Carrying someone else's dream
Surrogacy is a natural fit for military wives, with their solid support networks, premium medical care and strong dispositions. For some it's easy money; for others it's a way to help unlucky couples.
Angel Howard and her friend Liz Rosario watch an ultrasound screen as a doctor transfers two embryos into her uterus. Howard, a military wife and mother of six, is acting as a surrogate for a French couple. Audio slide show >>>> (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times / May 11, 2008)
For the last month, Howard had been injecting herself with daily hormone shots that made her so sore she could barely sleep. The mother of six was tired. She had to handle becoming a surrogate without her husband, Brian, 34, at her side: The Navy Seabee had deployed to Iraq for six months.
FOR THE RECORD:
Surrogates: An article in Wednesday's Section A about military wives working as surrogate mothers reported that Chula Vista-based Surrogate Alternatives offers a $5,000 bonus to surrogates with Tricare military medical insurance. The company stopped offering that bonus within the last year. —
If Howard delivered a healthy baby, she would receive between $20,000 and $25,000 from the parents, plus an allowance for food and maternity clothes. If she had twins, she could be paid an extra $5,000.
The stay-at-home mother did not like to admit it, but she could use the money. Howard stretched every dollar of Brian's $56,000 yearly income, wearing old clothes, clipping coupons, shopping for sales at Wal-Mart and occasionally tapping the food pantry at the Armed Services YMCA. She had worked part time at a clothing store in the local mall, but quit when her husband was sent back to the Middle East. Surrogacy money would provide a much-needed safety net for her children, Maria, 14, Anthony, 12, Ezekiel, 10, Tacina, 8, Chaeli, 4, and Izaac, 16 months. Howard first seriously considered surrogacy after a chance meeting at a local pet store six years before.
She had just suffered a miscarriage, and found herself watching pregnant women in stores and restaurants, envious. Howard liked the feeling of being pregnant, the center of attention, bringing life into the world. When she spotted a pregnant stranger at PetSmart, she approached to ask when the woman was due.
The woman, who turned out to be a military wife, explained that she was a surrogate. She told Howard about the contract she had signed with a childless couple, including a breast lift after she gave birth, which the woman had insisted on.
Howard thought demanding plastic surgery was a bit much, but soon began investigating surrogacy online and through friends.
Young military wives make popular surrogates, especially in California where, unlike other states, surrogacy is legal and case law protects parents' rights to hire women to carry their babies.
"Military wives, they don't cry, they don't complain at the drop of a hat. They're organized. They're efficient. They handle everything when their husbands are gone," said Howard's surrogacy agent, Stephanie Caballero. "A few shots during the first few months is not going to bother them, and they don't need to be told to be polite and professional and show up on time."
Just as important to the would-be parents, military wives have access to military medical insurance called Tricare, which includes comprehensive prenatal care worth as much as $10,000. The coverage is such a draw that some surrogacy agencies, such as Chula Vista-based Surrogate Alternatives, offer surrogates who have it a $5,000 bonus.
Last February, Howard registered with Caballero's agency, Extraordinary Conceptions. Two months later, she was matched with a gay couple in France. The couple would buy eggs from a donor, pay a doctor to fertilize them with their sperm and transfer the embryos to Howard's uterus. Under their contract, she would have three tries to get pregnant.
If she failed to get pregnant, she would only receive about $1,000. If she became pregnant, Howard would start receiving monthly payments; to get the full amount, she would have to carry the baby for at least 35 weeks.
On that Mother's Day, Howard watched the doctor prepare two embryos that would be transferred inside her. With the room dimmed to protect the light-sensitive embryos, he brought in a spindly catheter that looked like a giant Q-Tip and inserted it. Howard said she could barely feel the catheter. When the doctor was done, she could see a tiny white dot shining inside her on the ultrasound screen -- the embryos.
In 11 days, she would return for a blood test to see if she was pregnant.
Howard had always enjoyed being pregnant, ever since she dropped out of high school at 17 to marry her boyfriend and have Maria. Raised in a dozen foster homes, Howard had been a runaway and a self-described party girl. Pregnancy changed everything.
She still liked to streak her black bob blue on occasion and wear a nose ring, but motherhood transformed her into a homemaker determined to build the family she never had.
She met Brian at a Charleston, S.C., dance club in 1998, soon after she left her first husband, who had joined the military without asking her. Brian was different: He asked her before he enlisted, just as she would later ask him before becoming a surrogate. They married in 1999 and settled in San Diego.