As Christians gather on this and every Christmas Eve, they will recount once again the tale of a young virgin who found herself mysteriously pregnant. They will speak of a fiance, who goes through with the marriage knowing the child to be born is not his. And they will marvel at the baby, whose coming was deemed miraculous.
Mary’s offering to the world, these believers agree, was Baby Jesus.
Two thousand years later, more and more women are becoming pregnant without having been intimate with the child’s father. Their spouses, like Joseph, are supportive, and their pregnancies could be considered medical miracles.
They are surrogate mothers, who see the babies they carry as a gift to the infertile — indeed, to the whole human family.
No, they are not necessarily saints, or even religious, but they do feel they have a sacred responsibility to give others the same kind of joy they felt in their own offspring.
They are “giving us a gift we could never repay,” says one parent-to-be. “The ultimate gift.”
A growing practice
Surrogacy is on the rise, says Meryl B. Rosenberg, founder and president of ARTparenting in Maryland, established in 1993 to assist couples in creating families.
“In the past five years, demand for surrogates has skyrocketed,” Rosenberg says, especially as “other countries such as India, Nepal and Thailand, where it was less expensive, have shut down their programs.”
There are no federal laws governing surrogacy; each state has its own. But the American Society for Reproductive Medicine has issued guidelines to protect surrogates and the intended parents, Rosenberg says.
There are two types of surrogacy: traditional and gestational.
In traditional surrogacy, the woman who carries the baby is also the egg donor. This can trigger conflicts, most famously in the 1980s case of Baby M, in which the surrogate changed her mind after giving birth and regretted giving up the child.
These days, many states, including Utah, outlaw a woman being a surrogate with her own eggs. She is a “gestational surrogate,” carrying a baby that is not biologically connected to her.
In most cases, all parties must be 21 or older and the surrogate must have delivered at least one healthy baby. The embryo will carry genetic material from at least one of the parents and be transferred via in vitro fertilization to the carrier.
The state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “strongly discourages surrogate motherhood,” according to its Handbook 2, which lays out policies on a range of issues. “However, this is a personal matter that ultimately must be left to the judgment of the husband and wife.”
The costs of using an agency to match surrogates and intended parents can run between $100,000 and $150,000, Rosenberg says, depending on the number of IVF tries, the type of birth, and any complications.
Compensation to surrogates is typically between $30,000 and $45,000, says Rosenberg, who manages about 150 surrogacy relationships a year. It’s most expensive on the West Coast, “where current demand is the greatest.”
Surrogates can be motivated by the chance to “put money away for college or pay off their student loans,” she says, emphasizing that they are paid for their time and inconvenience and not, as critics allege, for “selling a baby.”
Most are also moved by the desire to “pay it forward,” she says. “They want to show their own children what it means to be giving.”
A difficult secret
As a teen, Sumer Evans knew she would not be able to carry a child in her body, a fact that propelled her to have one of the most awkward conversations ever with a boyfriend as their courtship deepened.
“Before things go any further, you need to know I physically can’t have children,” the earnest young Brigham Young University student told him. “If that is crucial to you, I will understand if you want to break up.”
The quick-witted Steve Evans replied: “I’m dating you, not your womb.” It was an “incredibly brave moment” for Sumer, recalls her now husband.
Steve promised they would face that challenge together — and they have.
For the first 10 years of their marriage, they worked and saved, knowing that any solution to their childlessness would be expensive.
Sumer felt an affinity for the biblical Elizabeth, mother of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, who was said to have gone well past her childbearing years before conceiving.
Sumer didn’t wait “80 years,” as Elizabeth supposedly did, but it did seem almost forever.
And then the couple found Cynthia.
Don’t confuse her with ‘Baby Mama’
In the 2008 hit comedy “Baby Mama,” Tina Fey hires Amy Poehler as a surrogate. Fey’s character is controlling and Poehler lies about being in “the family way,” but never was — at least not with Fey’s child.
The script makes for great gags, says Cynthia Begley, but is far from her reality.
“Having my own two children was the most important thing I would ever do,” the Sacramento woman says. “My husband and I had decided we didn’t want any more children, but I was still young and had plenty of years left to give.”
A friend of a friend knew the Evanses were looking for a surrogate, so she hooked them up.
Within weeks, a deal was struck. A few months later, the first embryonic transfer (with the intended parents’ own genetic material) was completed. Within a year, twins were born in 2006.
Begley’s husband did not object, she says. He is “the most incredibly supportive man on the face of the earth.”
And her kids — the youngest was beginning kindergarten — were fine with it, too. They didn’t want a sibling and knew this wasn’t going to uproot their lives very much.
Begley was surprised by how much she enjoyed being pregnant without any after-birth worries.
“When it’s your child, so much of your concern is wrapped around how you are going to prepare for changes in the family,” she says. “To go through the pregnancy process without any of those worries was really, really different.”
Still, Begley did face hormonal extremes afterward that were hard to blame on the babies’ sleep patterns. She also provided a year’s worth of breastfeeding by pumping several times a day, then sending the milk every week for a year to Sumer — who was breastfeeding the twins as well.
Begley’s own children, now 20 and 23, were teased at school when “Baby Mama” came out and their friends knew what she was doing, the surrogate mother says. “The movie may have been funny, but it was unflattering to surrogates and not what the experience was really like.”
Since then, her kids have told their mom she did “a cool thing.”
