Mommies Not Required

No wife? No problem. More and more single men are paying surrogates to bear their children.

(Details, August 2006. Photos: Matthew Donaldson)

TO SAY HE WAS HURT would be an understatement. Joe K. was demoralized. Here he was, the 39-year-old CFO of a big-time financial-services company in Boston, a major catch for any right-thinking woman, and he had just wasted 18 months of his life on a girlfriend who got cold feet. The two of them had talked about moving in together. They had talked commitment. Joe was ready for the whole till-death-do-us-part-and-two-kids-in-the-yard thing. Then one day she tells him she’s just not into it.

So like any guy with a desire and a modem, Joe went fishing on the Internet. He knew what he wanted: someone reasonably attractive. Intelligent. Personable. And, of course, with no genetic complications, like a history of cancer in the family or some uncle who lost a foot to diabetes. There were hundreds of candidates out there, college girls, mostly—caught in meadow poses or sitting at their desks—and all willing to give Joe exactly what he needed: a few healthy eggs so he could make his own baby.

“It was a point of desperation,” says Joe, who asked that his last name not be used. “I wasn’t ready to dive back in and invest the time and energy it took to build a relationship. But I didn’t want to risk not ever becoming a dad.”

Over the past few years, a tiny handful of guys like Joe—probably 100 or so each year—have been taking a page from the feminist handbook. Facing down 40 with no partner in sight, they’re becoming single parents, thanks to the magic of artificial reproductive technology and the burgeoning surrogacy-agency business. They are buying eggs (up to $50,000 a batch at the high end, depending on the donor’s looks, education, and professional achievement); paying for in vitro fertilization using their own sperm (as much as $15,000); hiring a young woman who will allow the embryo to be implanted in her uterus ($30,000); and waiting nine months for the joyous hand-off.

The cost for a surrogate birth—from medical and legal fees to hiring an agency that will orchestrate it all—can run as high as $150,000. And, of course, this brave new world of eggs for sale and wombs for rent comes with all sorts of legal hassles and ethical problems. Paid surrogacy is outlawed in some states, restricted to straight couples in others, and completely unregulated in the rest. Critics also charge that cherry-picking such features as eye color and height amounts to eugenics. (Not to mention the question of whether attaching a dollar value to physical attributes implies that some people’s eyes, for instance, are worth more than others’.) They also warn that surrogates may be exploited.

“It’s terrific that men are challenging gender roles that say only women can mother,” says Mary L. Shanley, a political-science professor at Vassar College and author of Making Babies, Making Families, a study of reproductive technology, surrogacy, and adoption. “But there are real ethical issues, no matter who is involved, around the commodification of reproductive labor.”

Joe K., a six-figure-salary man, admits to feeling awkward when he visited a prospective surrogate and her husband in North Carolina in 2002. The woman was “a very young 21 years old,” as Joe puts it. (The typical surrogate is in her late 20s.) She had little education and clearly needed money. But after months of genetic- and disease-screening tests, she suddenly backed out, saying she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Joe was devastated that the agency had let someone who was clearly unstable get so far into the process.

But her decision allowed Joe to meet a second surrogate, a married mother of two from Missouri. Joe’s first phone call with her lasted hours. They discovered they shared a birthday. The woman said she had always felt an urge to help someone in this way and that she wanted to offer her eggs and her womb. In December 2003 she gave birth to Joe’s son.

For three days after the delivery, Joe stayed in a hospital room down the hall from hers, feeding and caring for the baby. “Everybody at the birth was crying,” Joe says. “This woman and her husband had made this commitment and it’s a special time for them as well.” The surrogate, who was paid a $20,000 fee, would stop by his room daily. She’d play with the newborn’s fingers and say, “He looks just like you, Joe.”

THE UNITED STATES IS ONE OF THE FEW COUNTRIES IN WHICH PAID SURROGACY IS LEGAL, thanks not to federal laws but to decisions in a number of state courts. Yet even here prospective fathers can find themselves on shaky ground. Some states say surrogacy contracts are unenforceable. Others recognize them but say no money can change hands. And in some cases, surrogate mothers who also provided the egg have won custody of the child. This patchwork of conflicting laws forces some would-be dads to cross state lines so they can become fathers in a friendly jurisdiction.

