Health & Medicine

Booming demand, state protections attract commercial surrogate birthing

Surrogate mother Debi Lawson rests in the delivery room at Kaiser Roseville Medical Center with new parents Eric Yan, left, and Zhenxing Bao. They were matched with Nelson by a surrogacy agency. The parents could pay as much as $200,000 for the birth of Brenda.
Surrogate mother Debi Lawson rests in the delivery room at Kaiser Roseville Medical Center with new parents Eric Yan, left, and Zhenxing Bao. They were matched with Nelson by a surrogacy agency. The parents could pay as much as $200,000 for the birth of Brenda. Special to The Bee

Sacramento elementary-school teacher Debi Lawson recently finished a second job. Like teaching, it included prep and recovery time, but she was done by summer.

Lawson delivered a baby girl June 10 for a gay couple in Los Angeles.

A surrogate mom with no relation to the child, Lawson earned a second income – and made it possible for Eric Yan and Zhenxing Bao to have a baby with a genetic link to them.

Lawson will earn $50,000 or more in fees and benefits by the time full recovery is over; Yan and Bao will pay as much as $200,000.

Surrogacy has been done privately for years, often with a family member or friend willing to carry the baby. But the practice is quietly growing commercially as modern families change and more gay and foreign couples look to the U.S. for help.

California is attractive for commercial surrogacy because the state offers some legal protection for surrogates and intended parents.

Exact numbers are hard to get because there is little formal reporting. But notations by hospital clerks statewide provide evidence that the number of such births is growing. Hospital clerks wrote “surrogate” 360 times in the comment field for birth registration in 2015, according to the California Department of Public Health. There were 53 listings in 2010.

Some say these figures lowball a market many times that size.

“Right now, demand is so high for surrogates, there’s way more parents who need them than surrogates to carry the baby,” said Lisa Stark Hughes, a former surrogate who founded Gestational Surrogate (GS) Moms Center for Reproductive Choice in Gold River three years ago.

The agency managed 10 births in 2013 but expects to hit 100 this year. A third or more are gay couples, many of them from China, which does not recognize gay marriage and recently lifted its one-child policy.

Another agency – 4 Sisters Surrogacy – opened in Roseville in September and began taking clients in January. The company had 10 by April.

Several hundred agencies, including ones owned by fertility clinics, are believed to operate in the U.S, most without oversight.

“There is no regulation of any kind,” said Brooke Kimbrough, a former surrogate who founded 4 Sisters Surrogacy. “Anybody in the whole world – even a felon – can open an agency. There is no licensing, no background check.”

California requires a signed contract before the process begins – and that separate lawyers represent surrogates and intended parents. The state also requires intended parents to explore health insurance options in advance and bans surrogate agencies from holding client trust accounts.

A bill in the works this year would clarify state jurisdiction over parentage disputes related to surrogacy agreements in California.

Still unclear is how surrogacy fees are taxed and the responsibilities of each parties’ health care plan.

Rules vary, but agencies generally restrict surrogate age to about 40, require healthy past pregnancies, a supportive partner and stable finances.

Lawson, 34, teaches second grade in south Sacramento. Interested in fertility research, she was an egg donor before she decided to be a surrogate.

“It was totally foreign to me that people have problems having children. Nobody in my family has,” Lawson said. As an egg donor, she received a card from one family who called her “their angel.”

After she had a baby of her own, Lawson applied to be a surrogate with GS Moms and agreed to a match after medical testing, interviews and communication by Skype and email. She and her family met Yan for lunch in Los Angeles the day of the embryo transfer.

Yan said he picked Lawson because her profile “showed a good background, that she was kind and an elementary school teacher.”

Yan is 34; Bao is 33. They’ve been married about two years. Yan lives in Los Angeles and works as a Realtor and agent for other Chinese couples who want a surrogate. Bao is a surgeon in China, but both go back and forth.

The couple expect to spend up to $200,000. Lawson’s base fee is $20,000, but maternity clothes, transportation, a monthly allowance and other services are likely to bring her compensation closer to $50,000, almost as much as her annual teacher salary.

“It’s basically a full-time wage but you can stay home with your kids or continue your job,” said Hughes from GS Moms.

Base fees went up about 10 percent in the last 18 months, she said. “It’s market driven. There’s huge demand.”

Hughes has five children, ages 8 to 21, so pregnancy was a known quantity for her when she decided to be a surrogate. She did it twice: Once for a gay couple, the other for a heterosexual couple in despair after six miscarriages.

“To see the look on parents’ faces after all they’ve been through brings a whole new meaning to gratefulness,” she said. “It’s not really a gift because you are getting paid, but it was an amazing experience to be able to do it for them.”

Michele Jones, a mother of four, works as a labor and delivery nurse at Mercy Hospital of Folsom. She’s been a surrogate twice for a Turkish couple. One girl was born two years ago; Jones delivered a second in March.

The match with Jones was made by Footsteps to Family LLC, a surrogacy agency in Las Vegas.

“I’ve gotten so much more than I anticipated,” Jones said. “I was the momma who helped bring these two souls into the world.”

Jones earned a base rate of $25,000. She got a monthly allowance, travel stipends, housekeeping and other compensation.

The Society for Ethics in Egg Donation and Surrogacy was established four years ago to define and promote ethical behavior in the business as the number of agencies increase.

“One of the biggest issues for agencies in the U.S., especially ones that have been around for a while, is to create a standard of care,” SEEDS president Wendie Wilson-Miller said.

“Yes, we are helping families and it is an incredible thing,” she added. “But there’s enormous responsibility as agencies to guide people in the right direction.”