fees and recruiting bonuses to their star surrogates—or in online forums.
“It’s a disassociation from their bodies,” Lahl told me, “and it’s in all the language of these agencies’ marketing. The agencies will never use the word ‘pregnant’ or ‘pregnancy’—it’s always ‘journey.’ They try to separate it from the full-body experience that pregnancy entails.”
The rise of commercial surrogacy has transformed not just women’s bodies, but other ancient human practices like adoption. Intercountry adoptions have slumped by 98 percent since 2005. This decline caught the attention of law professors like David Smolin, the director of Samford University’s Center for Children, Law, and Ethics in Birmingham, Ala. In the absence of successful adoption matches, Smolin became concerned that a demand for children was being filled by the budding surrogacy industry.
“Intercountry adoptions have slumped by 98 percent since 2005.”
He wasn’t the only one. In 2018, a Dutch jurist named Maud de Boer-Buquicchio presented a report on international surrogacy to the UN Human Rights Council. As the UN special rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography, she was concerned with the practice’s proximity to baby selling. “Many of the arguments provided in support of these legal regimes for commercial surrogacy could, if accepted, legitimate practices in other fields, such as adoption, that are considered illicit,” de Boer-Buquicchio wrote.
By far the biggest of these potentially illicit practices is the surrogate’s payment for carrying the baby. In the world of adoption, money transfers are closely monitored. In rare cases, a mother surrendering her child for adoption upon birth may be reimbursed for her medical expenses, but not without extensive oversight.
“All of those statutes are intended to make sure we’re not buying and selling babies,” explained Debra Guston, a surrogacy lawyer based in New Jersey. “Even lawyers and adoption agencies have to document what the birth mother’s actual expenses are: rent, cell phone bill, etc., to make sure that she is given nothing more than what her actual expenses are. So it’s not compensation, it’s reimbursement.”
Like mothers who surrender their child for adoption, a surrogate is also reimbursed for her expenses. The $30,000 to $60,000 she makes in addition, surrogacy advocates argue, is “compensation” in exchange for the use of her uterus: She isn’t selling a baby—she is renting out her womb.
Emma Waters, the Heritage Foundation’s resident surrogacy expert, pointed to law professor Adeline Allen, who argued provocatively that surrogacy proponents use the same language as 19th-century slave-trade proponents. Both say the market isn’t for humans themselves, but for their labor—and, in the case of surrogacy, delivery.
“The law says you’re not paying a surrogate for a child, because that would be bad,” Waters explained. “Instead, you’re simply compensating a woman for her time and discomfort. Except, you’re only paying her in bits as she goes along, and she has to deliver the baby to get the full amount she’s agreed to.”
In 2019, Smolin published a paper titled “The One Hundred Thousand Dollar Baby” on the economy of surrogacy. “The surrogate mother is not getting all that of course,” he told me. “All these intermediaries are getting paid to link up strangers to one another, long contracts are drawn out, there are a lot of power struggles over who decides what—it’s a very commercialized, very profit-driven industry.”
Stereotypically, while the majority of Europe has seen the profit motive as potentially exploitative of the women and children involved—most European countries have banned commercial surrogacy altogether—the United States has preferred to let such markets flourish. This isn’t simply due to an absence of law. In a 2019 address at a Cambridge Family Law conference sponsored by the American Bar Association, the University of California law professor Courtney Joslin triumphantly hailed America’s “almost uniform shift in favor of legislation that permits and regulates at least some forms of surrogacy.”
This laissez-faire approach to surrogacy owes partly due to the newness of assistive reproductive technologies. But interested parties have also played a role in keeping federal regulation away from this global industry, which is expected to grow to $129 billion in the next decade, up from $14 billion in 2022. In 2019, the American Bar Association issued a “model act” for how states ought to regulate this booming new industry.
Under the model law, restrictions on surrogacy contracts are minimal: Every party to an assisted-reproduction agreement should have informed consent and independent legal representation. The surrogate should undergo a psychological consultation, and her entire payment should be placed in an escrow account before she is implanted. A surrogacy agreement should be binding and executed before an embryo is transferred.