That’s how Mike Carper, the international general counsel for a telecom company in Washington, D.C., finds himself speeding along the Potomac River toward Virginia on a bright spring morning. He is headed to a clinic where the woman he has hired as a surrogate is having her monthly sonogram. Carper, with his Anderson Cooper good looks, seems an unlikely candidate for fatherhood. He is a world traveler. He wears Diesel jeans, British- rocker boots from Calvin Klein, and a pair of Italian Persol sunglasses he bought in Rome last week. (“Those damn Italians,” he says. “They keep making things I have to buy.”) He also drives a Porsche convertible, and so there is one aspect of parenthood he dreads: “driving a big, honking SUV.”

Carper recently gave up his sprawling bachelor pad in D.C., where surrogacy—paid or not—is illegal, and moved to a house in nearby Maryland, where it’s allowed. His surrogate is a married woman named Carey who lives in Virginia. Since Virginia forbids surrogacy to single dads, their contract requires Carey to travel to Maryland when she delivers Carper’s twin daughters on August 4. (They have scheduled an appointment for induced labor.) He has already petitioned the court to have only his name placed on the birth certificate—a fairly standard practice that will help establish Carper’s custody and absolve Carey from parental responsibility if, for example, Carper dies.

Like every man I spoke to who has used a surrogate, Carper has always known he wanted children (“Probably since my teens,” he says). But he’d spent his life chasing a career, not fatherhood. By the time he hit 37, Carper decided to get serious about making babies. His first four attempts failed.

He had bought eggs from three donors at around $7,500 a batch and had them fertilized and implanted in two separate surrogates at $25,000 for each attempt. The embryos didn’t survive. Friends suggested he either consider adoption or give up.

“When I didn’t get pregnant, I was like, ‘Shit, what’s wrong with me?’” Carper says over the reggae mix pulsing from his stereo as we speed down the parkway past Georgetown University. “Not to mention the fact that you just spent a shitload of money on this. And ultimately you start saying, ‘Maybe this is not meant to be, maybe this is not right. Maybe this is a sign from the universe that I should get on with my life.’ But it became a project, a quest.”

Everything finally fell into place last fall, when Carper’s surrogacy agency handed him a profile of a woman we’ll call Julie, a prospective egg donor.

She was a “friendly and talkative” 32-year-old married mom, the report noted, with “positive energy,” auburn hair, and “huge green eyes that sparkle with good humor.” She was slender and appeared “to take good care of herself.” The packet included a photo of her with her husband and children, and another of her as a young girl. Carper met her, liked her, and agreed to buy her eggs.

“I understand how people get hung up on the whole weird Nazi engineering of all this,” Carper says. “But it’s not much different than the way anyone chooses a mate. At some level everybody’s looking to upgrade the gene pool. This process just forces you to think about it in a fast-food scenario.

All you really want is your burger, and you want it now, and you want it your way.”

Like any expectant dad, Carper is eager to share the details surrounding the mystery of creation. He explains how hormones are injected into the egg donor to “kick up the volume for harvesting.” He tosses out terms like intracytoplasmic injection, in which his sperm is frozen, its tail later broken off, and the head inserted into the egg. He explains how drugs are used “to thicken the lining of the surrogate’s uterus,” so the foreign embryo will find a welcoming environment. And like any proud papa, he carries pictures of his kids, stacks of sonograms in a manila folder. “These are actually great embryos,” he says, pointing out the smallest of dots, captured in the streetlamp glow of the sonogram, somewhere in a sea of black and staticky silver. He has plenty more that show the twins’ evolution to tadpoles and then sea monkeys.

Carper, who has two graduate degrees in law, is as obsessed with the mechanics of all this as he is with the idea of being a dad—particularly with the fine points of nursing. “I told this woman the other night that you can get artificial breasts and breast-feed that way,” Carper says with amusement. “And she’s like, ‘That is too twisted. You cannot even go there.’”