“Your actions show your kids how they should behave in the world,” she says. “My kids saw that they have a role in making the world a better place. If you can have an impact on a stranger’s life ... or think outside yourself, you should.”
It was certainly not a way to get rich, she says. “I would have made more if I had worked at McDonald’s for a year.”
Who’s the mother?
It worked so well the first time that Begley signed on for a second pregnancy — eventually giving birth in 2009 in California to a second set of twins for the Evanses.
The Evanses, who are Latter-day Saints, are noted as the parents on all four birth certificates. Their kids also are listed as “born in the covenant” on church records, meaning they will be “sealed” to Sumer and Steve in the hereafter.
The birth experience was so nice, Sumer says. “When we arrived, the hospital was expecting us. I roomed in with Cynthia. After they were born, nurses handed us the babies and we left.”
It took awhile for Sumer to feel comfortable sharing her experience during that first pregnancy, fearing others might judge her and feeling some shame at not being able to carry her twins.
But everyone “was just wonderful about it,” the Utah mom says now. “People reached out to care for our family just as they would with any newborn. I felt just as much a mother as the person down the pew.”
And Begley became “like a sister,” offering advice and staying connected, but allowing the Evanses to be the parents.
“She was able to do this beautiful service for us,” Sumer says, “and then step out of the way.”
It allowed the Evanses to have a comfortable friendship going forward, and their kids to see Begley as a kind of surrogate aunt. The children see her, Sumer says, as just “the place they lived before they were born.”
Sumer worries about the escalating cost of surrogacy and that it is mostly out of reach for middle-class families.
“We paid her a moderate amount, as we should have, but the total bill was nowhere near $100,000,” she says. “The fact that we found her privately, and she asked for such a small amount, means we have another set of twins. We would never have been able to afford to do it again.”
The Evanses “got lucky,” she says. “I wish everyone had a Cynthia.”
A delighted pastor, a thrilled grandma
In the Beehive State, intended couples who use surrogates have to be married. So when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, it suddenly opened the possibility for LGBTQ couples to turn to surrogacy.
In 2012, Joseph “Joey” Harbison was working in a Wasington, D.C., coffee shop, when Matt Harbison (they adopted the same last name) came in as a customer. There was an instant attraction, so Matt gave Joey his number.
The two, who live in Reston, Va., initially had trouble connecting but once they did, they became inseparable.
Joey and Matt had talked about having a child but made no decisions until April, when a drunken driver killed Joey’s younger brother. That prompted the pair to elope in June (“the wedding was magical,” Joey says) and step up the process of finding a surrogate to carry a baby for them.
ARTparenting’s Rosenberg helped them match with Hokulani Ellis, a mom of three in Logan, and they began telling family and friends.
“We attend Christ the Servant Evangelical Lutheran Church in Reston and they are very supportive,” Matt says. “When we told the pastor, he couldn’t keep a secret and told the whole congregation. He was so happy.”
Joey comes from a big family, with six siblings and lots of nieces and nephews. Matt is an only child, who wanted kids all his life.
When Matt came out as gay, his mom was only sad that he wouldn’t have a family. The news about the coming child thrilled her.
After the baby is born, the couple plan to move to Roanoke, so the extended clan can help with child care.
To create their offspring, the couple used sperm from one of them and an anonymous egg donor.
They looked at profiles of dozens of donors, which included a description of personality traits, qualities and health. Though Matt is African American, the question of race was not a factor in their selection.
“We live in the D.C. area, where it’s all mixed up,” he says.
The cost of the process, though, was a little startling.
From start to finish, they are looking at $100,000 to $150,000.
“Oh my god,” Joey quips. “We could get a Ferrari.”
But they both feel it is worth any amount to have a kid “who has a piece of us that will continue after we are gone.”
‘Something I felt called to do’
Already with three kids — one girl and two boys — Hokulani Ellis and her husband decided they were done having children. But Ellis was young and her body was still capable of carrying a child. So when she met friends who couldn’t stay pregnant, she decided surrogacy would be a way to help.
“It was something I felt called to do,” says Ellis, who is 14 weeks pregnant with Matt and Joey’s child. “Every month something happens that makes me realize this is exactly what I’m supposed to do.”
When she first discussed it with her husband, Brayden, he asked: “What if you die?”
That possibility hadn’t even occurred to her, Ellis says, because she had such uneventful pregnancies and deliveries with her own kids. It is a risk, she acknowledged to him, but she feels no less confident than if she were doing it for her own family.
While most of their family and friends have been supportive, some Latter-day Saints have questioned Ellis’ motives.
Her grandma, thinking Ellis had donated the egg, asked, “Why the hell would you want to do that?”
“It’s a generational thing,” Ellis says. “She doesn’t understand technology.”
Though Ellis is no longer a believing Latter-day Saint, she definitely believes surrogacy “was something that she was preordained in a spiritual world to do.”
She also believes she connected to Matt and Joey in that premortal sphere and the trio agreed to work together.
“We teamed up before we came here,” she says. “We’ve connected that deeply.”
Ellis will be paid about $35,000 on top of travel expenses, hotels, insurance and other costs associated with the birth.
Like Begley, though, Ellis says she didn’t do it for the money.
“My babies are my world,” she says. “If I had to count on someone else to get them here, I would be sad if I couldn’t find anyone.”
People are “here for each other,” the surrogate says. “We are here ... to use our gifts and talents to serve one another.”
Or, as the Nativity story goes, to offer a newborn babe to the world.