Ideally, the ABA’s minimums would be the benchmark for all 47 of the US states where commercial surrogacy is legal. (Louisiana, Michigan, and Nebraska ban the practice.) Because there is no federal law governing surrogacy, however, each state has its own set of rules which may or may not comport with the ABA’s recommendations, and morality is hammered out by the lawyers who write the contracts. Ethical decisions are reduced to consent questions: How many embryos will she consent to have implanted? Will the surrogate submit to an abortion under any circumstances, only if the child’s health or her own is in danger, or none at all? Will the parents consent to let the surrogate see the child after birth?
Under these parameters, a broad variety of arrangements can be made.
Take the example of a gay couple: Both may donate sperm to the embryo creation process, but the egg must be purchased from another woman, whether the surrogate herself or, much more typically, an egg donor. The birth certificate will never include the egg donor, and it typically won’t include the birth mother, either, assuming the lawyers have done their job.
“The intended parents will be the only people on the birth certificate in many states,” explained Nidhi Desai, director of assisted reproductive technologies at the Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys, or AAAA. “A lot of states have the pre-birth order process, where you go into court, a judge declares parentage to the intended parents, and that means the original birth certificates will list the parents. In other states, they issue an administrative birth certificate, which is then amended to name the intended parents shortly after birth.”
In its 2019 model act, the ABA states that a woman who donates her eggs and a man who donates his sperm to assisted reproduction are not to be considered parents and have no rights or obligations to a child created with their gametes. They are strictly “donors,” and their rights are terminated upon the retrieval of the sperm or egg. Yet, if the same man and woman combine the same sperm and egg in a lab and implant it in another woman with the intention of keeping the child, they are considered that child’s natural parents. Twelve states—California, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington—and the District of Columbia don’t require even one parent to be related to the child in order for the intended parents to be granted full rights.
The same goes in the case of a death. The intended parent is the legal parent of an embryo produced at his behest while alive, but if he should die before the embryo is used, the resulting child isn’t legally his, according to the model act, unless the deceased wishes him to be and leaves this wish in writing before his death.
All of this serves to create a new legal means of determining parentage that is separate from biology.
“You’re pretending they were born into a stereotypical family, where the mom and dad conceived them through sex in the context of marriage,” Smolin said. “It’s very odd. What this does is de-complicate people who come from complicated origins. If we’re not afraid of complicated origins, why do we need to de-complicate the story in the law?”
The ABA has referred to this as the “contractual” model of determining parentage. If a contract exists prior to the conception of the child, both baby and money can change hands without concern.
Theresa Erickson, then 43, was a high-profile California surrogacy attorney and the author of a book on assisted reproduction when she was convicted, together with two accomplices, of illegal baby selling in 2012. Erickson, who herself had served as a surrogate and egg donor, had been sending would-be surrogate mothers overseas to Ukraine, having them implanted with donor embryos, and then connecting them with would-be parents Stateside under the auspices of a previous surrogacy agreement having fallen through. In the United States, at least on paper, a surrogate couldn’t be implanted without the IVF doctor first consulting the lawyers, but Ukraine’s surrogacy laws are among the most lax in the world.
These three female lawyers were in breach of numerous ethical guidelines and also committed wire fraud, but that wasn’t what landed Erickson in federal prison for five months. She was caught, and ultimately sentenced, because her contracts for the sale of a dozen babies had been put into place after each child was conceived. Had they taken place before conception, no bust would have occurred.
Brad Hoylman flew 3,000 miles to get his two daughters through commercial surrogacy. The state senator’s home state of New York banned commercial surrogacy at the time, prompting Hoylman and his male partner to make multiple trips to California to construct their family.
In 2021, Hoylman successfully campaigned to legalize commercial surrogacy in New York. His bill was marketed as a way to help infertile and LGBT couples have children through surrogacy, but altruistic surrogacy was already legal in the state of New York and had been for quite some time. A woman could legally carry someone else’s child, she just couldn’t be paid for it. Apparently, it didn’t much matter: Hoylman and his partner couldn’t find a woman to do the job for free.
“If they stopped paying surrogates, the market would just shrink overnight,” said Lahl, the anti-commercial-surrogacy advocate. “These women overwhelmingly do the job for money, but they don’t want to admit that, because there’s shame involved.”
