Bear with Me
With help from surrogates, local couples overcome the exhausting trials of infertility
by Jocelyn Murray

Being diagnosed with cancer is shocking enough. Having to then undergo a hysterectomy and realize that conceiving a child is no longer a possibility can be altogether crushing.

TJ Henderson has first-hand experience with such trauma. When her close friend was diagnosed with uterine cancer at age 24, Henderson decided to step in.

“She still ovulated so she could produce eggs but because she had a hysterectomy, she could not physically carry a child,” Henderson says. “So I had agreed to do that for her.”

From then on, Henderson found her calling: to participate in this life-changing process that helps women and men alike achieve their dreams of having a family. She has been a surrogate twice and an egg donor once, and she also founded Surrogate Services International (SSI), a full-service fertility recruiting and matching agency based in Philadelphia.

In a world where illness, disability and infertility often go hand in hand, many women are faced with a variety of devastating situations that prevent them from being able to carry a pregnancy full term. Infertility, hysterectomies, unaccommodating uteruses and the presence of other systemic diseases that prevent pregnancy or are harmful to a fetus are just a few of the reasons many women face this situation. Additionally, many same-sex couples use surrogates to start their families.

“Most people get to the point of using a surrogate when they’ve exhausted every other avenue of reproduction,” Henderson explains. It is at this stage that many women decide to embark on the process of being matched with a surrogate.

Lisa and Andrew, a couple from New Jersey who started their family using SSI, kept hearing “no” from fertility doctors as they progressed through the lengthy process of trying to bear a child. However, when they discovered the surrogacy option, the “no” ultimately evolved into a “yes,” and having an organization to steer them through the process “made the emotional roller coaster manageable.”

There are two types of surrogates: traditional surrogates who also donate their egg in combination with the sperm of the father to produce and then carry the child to term; and nontraditional gestational surrogates who simply carry and birth the child but have no genetic relation to the child, as the egg and sperm from the intended parents are both used.

“Surrogates are typically women who either love to be pregnant and don’t want more children or who have some kind of connection to infertility, usually they know someone who has suffered through it and have seen how much of a horrible impact it has on people,” Henderson explains.

From there, the lengthy and intense process of matching intended parents with an appropriate surrogate begins. From the moment the application is submitted until the baby is delivered typically takes anywhere from 15 to 18 months. However, the process of matching a surrogate to the right couple goes far beyond her ability to carry a child.

“Sometimes we’ve matched people in as little as a day and sometimes it could take six or eight months,” Henderson says. “We match people based on having the same ethic morals, religion and politics. They are going to be in each other’s lives for an extended period of time, so it’s based on a whole range of criteria.”

The process begins for both sides with a series of screenings and background checks—both medical and psychological—to guarantee that they are a fit for the program and can be considered to be a match. The intended parents are analyzed to make sure they fit the criteria for enrollment and to uncover and address any medical, social or familial issues that surround their desire to start a family. The surrogates also undergo a wide range of testing, in addition to having to meet certain basic requirements, which may change from one agency to the other.

One of the requirements in many matching agencies, for example, is that the surrogate is financially stable and does not rely on the government for any type of assistance or subsidizing. Almost all matching agencies also require surrogates to have at least one healthy, uncomplicated, live birth of their own in addition to having a very stable, reliable and supportive home environment at which they can carry out the pregnancy. Once the surrogate and intended parents both “pass” the entrance exams and analyses to the agency, it is then a waiting game for both to find that perfect match.

‘A Lot of Work’

Some might suggest that women get involved with surrogacy purely for the financial benefits associated with it. A surrogate, on average, makes approximately $30,000, according to Henderson, for the 18 or so months the process takes—which includes doctor visits, medical expenses, maternity clothing, travel accommodation if necessary and other varying costs of the pregnancy.

“[That myth] couldn’t be farther from the truth,” says Nazca Fontes, director of Conceiveabilites, a surrogate and egg-donor agency based in Chicago and Denver. “It’s a lot of work and it’s really amazing in terms of generosity and compassion.”

Even so, surrogacy is becoming a more accepted and desirable option.

“We can particularly thank celebrities,” notes Fontes. “The public is now becoming more aware of what gestational surrogacy is.” Hollywood familiars such as Giuliana Rancic, Nicole Kidman, Sarah Jessica Parker and Neil Patrick Harris have all turned to this method of expanding their families for a variety of different reasons.

“The challenges of gestational carrier relationships are among the most challenging and rewarding aspects of reproductive endocrinology,” says Michael Sobel, D.O., a board-certified reproductive endocrinologist at Abington Reproductive Medicine in Abington. “They combine uniquely the special needs of intended parents with a very unique outsource that really becomes part of their life. It’s imperative that we as specialists make sure it’s a correct fit.”

Jeff and Scott, a same-sex couple from Philadelphia, know just how important having the framework in place is to making the arrangement work. “We call our parenting story ‘two men and a baby’ … plus three attorneys, 10 doctors, an agency and our angel (their surrogate),” Jeff says. Despite so many moving parts, each cog in the wheel does its job to navigate what can be a complex and emotional process for any couple.

Legally, there are many documents to be signed—birth orders, for example, and, in some cases adoption papers—in order for the intended parents to have complete control over the well-being of the child throughout the later parts of the pregnancy and through delivery.

Even though one might expect a surrogate to struggle at this final part of the process, most surrogates find the final part of the process joyous and are ready and willing (with all the proper documents signed) to effectively cede the newborn to its biological parents. After her own experiences as a surrogate, Henderson knows just how important the birth moment is for both parents and surrogate alike.

“You see these parents at the end of their journey, after years of heartache, and finally they do have a baby—and without you it wouldn’t have happened,” she says. “It’s always better to give than receive, and this is very much along those same lines. … You know you are doing something tremendous for someone that has no other options.”