After tucking in her two children, Jack, six, and Andrea, four, Beth Goodman* settles in for another bedtime routine: saying good night to the baby girl she'll give birth to in a few weeks. Sitting on her bed, Goodman opens a children's picture book, releasing a tinny home recording of another woman's softly accented voice: “I love you softer than a cloud.” Goodman listens, strokes her belly and says, “I do this every night, because I want the baby to hear the sound of her real mother.”
Goodman, 30, is a commercial surrogate, meaning she is being paid to carry a baby for someone else. For her, taking the job was an emotional decision, born of a desire to help an infertile couple start a family. But it also made financial sense. When Goodman signed up for surrogacy in 2007, her husband, John, 31, was earning about $26,000 a year working for the United States military in Florida; she made more as a bank teller, but the $26,000 Goodman will receive for carrying the baby to term will be a godsend, enough to start a college fund for their children.
Although you'd hardly know it from meeting this personable, all-American mom, Goodman is part of a brewing controversy surrounding surrogacy. Approximately 1,000 surrogates give birth in America every year, according to one informal estimate, and surrogacy industry insiders say a disproportionate number are military wives. Because no one keeps nationwide records, exact numbers are impossible to come by, but to get an idea of how common surrogacy is among military spouses, consider this: Active-duty U.S. service members make up less than one half of one percent of the U.S. population. Yet agencies Glamour spoke with said military wives make up 12 to 15 percent of their surrogate pool. And according to an unscientific poll on the popular surrogacy support group website surromomsonline.com, more than 19 percent of respondents said they were military surrogates.
What drives these women to take on such an emotionally and physically demanding job? All of the surrogates we spoke to cited the desire to help another couple finally have a family. Then there's the bottom line. Financial concerns figure into these decisions — for military wives, often struggling to make ends meet; for infertile couples who could save thousands of dollars using a military surrogate; and for agencies happy to make such a match.
“Military Wives Make Very Good Surrogates”
Goodman's journey began in 2007, after watching the pilot episode of the television show Army Wives, which depicted a character delivering twins through surrogacy. “I thought it was really neat,” she says. “People who don't approve of surrogacy often say, 'If God wanted a couple to have a baby, he would have made it so they could.' But if I can give my kidney to someone who needs it, why not give a baby to someone who can't have one?”
With some Web research, she found surrogacy-agency sites where she learned more about what it takes to serve as a surrogate, and read heartbreaking stories from couples desperate for a carrier. I'm perfect for this, Goodman thought. She loved being pregnant with her own two children, and their births were quick. “With my daughter I was at work right until 7:30 P.M. and delivered at 9:45 P.M.,” she says. “I didn't know I was in labor all day.” And the money was undeniably irresistible: How many chances do you get to make an extra $26,000?
A few months after watching the Army Wives episode, Goodman filled out an online application and questionnaire, and submitted it to an agency. Within two weeks, someone got back to her. She'd passed the initial screening. For final approval, Goodman had to undergo a series of extensive psychological and medical evaluations. Once she got the OK, it was time to find a couple who wanted her to carry their baby.
That part, it turns out, was relatively easy. Infertile couples seeking a surrogate so outnumber would-be carriers that women usually have their choice of clients. In Goodman's case, the agency sent her three profiles of hopeful couples pleading for a birth mother. “I wanted to help all of them,” she says. “I thought, How am I supposed to pick just one?” Goodman ultimately chose a childless couple from a European country where paid surrogacy is illegal. The wife was older and physically unable to have a child of her own, and “that's what drew me to her profile,” Goodman says. “I was worried about: What other surrogate would want to work with an older intended mom? To me, age is just a number.”
In August 2009, after two failed attempts at in vitro fertilization (IVF), Goodman was impregnated using the sperm of the husband and an egg from a donor. She took the whole process very seriously, meeting the couple twice before she became pregnant, then chatting weekly on the phone and e-mailing daily during the pregnancy. Goodman also kept a meticulously detailed log of every doctor's appointment and pregnancy milestone.