Lahl’s role as an advocate makes her a magnet for horror stories in this field, and she readily admits her personal sample of surrogate women is skewed. But even if money weren’t a primary motivator for most women who become surrogates, it clearly tips the scales. And as the demand for young, healthy women has increased, so has a surrogate’s compensation.
“Finding women who are medically and psychologically prepared to take on this task is not easy,” said Guston, the New Jersey lawyer. “A lot of people don’t qualify, and, in the basest of terms, it is a commodity that is at short supply. I hate to look at it like that, but that’s where I see it on a cost basis.”
This high cost is largely borne by the “intended parents,” the couple who will go home with the child, provided everything goes according to plan. The effect, in practice and in law, is a newfound “right to procreate,” as Smolin called it. That could mean, as some surrogacy proponents argue, insurance ought to cover these high costs for every couple that wants to have children through assistive reproductive technologies.
In 2022, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) sought to codify precisely such a right. The Right to Build Families Act, which died before reaching a floor vote, would have prohibited any state from limiting the right of an individual to access reproductive technology, as well as ensuring parents who pursued such technologies would retain “all rights regarding the use of reproductive genetic materials, including gametes.” That would have meant federal legal protection for unregulated baby making, and the equivalent of copyright ownership of human embryos.
A surrogacy contract contains two primary parties: the intended parents and the surrogate mother. There is a third interested party, however: the surrogacy agency. Like an adoption agency, this third party brokers the connections between those who desire to be parents with those who desire to be pregnant without keeping the child.
“Generally, the professionals involved in adoption have to be licensed, either by the child-placement agency, which in Florida is regulated by the Florida Bar Association, or by the state,” explained Jeanne Tate, a Florida adoption lawyer and AAAA member with more than 40 years of experience. “It’s pretty rigorous in terms of ethical and professional responsibility. Agencies themselves are licensed by the Department of Children and Families, and they also have a pretty rigorous set of compliances that govern their actions in an adoption.”
Meanwhile, Tate said, “if you wanted to start a surrogacy agency, you could start one today.” Indeed, she founded hers, Heart of Surrogacy LLC, in 2020.
“These agencies operate on their own terms.”
Other than complying with any surrogacy statutes on the books, these agencies operate on their own terms; no federal or state body exists to oversee them.
Parham Zar is the CEO of Egg Donor and Surrogacy Institute, a surrogate matching agency based in Beverly Hills, Calif. While many government entities regulate the technical aspects of the medical procedure of egg harvesting and IVF, he said “everything is really voluntary” for matching agencies. “We follow the guidelines of the fertility clinic. They are the ones who decide ultimately if they like the surrogacy arrangement, and the surrogacy contract is subject to their decisions.”
The agency defers to fertility doctors. The doctors defer to the lawyers, according to Guston, and won’t proceed with a surrogacy pregnancy before consulting both parties’ counsel. The lawyers, for the most part, defer to the AAAA and the ABA, and the ABA defers back to the physicians on the validity of a surrogacy agreement.
There are a number of other organizations, like AAAA, which offer guidelines to the players in a surrogacy agreement. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine issues opinions on ethical questions for scientists, but according to Riley Rodgers, a spokesperson for ASRM, these exist exclusively to educate members and aren’t binding. The Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, which sets slightly higher standards for IVF doctors than standard practice, is also voluntary, though its guidelines are binding on members. Matching agencies have no comparable member organization for even this voluntary level of accountability.
The thorniest questions in the world of surrogacy are easily the philosophical ones, especially the one that is played out in every live embryo transfer: Where do the woman’s rights end and the baby’s begin? Does a woman have the final say over the pregnancy as it affects her body, as the pro-abortion-rights argument goes, or do buyers have the final authority over a child that comes from them and was created at their behest?
“The surrogacy industry is buoyed by ideas feminism has worked hard to suppress.”
As with the market for women who love pregnancy, the surrogacy industry is buoyed by ideas feminism has worked hard to suppress. A surrogate can be paid as early as the eighth week of pregnancy, or as soon as a fetal heartbeat is confirmed, Samantha Mathews, the second-time surrogate mother, told me. The intended parents are responsible for the child even earlier, said Desai, the assistive-reproductive-technologies director at AAAA: “Once there is that pregnancy, that is your child. That goes in every which way.”
