A new birth plan – Local couples discover their path to parenthood through the process of gestational surrogacy
Kristy McKearn never experienced morning sickness, never felt her baby boy kick inside her belly. But today, it’s easy to see that 4-year-old Jack inherited Kristy’s blond hair and her husband Todd’s green eyes. He is his parents’ child in every genetic way.
There’s only one thing that sets the McKearns’ baby story apart: another woman carried little Jack in her uterus because Kristy could not.
The McKearns’ journey toward surrogacy began with what seemed like a devastating proclamation. Because of a preexisting heart condition, two cardiologists warned Kristy that it would be dangerous for her to get pregnant and carry a baby to full term. ?
“As you can imagine, we were heartbroken to hear the news, and I struggled with whether I would follow their advice,” Kristy recalls.
But ultimately, the couple realized they needed to make the “safest, most logical decision” for the health of Kristy and their future child. That meant pursuing an unexpected path. “We started researching surrogacy, and we spoke to another couple in Baton Rouge who had worked with an agency in California,” Kristy says. “That conversation provided some assurance that this new concept was actually practical and that it could yield exceptional results.”
The McKearns chose to dig deep into both the medical and legal aspects of having a baby via a surrogate. They learned that while traditional surrogacy contracts—where the third-party surrogate actually is the genetic mother and is inseminated by the intended father’s sperm—are deemed “unenforceable” by Louisiana law, the now more common process of gestational surrogacy—in which the carrier has no genetic connection to the child—is not addressed by state statutes at all. For the McKearns, this lack of a specific law protecting the rights of the intended parents caused enough of a concern that they decided to proceed out of state.
“What we learned is that there were very few ‘surrogacy-friendly’ states, meaning that the state actually legally recognized traditional and/or gestational surrogacy,” Kristy says. “However, California law, as established in state Supreme Court rulings, first established and then reinforced its position protecting the intended parents in gestational surrogacy situations. Taking into consideration all of these factors, we decided to use The Surrogacy Program in Los Angeles.”
The McKearns were soon matched with a potential surrogate, a young single mother named Alicia who had been carefully screened through an intensive process of interviews, home visits and psychological testing.
“There are a lot of people who want to be surrogates, but it is difficult to recruit, because they have to have a near-perfect medical history, be the right age and be very stable and trustworthy,” says The Surrogacy Program co-founder Shelley Smith. “We’re very stringent; less than 5 percent of people who apply are accepted.”
Alicia’s answers on a questionnaire and in phone conversations showed Kristy and Todd that she desired to help others experience the type of joy her own daughter had brought her, Kristy says. In-person meetings between the couple and Alicia soon followed, allowing all three to “begin to build the comfort level necessary for such an important undertaking,” says Kristy. “It was really the beginning of an incredibly important and intimate relationship that continues to this day.”
With a surrogate in place, it was time to move forward with the clinical part of the process. As in traditional in vitro fertilization, Kristy and Todd worked with a fertility doctor to create embryos using their own eggs and sperm, but the embryos were transferred into the surrogate’s body rather than Kristy’s. Despite the couple’s optimism, two attempts were unsuccessful, and one transfer resulted in a miscarriage. “I remember when we had our fourth and final embryo transfer,” Kristy says. “We decided that it was going to be our last, as we were mentally and financially exhausted from the two-year process.”
All of their worry changed to excitement on the day Kristy and Todd got the call that Alicia was pregnant. “As the days progressed and we were able to hear the heartbeat and attend several of Alicia’s appointments, we knew that the reality of finally being parents was coming true,” Kristy says.
Despite living so far apart, the McKearns stayed connected with Alicia throughout the pregnancy. “She was wonderful about communicating with us and sent regular pictures, emails and doctor updates,” says Kristy.
When it was time for the baby to be born, the McKearns flew to California once more for the scheduled induction of labor. The birth of baby Jack in August 2008 was as wonderful as that delivery-room adventure can be for any new parents. “It is a blessing to experience your child’s birth and to hold them in your arms for the first time,” says Kristy. “Todd cut the umbilical cord. … We were also given our own hospital room, separate from Alicia, in order to care for Jack.”
