In a dimly lit exam room, a sonographer at the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Center for Advanced Fetal Care points to a bright spot.
“See this right here?” she asks. “This baby’s intestines look a little brighter than the other ones.” The discrepancy could be nothing, she says. It could also be a marker for Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis.
Kathy Powers stares at the screen. Naturally calm and optimistic, she has faith in the results from the amniocentesis, which showed that all three of the babies were healthy. But she’s already worrying about how she’ll relay the news to the babies’ biological mother, whom she’ll call the moment she leaves the appointment.
As the sonographer prints out images of the ultrasound, Powers, a mother of two from Odenton, wipes the warm gel from her stomach and hikes down her shirt. She glances at the quartz bracelet she made three pregnancies ago; a silver bead on it reads believe in miracles. She made an identical bracelet for Kim Crane, the Virginia woman to whom she’ll send the photos.
Powers does believe in miracles. She has believed in them since she conceived her own children with help from fertility treatments, and since seeing Crane’s tears of joy after Powers gave birth to Crane’s son in 2006. “When you share that experience with someone else, it’s the most amazing feeling, to see them holding their own biological child that they could not have on their own. To think I did that!” Powers says. “I knew right away, in the delivery room, that I wanted to do it again.”
Now Powers is on her fourth pregnancy as a surrogate and her sixth overall. She is 48 years old and 18 weeks pregnant with triplets that aren’t hers. Two of Crane’s embryos implanted in Powers’s uterus, and one split into identical twins, a situation so fraught with risk that a local fertility specialist calls Powers a “ticking time bomb.”
Before she began in vitro fertilization, or IVF, Powers and the intended parents discussed what would happen if there were a problem with the pregnancy. All preferred to do everything they could to save the baby, or babies. Once they learned that Powers was carrying triplets, however, they decided to follow doctors’ orders. Three of the four physicians they visited said the pregnancy should continue. The fourth disagreed, but Powers and the parents dismissed his concerns as “doom and gloom.”
Now Powers holds fast to her belief that everything will be all right: “I choose to think positive and believe they are strong little miracles and nothing bad is going to happen to them.”
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In deciding to become a surrogate, Powers joined a small but growing contingent of women. Nationwide, the number of gestational surrogate births rose by 122 percent between 2004 and 2011, from 530 to 1,179, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
DC is the only jurisdiction in the country in which all surrogacy contracts are prohibited. Any party involved can be imprisoned for up to a year and fined as much as $10,000. Maryland has no statutes or limitations governing gestational surrogacy and has become one of the world’s hot spots for surrogacy. Virginia is another relatively surrogacy-friendly state.
For would-be parents—especially couples with fertility problems, gay couples, and single dads—surrogacy’s appeal has grown as both domestic and international adoptions have become harder.
There was a 122% increase in the number of gestational surrogate births nationally between 2004 and 2011.
But the reasons women decide to carry someone else’s child are less obvious, especially when they do it for a stranger. Who would endure the morning sickness, weight gain, out-of-control hormones, and constant doctors’ appointments—not to mention labor—without the payoff of a new baby at the end? For a mere $20,000 to $30,000?
The answer, in part, is women who love being pregnant, suffer few of the unpleasant side effects, and even enjoy giving birth.
The idea of becoming a surrogate occurred to Kathy Powers after she turned 40 and told her husband she wanted another baby. He wasn’t receptive—another child would mean spending money on fertility treatments, risking the birth defects more frequent with older mothers, and managing a new college fund when they already had two great kids. He didn’t want to tempt fate.
After some soul-searching, Powers realized that she craved pregnancy, not another child. With no morning sickness and with easy deliveries, her pregnancies had been dreamy. “My hormones are perfectly, 100 percent in line with the universe when I’m pregnant,” she says. “I’m the happiest I ever can be in life.”
So she presented her husband with a compromise: Instead of having a baby of their own, she would carry one for someone else. They’d had difficulty conceiving their second child, and they decided that she would be a surrogate only for someone who had struggled as they had. “I didn’t want to be pregnant for a movie star who didn’t want to be fat,” Powers says. “It had to be someone we could relate to, who we really feel like we’re helping, because we’ve been there.”
She placed an ad on three surrogacy websites, received 30 replies within two days, and felt an immediate connection with Crane and her husband, who already had one adopted child. “It was one of those meant-to-be things,” Powers says. “We agreed on every term.” Three months after they met, a reproductive endocrinologist transferred Crane and her husband’s embryos.
After Powers gave birth to the couple’s baby boy in 2006, the endocrinologist gave her phone number to another Virginia couple interested in surrogacy; in 2008, she delivered their first child, and two years later their second.
By then, Powers figured she was done. But when Kim Crane asked her to help find a surrogate for her leftover embryos, which had been frozen for 6½ years, she offered to come out of retirement. She felt a responsibility to the couple and couldn’t imagine someone else completing their family.
The second embryo transfer was successful, but joy turned into shock when the five-week ultrasound showed three heartbeats. For the first time in her life, Powers hasn’t had an easy pregnancy—suffering through nausea, bleeding, and exhaustion. She has already been restricted to some bed rest and been told to expect more.
“And then,” she says, “there’s the emotional part.”