That does not include abortion decisions, Desai says, at least in her state of Illinois. Here, again, morality is subject to the contract—or the state you live in: While intended parents cannot force a surrogate to abort, they can threaten legal action for contract violations, which typically include some form of abortion clause.
In New Jersey, too, lawyer Debra Guston said the surrogate has the right to terminate a pregnancy—or at least, a “non-viable” one—regardless of the wishes of the intended parents: “If a baby ends up not being viable, she has the right to control that situation, regardless of what the intended parents are asking her to do.”
Brittney Pearson lived this. The California mother of four and second-time surrogate was 20 weeks into her pregnancy for a gay couple when she was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer. Upon learning that she would have to deliver the 24-week-old baby immediately in order to receive chemotherapy, the couple insisted Pearson abort the child. The “intended parents” in this case threatened both the surrogacy agency and her doctors with lawsuits if they proceeded to deliver the child.
“My OB was trying to find someone who would basically deliver me without saving the baby,” Pearson told me. “I hate to say that, but the parents didn’t want the baby to be saved, so we had to find a place where I could deliver that would do that.” A week later, Pearson gave birth to a baby boy; he died shortly afterward.
“In my head, I didn’t have a choice,” Pearson said. “My children need a mom, and everything was happening so fast that was all I could focus on.”
In the case of an abortion or miscarriage, the surrogate mother’s payments stop immediately. There is a point, however, late in the pregnancy—Mathews reckons definitely by 38 weeks—when a surrogate would still be paid in full if the baby didn’t make it.
Mathews told me she probably won’t become a surrogate again. The matching process is exhausting, and her desire to help couples become parents left her feeling sad and discouraged about the number of families she couldn’t help. More important, she didn’t set out intending to do more than one surrogate pregnancy. But her dream from the beginning had been to form a lifelong relationship with the parents whose children she carried. The parents of Surro Babe declined to admit Mathews into the child’s life. But in the parents of Surro Babe No. 2, Mathews believes she has found an opening.
“We’ve already told them, ‘Only for you, we would consider doing a sibling journey,’” she said.
Because commercial surrogacy is still so new, and has only very recently become accessible to couples outside the top 1 percent of earners, children born from surrogacy arrangements are scarce. Most, like the famed Baby M, prefer to keep their lives private.
Jessica Kern is the exception. The product of a traditional surrogacy agreement, Kern has shared her story alongside Jennifer Lahl numerous times. “My birth mother is also my biological mother,” Kern told the audience at an event organized by Lahl in 2021. “She entered into an arrangement with my biological father and adopted mother for $10,000 and gave me over to them.”
Kern was a senior in high school when she found out, after stumbling upon a description of her birth in a medical record, that her adopted mother was not her biological mother. Though Kern’s Caucasian appearance had frequently raised questions, since her adopted mother is South Korean, Kern’s mother had attempted to pass off the girl as her biological child. Even if she had been told she was adopted, however, as a donor-conceived child, Kern wasn’t legally entitled to know her biological mother’s identity had she sought it. When she eventually found her birth mother, it stirred up jealousy with her biological mother’s children, Kern’s half-siblings, who believed Kern had been given away because there “wasn’t enough love to go around.” It also caused a rift with her adopted mother.
“It insulted her greatly that I would want to have a relationship with someone who wasn’t her, in a parental way,” Kern said. “There’s this sense of, you know, ‘We paid for you, you’re our kid, you’re not supposed to go out and seek anyone else.’”
Kern listed her concerns with surrogacy with such a serene demeanor that you might have thought she was just reading out a grocery list: Her low, clear voice never trembled or reached a frantic register. But her experience, anecdotal though it may be, has been undeniably painful.
“It boggles my mind that what differentiates human trafficking from surrogacy is when the document is signed,” Kern told audience members. “If you sign the document before the mother gets pregnant, it’s surrogacy; if you sign it during the pregnancy, it’s human trafficking. Those of us who are products, do you think it matters to us when the form gets signed? It’s the same actions happening.”