MATERNAL FETAL ASSOCIATES OF THE MID-ATLANTIC IS HOUSED IN A LOW BRICK BUILDING set amid green fields, strip malls, and the bulldozed earth of new condo developments in suburban Virginia. Carey is in the exam room when we arrive. She is marooned on her back, shirt thrust up to her bra, exposing an expanse of belly lubed with gel. The room is dark and cramped. The afternoon light frames the window shade.

After greeting Carey, Carper asks the nurse, “What are you measuring now?” On a cluttered table sits a monitor, where Carey’s sonogram is playing.

“Brains,” says the nurse. “Plenty of gray matter.”

“Good,” says Carey, reaching over to pat Carper on the leg. “They’re gonna need that to support you someday in the manner to which you’re accustomed.”

Carper laughs. “Can we take some picture captures?” he says. No, says the nurse; the twins are so big now they won’t fit on the monitor.

Carey is attractive and friendly, with blue eyes and a broad smile. She and Carper have been friends since they worked together, 10 years ago. When Carper asked her to be his surrogate, she agreed, with her husband’s consent.

(“He’s probably the person I’m most grateful to,” Carper says. “This guy has to go to work and explain to his buddies why his wife is pregnant with another man’s babies. I send the guy Omaha steaks whenever I get the chance.”)

Carey agreed to help Carper after her attempt to have a second child failed. Rather than go the in vitro route, she and her husband adopted a son from Russia. She surprises me when she says that she’s opposed to assisted reproductive technology. “That for me is like theft,” she says. “There are over a million children in Russia alone who do not have moms, and if I can make a difference to one child, that’s worth it.” But then why help Carper? “It’s a personal decision, how you have kids,” she says.

At lunch, in a bustling, nautical-themed restaurant, Carey is open about the role she’s playing and the criticism she faces. “Basically, there are people who feel like, ‘You’re selling children,’” she says. She doesn’t see it that way, since she and Carper are good friends, though she is being paid $25,000, which she’ll use to fund her children’s education. After the birth, he also plans to send her and her husband on a vacation to St. John, where Carper owns property. “The other question I get is ‘Is he gay?’”

In fact, he is. And though he has a partner, his plan all along—since this is his quest—has been to raise the girls on his own. Interestingly, part of his contract with Carey requires that if either he or she has emotional issues after the birth, they will attend therapy together, paid for by Carper. He wants his daughters to know Carey and know that she carried them, but he does not want them to know Julie, their biological mother. (Julie is, however, required by contract to notify the surrogacy agency of her whereabouts for 18 years in case of medical complications—for instance, if one of the girls needs a kidney transplant.) That’s why Carper didn’t ask Julie her last name: So he couldn’t give it to the girls if they asked for it.

“I never want to lie to the kids,” Carper says. “Because at some point they’re going to come to me and say ‘I want to meet my mom.’ And you know, like, ‘Fuck you, man. I want to go live with a normal family. I bet my mom is great!’ And I want to be able to say, ‘You know what? I don’t know who your mom is. All I know is that she has her own family, and I promised her before you were born that I would provide a good home for you. And you know what? You’re living it. Now get your ass upstairs and clean your room and get on with your life.’”

ARTIFICIAL REPRODUCTIVE TECHNOLOGY IS A $3 BILLION–A–YEAR INDUSTRY IN THE United States. It is also largely unregulated. No state or federal agencies directly govern its activity. (The American Society of Reproductive Medicine encourages surrogacy agencies to follow certain guidelines, including a suggested cap of $10,000 on payments to egg donors.) As such, the practice is susceptible to abuses, critics say. There are people who want a child so badly they’ll mortgage their home to get one. The more desperate they get, the more lucrative the business becomes for the doctors, labs, surrogacy agencies, donors, and surrogates, all of whom make money with each new attempt to get pregnant.

Debora Spar, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, argues that our culture shies away from the economic realities of surrogacy: that cells are being bought and sold and that surrogates are not “humanistic angels from above” but are actually paid workers. “For some reason, when we talk about babies, we don’t seem willing to consider that this is a business, that there are commercial aspects of reproduction that are just exploding right now,” says Spar, whose recent book The Baby Business makes a strong case for the types of guidelines that regulate adoption in the United States. “We need to fess up to what’s going on, to move away from the emotion-laden language and get some transparency, so everyone can make better decisions.”