“Military wives make very good surrogates,” says Karen Synesiou, director of the Los Angeles-based Center for Surrogate Parenting, who says she eagerly signs them up. “They're independent and self-sufficient since their husbands are away from home a lot.”
That's true of Goodman, who had taken on more than her share of family responsibilities over the years when her husband left home on duty. When Hurricane Wilma hit Florida in 2005, Goodman fled to safety with her toddler son while her husband stayed behind to help with disaster efforts. “I was eight months pregnant and had to evacuate with my son, a dog and a cat,” she recalls. “Add one more kid and one more dog and I could do it all over again.” Synesiou, who matched Goodman with the European couple, says Goodman's solid commitment made her a perfect surrogate. “When military wives have a contract,” she says, “they do everything and anything to abide by it.”
“We Were Able to Pay Off Our Debt”
Synesiou's center isn't alone; many surrogacy agencies heavily market to military wives. Classified ads seeking surrogates frequently run in areas with large military populations. In a recent issue of one magazine distributed on bases in the San Diego area, there were three ads looking for surrogates. One said, “Earn $24,000-$40,000.” Another appealed to altruism: “Help an infertile couple build the family of their dreams.” But military wives' sense of duty and responsibility is only one reason agencies are so eager to land them as surrogates. Money plays a role too — since some agencies know they can cut their clients' costs by using a military surrogate.
Surrogacy, after all, can be an expensive choice for couples. Clients typically pay $100,000 to $120,000, which covers costs for procedures like IVF, agency and legal fees, and the surrogate's compensation. And if the surrogate's insurance doesn't cover the medical expenses, the couple generally purchases a policy for her, which can add another $25,000 or more to the tab.
And here's where military wives are different. Many insurance companies in this country explicitly state that they will not provide pregnancy coverage if a woman is having a baby for someone else. In some cases, companies have even been known to investigate births; if they learn a baby was born to a surrogate, they may bill her for costs incurred. But Glamour's investigation found that it often doesn't work that way for the military's insurance provider, Tricare. According to industry insiders, the company has a history of paying for a surrogate's medical expenses.
Officially, Tricare says it doesn't cover surrogacy, and “if [a military spouse] is serving as a surrogate parent [using Tricare insurance], then we have a legal obligation to recoup the cost of health care,” says Austin Camacho, Tricare's chief of public affairs. And indeed it sometimes does. In one case, after a military wife spoke to the media about being a surrogate, she said Tricare billed her $100,000 for the costs of her pregnancy and resulting medical complications.
Yet many military families aren't aware of this — the surrogacy policy is not specifically mentioned in the Tricare handbook they receive. And Camacho admits that it is extremely difficult to ferret out which pregnancies are the result of surrogacy. “We have 9.5 million beneficiaries, and our beneficiaries will have roughly 2,100 births every week. We have to be focused on making sure everybody gets their care,” he says. “We can't be a big police force.”
Tricare's relative leniency is an open secret in the surrogacy industry. An agency may even offer special incentives for military wives because of the savings they bring; one California-based agency had agreed to pay any military spouse who used her Tricare policy for surrogacy an extra $5,000.
At her agency, Synesiou says surrogates have used their Tricare insurance to pay for doctor's visits and hospital stays. She adds, though, that some military surrogates choose not to use Tricare coverage, because private insurance often offers more flexibility and choice of doctors. Others prefer to leave Tricare out of their surrogacy jobs: Emily Jackson of Stillwater, Oklahoma, whose husband is in the Navy, has been a surrogate mother to five babies in the past 10 years and refused to use Tricare to pay for any of those pregnancies. “I don't want to risk getting a huge bill,” Jackson says, “or even losing my health insurance.” But she may be an exception.
Is there anything wrong with would-be parents taking advantage of this insurance loophole to reduce the costs of surrogacy? Many surrogates say no. Mary Thompson, 30, carried another couple's child in 2009 while her husband was deployed in Iraq for the third time, and used Tricare to cover her health care costs. “I was happy I could save my couple some money,” she says. “My husband is over there possibly giving his life for this country, and if that means I get some really good health care, well, gee darn.” Her surrogate gig allowed her to achieve a dream that once seemed unattainable: meaningfully contributing to her family's income. With her husband's unpredictable schedule, she'd found it difficult even to hold down a part-time job at Target. Because of the surrogacy, “we were able to pay off our debt,” Thompson says. “Then we put a new driveway in, which we needed really bad.”