Back in Louisiana, Kristy and Todd soon found themselves sharing their story with friends and acquaintances who were also interested in pursuing surrogacy. They say they were glad to spread the word about this uncommon but viable option for growing a family. “It may not be a traditional path or one that others may be comfortable with, as you are entrusting someone to carry your baby,” Kristy says. “However, it was the best decision we could have made, and we wanted others to know that this is possible for them as well.”
Among the details the McKearns shared was the reality that surrogacy can be an expensive choice. Intended parents must pay fees to their agency, attorneys and the surrogate as well as all travel expenses and costs for IVF treatments and medications. If the surrogate’s own health insurance excludes surrogacy, the couple must also buy her a special policy for the pregnancy. “From our experience, the costs well exceeded $100,000,” says Kristy.
One of the couples who learned about the McKearns’ surrogacy success story was Katherine and Gary Smith. Katherine had recently learned that an inoperable abnormality of her uterus would make it very risky to carry a baby. Soon they were linked with the same agency that the McKearns had used and found a wonderful woman to serve as their gestational carrier (the term now often used for a gestational surrogate to avoid confusion with the traditional surrogacy process).
Katherine says arriving at a sense of peace with the process took a leap of faith. “I had to let go, accept it, and embrace and cherish the fact that I am blessed to have a husband who was willing to use a surrogate to have our biological child and that we had the means to do it,” she says.
For the Smiths, the call from their surrogate confirming that their second embryo transfer had resulted in a pregnancy was unforgettable. “That moment was mixed with so many emotions,” Katherine says. “It was filled with relief, peace, hope and a lot of gratitude.”
During the pregnancy, there wasn’t a day that went by that Katherine didn’t think about how the baby and surrogate were doing. “We were there for all the major appointments, including hearing our baby’s heartbeat for the first time and watching him yawn in an ultrasound,” she says. “Sometimes it was a family affair as our mothers and other family members would fly out as well.”
After all those shared doctor’s visits, it would prove ironic that the Smiths nearly missed their son’s birthday. He was due on the day after Christmas 2010, but on Dec. 9 the couple learned that the surrogate’s amniotic fluid was at a dangerous level and that the doctor would need to induce labor right away. “She asked me if we could be in California that evening,” Katherine says. “Those next few hours were a blur. We practically threw our clothes in a bag and … managed to get to California for the evening.”
Katherine recalls her time in the delivery room as an almost “out-of-body experience.” “Watching someone else deliver your child is surreal and a miracle,” she says. “When Henry arrived and we saw that he was a healthy, beautiful boy, there were lots of hugs and tears of joy. When the nurse handed him to me, I knew he was ours and felt an instant connection. At that moment, I had never felt so blessed in all of my life, and there was an overwhelming feeling of gratefulness for what our surrogate and her husband sacrificed to help us have this very special baby boy.”
Now with a precocious 2-year-old on their hands, Katherine and Gary are also looking forward to the birth of their second child via a surrogate, this time a baby girl, who’s expected to arrive in March. Katherine says the new pregnancy has been a little easier than the first, much as it often is for a mother carrying her second child. Family and friends are again ready to fly out west for the baby’s birth, along with Henry, who is excited to meet his little sister.
“Having Henry in our lives is pure joy and a huge blessing,” Katherine says. “Although there are other ways for couples who experience infertility to have a child, surrogacy was our choice and a way for us to have biological children. We would not have this amazing gift had it not been for the help of our surrogates and their supportive families. They are extraordinary people willing to extend themselves way beyond the norm to make a miracle a reality.”
Both the McKearns and the Smiths still keep in touch with their surrogates via Facebook, email and Christmas cards. Alicia and her family recently got to see little Jack McKearn in person for the first time since he was born—something that Kristy says was “a very special moment for all of us.”
“Because of Alicia’s selfless act and commitment to surrogacy, we see her as our angel who gave us the best gift—our son,” says Kristy. “We could never thank her enough for all that she has done for us. She will always be a special part of our family.”
