Using a Surrogate Mother: What You Need to Know

There's still some controversy about using a surrogate mother to have a baby. The legal process is also tricky because it varies from state to state. Even so, whether it's because of fertility problems or other reasons, surrogacy is an option for you and your partner. Find out how it works and see if it's right for you.

What Is a Surrogate Mother?

There are two kinds:

Traditional surrogate. It's a woman who gets artificially inseminated with the father's sperm. She then carries the baby and delivers it for you and your partner to raise.

A traditional surrogate is the baby's biological mother. That's because it was her egg that was fertilized by the father's sperm. Donor sperm can also be used.

Gestational surrogates. A technique called "in vitro fertilization" (IVF) now makes it possible to gather eggs from the mother, fertilize them with sperm from the father, and place the embryo into the uterus of a gestational surrogate.

The surrogate then carries the baby until birth. She doesn't have any genetic ties to the child because it wasn't her egg that was used.

A gestational surrogate is called the "birth mother." The biological mother, though, is still the woman whose egg was fertilized.

In the U.S., gestational surrogacy is less complex legally. That's because both intended parents have genetic ties to the baby. As a result, gestational surrogacy has become more common than a traditional surrogate. About 750 babies are born each year using gestational surrogacy.

Who Uses Surrogates?

If you're a woman, you may consider a surrogate for several reasons:

  • Medical problems with your uterus
  • You had a hysterectomy that removed your uterus
  • Conditions that make pregnancy impossible or risky for you, such as severe heart disease

You may want to think about surrogacy if you tried but couldn't get pregnant with a variety of assisted-reproduction techniques, such as IVF.

Surrogates have also made parenthood an option for people who might not be able to adopt a child, perhaps because of their age or marital status.

If gay men decide to use a traditional surrogate, one of them uses his sperm to fertilize the surrogate's egg through artificial insemination. The surrogate then carries the baby and gives birth.

A gay couple might also choose an egg donor, fertilize that donated egg, and then have the embryo implanted in a gestational surrogate to carry until birth.

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Finding a Surrogate

There are several ways you can find a surrogate mother:

Friends or family. Sometimes you can ask a friend or relative to be a surrogate for you. It's somewhat controversial. But because of the high cost of surrogacy and the complex legal issues it raises about parental rights, a tried-and-tested family relationship can be simpler to manage.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine accepts certain family ties as acceptable for surrogates. It generally discourages surrogacy, though, if the child would carry the same genes as a child born of incest between close relatives.

A surrogacy agency. Most people use one to arrange a gestational surrogate. There are about 100 agencies now operating in the U.S. They act as go-betweens.

An agency helps you find a surrogate and make arrangements. It also collects any fees that get passed between you and the surrogate, such as paying for her medical expenses.

How to Choose a Surrogate

Right now there aren't any regulations about who can be a surrogate mother. But experts agree on a few points about how to select one.

You should choose a surrogate who:

  • Is at least 21 years old
  • Has already given birth to at least one healthy baby so she understands firsthand the medical risks of pregnancy and childbirth and the emotional issues of bonding with a newborn
  • Has passed a psychological screening by a mental health professional to uncover any issues with giving up the baby after birth
  • Signs a contract about her role and responsibilities in the pregnancy, such as prenatal care and agreeing to give you the baby after birth

Using a Surrogate

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine says a surrogate should get a medical exam to check that she's likely to have a healthy, full-term pregnancy. The organization suggests she gets tests that check for infectious diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV, cytomegalovirus, and hepatitis B and C.

Surrogates should get tests to make sure they have immunity to measles, rubella (German measles), and chickenpox. Also, you may want to ask that she get a medical procedure to visually "map" the uterus, which can help the doctor check her potential to carry a pregnancy. A surrogate mother should have her own doctor during pregnancy rather than use yours.

The cost of surrogacy can range from $80,000 to $120,000. A lot of different things go into the price, such as whether the surrogate has her own medical insurance or whether you need to buy a surrogacy-pregnancy policy for her.

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Legal Issues With Surrogates

Parental rights aren't guaranteed after a surrogate pregnancy. The law continues to change as reproductive technology and the very definition of a "parent" changes.

There isn't a federal law on surrogacy and state laws vary. After a surrogate pregnancy in some states, you may still have to pass adoption proceedings to gain legal custody of the child. In other states, a "declaration of parentage" before birth lets you avoid having to "adopt" the baby.

To protect your rights as parents-to-be -- and the rights of the child you're hoping to have -- hire an attorney who specializes in reproductive law in your state. He can write a surrogacy contract that clearly spells out what everyone needs to do.

A contract like that may help if legal issues come up after birth. It can also outline agreements about a variety of possible scenarios with the pregnancy, such as what happens if there are twins or triplets.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH on September 20, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

American Society for Reproductive Medicine: "Third Party Reproduction."

The Ethics Committee. Fertility and Sterility, November 2003.

The National Infertility Association: "Surrogacy," "Myths about Surrogates."

Sreenivas, K. and Campo-Engelstein, L. Cancer Treatment and Research, 2010.

Saul, S. The New York Times, Dec. 13, 2009.

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: "ACOG Committee Opinion, February 2008: 'Surrogate Motherhood.'"

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