NEW YORK, March 30, 2008 - The concept of surrogacy is decried by conservative Christians, viewed as a form of prostitution by far-left feminists and debated by medical ethicists and lawmakers, but the practice is on the rise. For the April 7 Newsweek cover, "Womb For Rent" (on newsstands Monday, March 31), Senior Writer Lorraine Ali and Associate Editor Raina Kelley found more women than ever before are having babies for those who cannot. At the high end, industry experts estimate there were about 1,000 surrogate births in the U.S. last year, while the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology counted about 260 in 2006, a 30 percent increase over three years. But the number is surely much higher than this -- in just five of the agencies Newsweek spoke to, there were 400 surrogate births in 2007. The discrepancy in the figures stems from the way these births are counted.
Newsweek discovered that many women who have turned to surrogacy are military wives looking to supplement the family income while their husbands are serving overseas. Several agencies reported a significant increase in the number of wives of soldiers and naval personnel applying to be surrogates since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. These women can earn more with one pregnancy than their husbands' annual base pay (which ranges for new enlistees from $16,080 to $28,900).
Military wife Gernisha Myers, 24, says she was looking through the local San Diego PennySaver circular for a job when she saw the listing: "Surrogate Mothers Wanted! Up to $20,000 Compensation!" The full-time mother of two thought it would be a great way to make money from home, and it would give her that sense of purpose she'd lacked since she left her job as an X-ray technician. She loved the feel of her belly with a baby inside, and that natural high that comes from "all those rushing hormones." Despite some negative reactions from her family members, Myers says she is "OK with it because I know I am doing something good for somebody else. I am giving another couple what they could never have on their own -- a family."
IVF clinics and surrogate agencies in Texas and California say military spouses make up 50 percent of their carriers. "In the military, we have that mentality of going to extremes, fighting for your country, risking your life," says Jennifer Hansen, 25, a paralegal who's married to Army Sgt. Chase Hansen. They live in Lincoln, Neb., and have two young kids, and Chase has been deployed to Iraq for two of the last five years. "I think that being married to someone in the military embeds those values in you. I feel I'm taking a risk now, in less of a way than he is, but still a risk with my life and body to help someone." Surrogate agencies target the population by dropping leaflets in the mailboxes of military housing complexes, such as those around San Diego's Camp Pendleton, and placing ads in on-base publications such as the Military Times and Military Spouse.
Military wives are also attractive candidates because of their health insurance, Tricare, which has some of the most comprehensive coverage for surrogates in the industry, and agencies may offer a potential surrogate with this health plan an extra $5,000. Last year military officials asked for a provision in the 2008 defense authorization bill to cut off coverage for any medical procedures related to surrogate pregnancy. They were unsuccessful -- there are no real data on how much the government spends on these cases. Tricare suggests that surrogate mothers who receive payment for their pregnancy should declare the amount they're receiving, which can then be deducted from their coverage. But since paid carriers have no incentive to say anything, most don't. The subject of Tricare surrogacy coverage is becoming a hot topic throughout the military world, and fiercely debated on Web sites such as militarySOS.com.
Another reason for the rise in surrogacies is that technology has made them safer and more likely to succeed. Clinics now boast a 70 to 90 percent pregnancy success rate -- up 40 percent in the past decade. Rather than just putting an egg into a petri dish with thousands of sperm and hoping for a match, embryologists can inject a single sperm directly into the egg. The great majority of clinics can now test embryos for genetic diseases before implantation. It's revolutionizing the way clinics treat patients. Ric Ross, lab director at LaJolla IVF in San Diego, says these advances have helped "drop IVF miscarriage rates by 85 percent."
There is still a lot that is not understood about the world of the surrogate. The culture still stereotypes surrogates as either hicks or opportunists whose ethics could use some fine-tuning. Even pop culture has bought into the caricature. In the upcoming feature film "Baby Mama," a single businesswoman (Tina Fey) is told by a doctor that she is infertile and hires a working-class gal (Amy Poehler) to be her surrogate. The client is a savvy, smart and well-to-do health-store-chain exec while Poehler is an unemployed, deceitful wild child who wants easy money.
To better understand them, Newsweek spoke with dozens of women across America who are, or have been, surrogates. What we found is surprising and defies stereotyping. The experiences of this vast group of women range from the wonderful and life-affirming to the heart-rending. One surrogate, Gina Scanlon, is the godmother of the twins she bore, while another still struggles because she has little contact with the baby she once carried. Some resent being told what to eat or drink; others feel more responsible bearing someone else's child than they did with their own. Their motivations are varied: one upper-middle-class carrier in California said that as a child she watched a family member suffer with infertility and wished she could help. Another working-class surrogate from Idaho said it was the only way her family could afford things they never could before. But all were agreed that the grueling IVF treatments, morning sickness, bed rest, C-sections and stretch marks were worth it once they saw their intended parent hold the child, or children (multiples are common with IVF), for the first time. "Being a surrogate is like giving an organ transplant to someone," says Jennifer Cantor, "only before you die, and you actually get to see their joy."
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