Alicia was a single mother in her early 20s when she decided to apply to serve as a gestational carrier. Working with The Surrogacy Program, an agency based in southern California, she was matched with Kristy and Todd McKearn of Baton Rouge and eventually helped bring their son Jack into the world. We spoke to Alicia about what prompted her to take on this role and what the experience was like.
It was kind of a long road for us, with lots of shots and procedures and ups and downs. I was thankful that Kristy and Todd were in it for the long haul, though, because I really wanted to be able to help them.
Emotionally, I think it was different because when I had my daughter I was only 19, so it was all very scary. This time, I knew what to expect, and it was great. I loved the experience of being pregnant.
We would call and email regularly, and I kept them up-to-date on how I was feeling and how the doctor’s appointments went. I scanned and emailed them the ultrasound pictures and even took pictures of my belly for them as it got bigger. Now I feel like they are part of my family.
They decided to induce labor so Kristy and Todd could be there in time, but labor wasn’t too bad. The birth itself was very special—they were very awestruck at the whole thing, while still being very respectful and trying not to get too close. I just told them, “It’s OK; this is your child!” At that point, all modesty went out the window.
The best part was just seeing them with Jack afterward. They were so calm and natural, and yet so excited at the same time. The hardest part was seeing my daughter’s reaction; she was sad that the baby wasn’t going to be around. I didn’t expect that.
Since working with Kristy and Todd, I got married. I would love to do it again, but my husband and I would have to have one of our own first.
They really need to do their research. There are so many websites and forums for surrogates, where you can find out all about contracts, questions for the doctor and more. That was really helpful for me.
You really have to be prepared to kind of give up some of that feeling of control. This is something you don’t really have control over. Just be calm, be patient with the process, and keep your fingers crossed.
Traditional surrogacy (aka true surrogacy):
A surrogate is inseminated with sperm from the infertile woman’s husband and uses her own egg to create a baby, which she carries and then delivers. “The true surrogate may decide to keep the child should she desire, and the potential parents have no recourse as the true surrogate has a chromosomal link to the child,” explains Bobby Webster, director of Woman’s Center for Reproductive Medicine in Baton Rouge.
Since the onset of assisted-?reproductive technologies, like in vitro fertilization, this traditional process is used far less frequently. Louisiana law actually specifies that traditional surrogacy agreements are “void and unenforceable” when compensated.
As in conventional IVF, the couple’s own egg and sperm are retrieved and used to create embryos that are entirely of their own genetic makeup. But instead of the embryos being transferred into the mother’s uterus, they are implanted into the womb of a gestational surrogate (also called a “gestational carrier”). “In effect, the gestational carrier is simply contracting out the use of her uterus to carry the child,” says Webster. “She cannot change her mind and keep the child, from a legal standpoint.”
Gestational surrogacy is “perfectly acceptable” under current Louisiana law, according to the state’s only assisted reproductive technology attorney, Amy Kern of New Orleans. “However, Louisiana law is very clear that whoever gives birth to a child in the state of Louisiana is the biological mother,” Kern says. “This … requires that intended parents complete a private adoption of their own genetic child.”
Changes on the horizon?
Because this added adoption process is, as Kern puts it, “an unnecessary and expensive burden on intended parents,” the Louisiana State Law Institute is now working on legislative recommendations that would “bring pre-birth orders to the state to alleviate the need for adoptions when using a gestational carrier.” Such orders, which are already allowed in states such as California, spell out who the parents are before the child is born. “I think the proposed change is a necessary and positive one,” Kern says.
In the meantime, Kern clarifies, gestational carriers are still a viable option here. In fact, she operates the state’s first and only gestational carrier agency, Beginning Families, through which potential carriers are matched with intended parents. “I have worked with so many couples over the years and have always had positive results,” she says, adding that there is no state case law in which carriers have tried to keep a baby after it is born. “I personally think Louisiana is a wonderful state to pursue achieving family formation through gestational carriers. I think it is such a beautiful gift for carriers to give to couples who are struggling to build their families.”