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Giving the gift of life

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It has been said that a woman just knows when her family is complete.  This is the true story of two women.  It cuts so deep into the places that only God can see, even the mention of what happened in the lives of these two women causes embroiled debates from capitals, to courthouses, to coffee shops.

It begins with Anna.  Day and night, Anna had an unsettled feeling.  She just was not done.  And the person she had been hoping to meet was 1,000 miles away.

Lantana, Texas is known for being an award-winning master planned community renowned for a design that lends itself to a neighborly feel, promoting a modern family lifestyle and offering amenities that foster togetherness.  Tony and Jennifer, a Lantana couple with five children, appreciate the Lantana culture and have lived there for several years.  Even with the active schedule of managing a career, a household, and five children, there was nothing uncommon about getting together for some recreational time with friends.  It was at one such gathering that a new season of life began, but one that they could have never guessed.

One week earlier, as Jennifer attended her 2009 wellness visit just months after the birth of her fifth child, she thought, “Wow…I’m never gonna be pregnant again.” With her youngest now 6 months old, she felt that one door of her life was closing while another door to the unknown was opening.  She was a little unsure of exactly what to expect as she imagined her children growing older and what life without diapers would be like someday.

A few days later, Jennifer and her husband Tony were attending a casual party with a few friends. She was captivated by a girlfriend’s story of someone close to her named Anna who struggled with infertility and had endured 7 failed in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures and 9 failed intrauterine insemination (IUI) procedures.  Anna and her husband Joseph, who live out-of-state, had reached a decision to search for a surrogate mother to carry their fertilized embryos. 

“I’ve always wanted to be a surrogate mother,” Jennifer said.  “Before leaving the party, my girlfriend told me that if I was truly serious she would put me in touch with Anna.  I agreed.”

When Tony and Jennifer arrived at their home later that night, she disclosed to him the details of Anna’s story that had gripped her in what started as a seemingly random discussion at the party.  “I told him that I wanted to find out more about becoming a surrogate Mom for Anna.”  Tony’s initial reaction was one of confusion, like most people, not knowing a lot about surrogacy.  After researching multiple blogs along with the Agency for Surrogacy Solutions website (www.agency4solutions.com), the organization that would be facilitating Anna’s journey, Tony also felt a strong compulsion to pursue a path that just 24 hours earlier had been the furthest thing from his thoughts.  “We were both feeling called toward doing this,” he said. 

Once word traveled to Anna about Jennifer’s willingness to help her, she asked the California-based agency to get in touch with the North Texas couple.  Following several standard initial evaluations with the agency, plans were made for the couples to be introduced by conference call.

Jennifer and Tony found their new acquaintances to be a fine couple who already had one 7 year old daughter and a long subsequent history of infertility.  After months of medical evaluations, psychological testing, and criminal background checks, Jennifer and Tony were approved for surrogacy.  Their relationship with Anna and Joseph grew deeper than the agency prerequisites.

In an industry that is not without physiological and psychological risks along with the potential for legal missteps, the Agency for Surrogacy Solutions was there to facilitate the process.  Lauri Berger de Brito, co-owner of the agency said, “We could not have had a better match in the two couples and just a perfect scenario for surrogacy.” The Agency for Surrogacy Solutions only works with surrogates in states that require a decree ordering the name of the intended parents on the birth certificate prior to the transfer, along with legal documentation that a surrogate has relinquished any intent to acquire parental rights.

Before signing any contracts, Jennifer and Tony called a family meeting with the five most important people in their lives.  Their children at the time ranged from 1 through 12 years of age.  “How would you guys feel about Mommy babysitting someone else’s baby in her belly for a while?  Another Mom’s belly is broken.  This won’t be your brother or sister, for we could never give a brother or sister away,” the conversation went.  The children were intrigued to see what would happen next.

Once Jennifer had successfully weaned her youngest child at the age of 14 months, Tony assisted her through the eight weeks of injections required to maximize the success of the upcoming embryo implantation.  The couples were then scheduled to meet in California for the transfer of Anna and Joseph’s embryos in an IVF procedure.

“I didn’t want to end up like an Octomom,” Jennifer confessed her greatest fear since the transfer would take place in California, a state generally known for more liberal-leaning public policies on the already largely unregulated IVF industry, as readily evidenced in mainstream media through the work of Dr. Michael Kamrava when he transferred 12 embryos to Nadya Suleman who was already the single, unemployed mother of 6 IVF children. 

Dr. Jeffrey Nelson of the Huntington Reproductive Center in Los Angeles, CA did the transfer.  I was relieved that he only implanted two embryos though there was always a chance of splitting,” said Jennifer.

The transfer resulted in a successful pregnancy.  At 7 weeks, Anna and Joseph flew to Dallas for Jennifer’s OB appointment at which time the couples found out together that both embryos had successfully attached.  Eventually the twins were developed enough to determine that they were both boys.  In the months following, Anna came each month to a sonogram appointment. 

“Keeping in mind that the twins would be returned to their biological mother at birth,” Jennifer said, “I just asked God to guard my heart through the entire pregnancy.  I prayed about it before the transfer.  Then, I never allowed my children to touch my belly or attach to the twins as I had encouraged them to do in the birth of their siblings.”