Beyond the business aspects, Spar is also concerned with access to surrogacy and whether insurance policies should cover it. “This is a wealthy man’s market. If you’re a single guy who wants to do this, you darn well better be rich. So really, the harder question that is not being raised is: Are we okay with surrogacy being a luxury good?”

Because of the availability of paid surrogacy here, the United States has become a shopping destination for single men and infertile couples from around the world. In Norway, it is illegal for a lesbian couple to be artificially inseminated. In Germany, it is nearly impossible to enforce surrogacy contracts in court. Italy bans the use of donor eggs and sperm, and severely limits artificial insemination. And while both the U.K. and Australia allow surrogacy, they forbid payment for it.

Dale Stevenson, a 30-year-old high-school teacher from New South Wales, Australia, is expecting a child with a San Diego surrogate next year. He seems young to have given up on finding a wife. But Stevenson, who has the support of his family, and the $95,000 to pay for the process thanks to his former job as a stockbroker, has what he considers a perfectly fine reason. “I just found I’m one of those people who doesn’t need a mate,” he says. “I find it harder. I prefer to live on my own.”

The irony is that children dramatically change one’s life. But surprisingly, Stevenson’s sentiment was repeated by several other single men. And it makes you wonder: While it seems fine and admirable that single men are choosing the responsibilities of fatherhood, are they simply giving up on finding a partner? Joe K., the Boston financier, has a mother and sister helping him with his 2 1/2-year-old son, acting as maternal figures. And though his life is filled with the chores of parenthood—and though he does date—he has no immediate urge to have a mate at home. “It’s not a priority,” Joe says.

Same goes for Mike, a 35-year-old manager at a Colorado high-tech company. Mike seems to have worked it all out. He says he’s had only two girlfriends in his life, relationships that lasted about four months each. Yet he was certain, almost as soon as he left his 20s, that he would have children and he would have them alone. “I just never met the right person,” he says.

“I guess I never opened myself up for the possibility either. Like, I’m not real outgoing. And I was always uncomfortable meeting women. You know, my two cents of psychoanalysis, I would say it was always a fear of rejection.”

But he still hoped to have children. “I wanted to share my life,” Mike says.

“It wasn’t like a biological clock ticking. I like kids. I like doing activities, even if it’s a girl dressing up, or a boy throwing the ball. I like it particularly when young kids—I don’t want to say ‘unconditional love’—but the way they look up to you, and run up and put their arms around you.”

Mike, a cherubic-faced guy with shocking blue eyes and a razor-sharp part in his hair, who has decorated his living room in African statuettes and Van Gogh oil reproductions that he bought online, has given up a lot to have kids. A former skier and scuba diver, he has put all that on hold. And it’s clear that he’s a very loving and tender parent.

As he flips through one of his daughter’s baby books, holding his little girl in his lap while her sister sleeps on a quilt by a fireplace of ceramic logs, he stops on a page devoted to their two mothers. There he has pasted pictures of a blue-eyed blonde (the egg donor) lying on a living-room floor and a very tired-looking woman (the surrogate) holding the newborns in the hospital.

“That’s your surrogate,” he coos to the baby. “And that’s your mommy there. She’s pretty, just like you.”

The girls, in fact, strongly resemble Mike, and he explains that that’s because he chose a donor with a similarly fair, northern-European complexion.

“I wanted someone who looked like me,” says Mike, who grew up an only child. Sometimes, when he’s at Costco with the girls, strangers will stop and fuss over the babies, asking the girls in a well-meaning singsong: “Where’s Mommy today? Is she home and Daddy is taking care of you?”

“There’s this automatic assumption that I can’t be the primary parent,” he says. He usually dodges the question, even with coworkers who wonder where the girls suddenly came from. “I tell them it’s a long story, and I’d rather not go into it. They probably draw the conclusion that I knocked someone up.”

As for the girls, when they get old enough to ask about their mom, Mike says he will have an answer ready. “It’ll be like, ‘There was this woman who carried you . . . ’” he says, his voice trailing off. “Anyway, I’ll have it figured out. I’ll tell them all families are different, that I really wanted kids. And that I love them more than anything.”