Our website is made possible by displaying online ads to our visitors.
Please consider supporting us by whitelisting our site.

Documentary ‘#BigFertility’ tackles surrogacy complications

First slide

Kelly Martinez needed money for her growing young family when she spotted an ad in the newspaper for surrogates. She and her husband, Jay, already had two young children, and she figured being a surrogate was a way to make extra money on top of her waitressing job. “I thought it would fix everything,” she said.

Kelly shares her story of being a three-time surrogate in “#BigFertility: It’s All About the Money,” a documentary created by The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network. The mental stress and physical consequences for Kelly were overwhelming, and the benefits few. “I still struggle financially, it didn’t solve anything,” she said. “It set me back in a lot of ways and it wasn’t worth the reasoning I did it for.”

Producer Jennifer Lahl, a pediatric critical care nurse-turned-filmmaker, also appears in the film to share her experience working with other surrogates. “I know 50 Kellys,” said Lahl — women who were physically, emotionally and financially damaged after surrogacy.

The Catholic Church teaches surrogacy is morally wrong, even for married couples. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Couples who discover they are infertile suffer greatly. Research aimed at reducing human sterility is to be encouraged. (However), techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife are gravely immoral. The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that ‘entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person.’ ”

After her first experience as a surrogate, Kelly never thought she would be one again. She carried twins for a French gay couple, as surrogacy is illegal in much of Europe. Carrying twins was more lucrative than a single baby, but the excess weight forced her to quit her job. The delivery went smoothly but handing off the babies legally proved complicated.

“It was ridiculous the kind of stuff we were forced to do,” said Jay. Kelly was told that for the intended parents to be able to take the children to France, she had to say she had slept with one of the men and was giving the children away to save her marriage. Afraid she wouldn’t be paid otherwise, Kelly and Jay went along with their plan. At the French Embassy in Chicago, she signed the papers they told her to, but understood little as they all were speaking French.

The second time, Kelly was a surrogate for a couple nearby. While in therapy, her counselor mentioned she knew a local couple struggling with infertility and arranged for the couple to meet Kelly. Jay and Kelly thought the couple seemed wonderful, and once again needing money, agreed to carry their child. The intended mother had serious complications from the egg removal process, but Kelly’s pregnancy went relatively smoothly, and she gave birth to a baby girl. Though she’s still in touch with the father and daughter, the mother divorced the father and is no longer in the daughter’s life.

Her third surrogate pregnancy was for a man and woman in Spain. Unbeknownst to Kelly, the couple paid $5,000 extra for the doctors to implant a girl and a boy embryo. But unexpectedly, the female embryo died, and the male embryo split into identical twins. The couple was livid, and asked doctors if Kelly was at fault.

“I would never think somebody who paid $150,000 (or) 200,000 for a baby didn’t want it,” said Dr. Anthony S. Diehl, Kelly’s doctor. But that seemed to be the case. Kelly worried about the intended parents, and her family worried about her health. Kelly had preeclampsia and was admitted to the hospital. “I was very worried that I might lose my wife,” said Jay.

“The surrogate mother — think of her as an organ donor,” said Lahl. “She’s pregnant with a foreign embryo. Females were never designed to carry other people's babies. So, they're at higher risk for preeclampsia, maternal hypertension, gestational diabetes, and the babies are also at risk.”

Kelly’s condition worsened — her blood pressure skyrocketed, and her liver and kidneys began shutting down. To save all their lives, the twin boys were delivered 10 weeks premature and immediately taken to the neonatal intensive care unit. As Kelly recovered, no one was with the boys for long stretches of time. When Jay and Kelly did visit, the nurse said the babies perked up, recognizing their voices. After leaving the hospital, she never saw the boys again.

“Nobody knows what happened to the boys and I never heard from the couple again. I was having panic attacks. I didn’t have closure with the boys. I still don’t have closure,” said Kelly. “I didn’t die that day but something inside me did.” Additionally, doctors told her not to have any more children, as any pregnancy would end “devastatingly.”

Meanwhile, more than $10,000 in medical bills were left unpaid by the intended parents, which reflected on Kelly’s credit. “We did all this to help us financially and it hurt us even worse,” said Jay. Kelly found The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, led by Lahl, and emailed asking for help. “The (surrogacy) agency didn't pay on that third surrogacy,” said Jay. “They wouldn’t pay until Kelly contacted and let them know we were going to Spain with Jennifer Lahl to stand up and fight against this stuff. The very next day the agency paid the bills.”

Kelly’s surrogacy experience was horrible, but even in the best circumstances, Lahl believes surrogacy is a human rights violation. “If you read a surrogate contract, basically they’re a slave for nine months — everything they eat, where they can travel, who they can have sex with,” she said. “How can you regulate that to make it acceptable?”

Virginia does not permit commercial surrogacy — an arrangement with financial benefits for the surrogate mother — but surrogates can be reimbursed for medical bills and other ancillary costs. This year, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill expanding surrogacy in the commonwealth.

“Under the former law, only a husband and wife (could make surrogacy arrangements),” said Tom Intorcio, associate director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of Virginia’s two bishops. “Now, it doesn't even require that you be married. All it takes is one unmarried individual (to) contract to procure an embryo for surrogacy.”

The new law, which goes into effect in July, also says intended parents do not have to be genetically related to the child. Proponents of the new law believe this will lead to more implantations and births of some of the estimated 620,000 frozen embryos currently in the United States. However, based on their research, the VCC believes the law will lead to the creation of even more embryos.

“The industry trend is toward designer babies. (Intended parents) don’t want a 15-year-old embryo,” said Intorcio. “With reproductive technology, you create multiple embryos and you test for the best ones and implant the best ones. More embryos end up being leftovers, essentially frozen and placed in storage and (left) in limbo.”

“#BigFertility” argues that surrogacy harms surrogate women and their families. Intorcio believes it harms embryonic children, too. “(The Vatican document) ‘Donum Vitae’ speaks about the human dignity of these lives,” he said. “They’re in development but they’re a life, and it’s a real injustice to the dignity of these children.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019