Jennifer shared the progress of her entire pregnancy with Anna.  She emailed pictures, they talked by phone, and visited in person whenever possible—even finding themselves shopping together from time to time.  Though Jennifer kept a low profile in the community during the pregnancy and was eventually on bed rest, some friends and family who were aware of her surrogacy would ask questions like, “Couldn’t you just keep one baby and give the other one to Anna?” 

“I knew that they did not understand these babies were not mine, that I was simply the vessel,” said Jennifer.  She recalls how most people centered on what they considered to be the heart-wrenching scenario of “giving” the boys away, but working with the agency, Tony and Jennifer focused more attention toward managing Jennifer’s health overall.  “Becoming a surrogate is not for everyone.  The surrogate’s health is at risk as it is with any other pregnancy.”

In the case of surrogacy, the highest risk of obstetrical complications is due to multiple births. In addition, Jennifer and Tony, being from a devout Catholic Italian family, had to overcome the initial worry that they would be scrutinized by those who question the ethical implications of what might be considered playing God in the modern assisted reproductive technologies industry.  Another concern they had was whether or not selectiv
e reduction would be practiced in their IVF procedure.

“In our IVF procedure, there was no selective reduction,” said Jennifer, referring to the common modern practice of implanting more embryos than desired, and aborting the weakest ones after several weeks, leaving behind the strong ones to be delivered to term.

“While surrogacy in this case may be motivated by altruism, many question its ethics and practical consequences,” said Dorinda Bordlee, Senior Counsel for Bioethics Defense Fund (www.bdfund.org), a legal organization that educates legislators about the ethical problems with surrogacy bills that allow what she calls ‘wombs for rent.’

“The compassion that fertile women have for infertile couples is good and noble, but it is unethical for women to be commodified as incubators, and to infringe the child’s right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage,” said Bordlee.  She also points to a recent expose by the Center for Bioethics and Culture about two attorneys in California who use cash-inducements to lure women into surrogacy without telling them that the babies they birth will be sold in an underground market to the highest bidder.

Nevertheless, in spite of potential health risks and varying opinions on the ethics of surrogacy, Jennifer and Tony felt this was an opportunity to help Anna and Joseph and give children a chance at living life.  In addition to the more ominous concerns, the daily practical implications for Jennifer’s family were similar to when she carried her biological children. “My husband Tony had to endure all the normal things a woman goes through while being pregnant.  I had cravings and mood swings like every other pregnancy.”  Ultimately, Tony’s brother moved in just to help with the family duties while Jennifer was on bed rest.  Everyone had a part in the sacrifice.  Jennifer and Tony used it as a teaching tool for their children.

On June 30, 2011 during a routine visit to her obstetrician, Dr. Guy Van Dell at Flower Mound Women’s Care in Parker Square, he announced that Jennifer was in the beginning stages of labor.  She reported to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Flower Mound. 

Anna and Joseph boarded a plane to Dallas, arriving in time for the birth, where the hospital staff accommodated the intended parents as if they also were delivering the babies.  With both couples in the operating room, the boys were delivered naturally at 2:58 PM and 3:02 PM. 

“I didn’t want to be the first to hold them,” said Jennifer, “I wanted Anna and Joseph to be the first to touch them.  The boys were their children.  When I looked at them all, their reactions were the same as if Anna had just given birth.”

Jennifer credits Dr. Van Dell for carrying the twins for 36 weeks.  “If it wasn’t for him I don’t think I would have stayed pregnant as long as I did.  The boys had no NICU time, which is incredible for twins, and were the biggest twins to date born at the hospital—bigger than two of my biological children!”

The popular 1990s sitcom Friends once featured an episode in which Phoebe became a surrogate mother.  “Though I have never seen that episode, many people remind me about it.  I never imagined that I’d ever be living in Lantana, TX with five children and doing the same thing.  Some people in my neighborhood never knew I was pregnant.  After the birth, I announced it on my Facebook page – just a simple message, ‘The babies are here.’”

The day after the delivery, Anna brought one of the twins into Jennifer’s hospital room, along with breakfast for her friend.  She invited Jennifer, Tony, and all the kids to come over for a visit into their room where everyone had a chance to hold them and take pictures.  In a moment, when Jennifer said goodbye, she and Tony closed the door behind them to newly born Daniel and Isaiah’s room and departed for home.  She thought, “Accomplishment – a job well done.  A family was about to begin again – one door closed and another door opened.”  She will never forget how one night at a friend’s party changed her life, sending her and Tony on a most unexpected journey.

Jennifer and Anna have remained in touch to this day, having reversed roles since it is now Anna who shares pictures with her friend in Lantana.  They plan to remain friends for life. When asked about the experience, Jennifer says she would do it again. She ships breast milk to Daniel and Isaiah weekly.

Some of the names in this article have been changed to conceal the identity of the parents and twins. Contact Brandi Chambless at Facebook.com/the.soapbox.brandi.chambless

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Read Brandi's column each month in The Cross Timbers Gazette newspaper.

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