Goodman, who also used Tricare to pay surrogacy expenses, echoes her sentiments, saying her family is entitled to the benefits since they help “offset the lack of money our military members are paid for the service they do for our country.”
But in online groups catering to military spouses, some commenters say these women have gone too far. “I admire any woman willing to be a surrogate. However, I do not think those people…should abuse the benefits put in place for military families,” one wrote on the website Military SOS (Significant Others and Spouse Support).
Other critics point out that Tricare is funded by taxpayer dollars — and argue that using that money to fund the still-controversial practice of assisted fertility is a dicey proposition. “Presumably we as a country want to be generous to military families because they are undergoing great risks and taking great sacrifices on our behalf,” says Debora Spar, president of Barnard College and author of The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception. “But I am not sure we've signed on to subsidize military wives when the wives are producing children for other people. That wasn't part of the original bargain.”
Yet surrogacy advocates say covering pregnancies — all pregnancies — is, morally, the right thing to do. “Why exclude surrogacy only?” asks Synesiou. “Why does it matter how she became pregnant or who the child will live with? Should we also exclude a pregnancy because Granny will raise the child? I think [excluding surrogacy from health insurance coverage] discriminates against the surrogate mother.”
“It's Not My Baby”
Three months before Goodman was due, she hit an unexpected hurdle. Because of injuries sustained by her husband during years of military service, he could no longer be deployed, so the military medically discharged him. With nothing else keeping them in Florida, the Goodmans hoped to move back to their home state of Michigan, where they both grew up and still had family. But when Beth called the surrogacy agency to let them know she was moving, she got bad news. Surrogacy laws differ from state to state, and in Michigan, surrogacy contracts are not recognized. If Goodman delivered there, she could be imprisoned for a year and fined $10,000. So the family devised a backup plan: moving to Ohio, where surrogacy is legal. They found a town with cheap rent right across the state line from their family in Michigan. Their experience relocating — it was their fifth move in nine years — made the transition bearable, says Goodman: “You do what the military says. They say, 'move here,' that's where you move.” And, she adds, there really was no choice. “The stop in Ohio was necessary to help make another couple's dreams of having a family come true.”
Moving to a strange new place wasn't the only inconvenience of surrogacy. The Goodmans say they stopped having sex after the thirty-fourth week to prevent contractions that could put Beth in labor before the baby's parents could arrive to witness the birth. Despite such restrictions, John says he felt fine about his wife carry ing a child that wasn't his. “We were thinking of showing up to our 10-year high school reunion and telling everyone, 'Yeah, my wife's pregnant but not with my baby,'” he says, “just to freak everyone out.” To explain the pregnancy to their two young children, the Goodmans told them, “We're helping out this other couple because the mommy's belly is broken.”
As the Goodman family struggled to stay afloat, there was one relief: John's severance package from the military meant they'd have the same health insurance through Goodman's pregnancy. She gave birth, to a baby girl, in April. “It was the greatest feeling ever to watch my couple finally get to hold her,” Beth says.
Goodman admits that it was emotionally confusing to nurture a pregnancy for a child who is not hers. “I think I prepared myself by knowing that it's not my baby,” she says. “I wouldn't want somebody to keep my kids from me, so why would I keep someone else's child from them?”
In August, free to leave Ohio, the family bought a house near their families in Michigan, with the help of the paycheck from the baby. Beth landed a job at a check-cashing business, and John will work in security while earning a degree in criminal justice. Although the surrogacy waylaid their lives for months, Goodman says she has no regrets. The experience was so rewarding she's even considering being a surrogate again in the future, perhaps for the same couple. And now she says the money has nothing to do with it. “Even if I'm not compensated,” she says, “that is fine with me.”
Research support for this story was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
*Names have been changed.