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January-February 2011

Why Sally Rhoads risked her life 10 times to be a surrogate

Paul McLaughlinWebsite

Sally Rhoads. Illustration by Antony Hare.

Sally Rhoads. Illustration by Antony Hare.

Sally Rhoads is passionate about surrogacy. The 32-year-old mother of three (ages 12, seven and 10 months) lives near Stratford, Ontario. She has been a successful surrogate once and an unsuccessful one nine times. Although her commitment to surrogacy almost killed her, she remains an advocate for a practice that is highly restricted in Canada and banned in some U.S. states.

This: When did you first become interested in surrogacy?

Rhoads: After my first child in 1999. I had really enjoyed being pregnant and found it was easy for me. I was on the internet and came across some surrogacy boards. I realized there were a lot of couples that needed help having a baby. So I figured that’s one thing I know I can do.

This: At that time it wasn’t illegal in Canada to take money for surrogacy [it now is although “altruistic surrogacy” is permitted, except in Quebec where all surrogacy is banned]. Were you also motivated by money?

Rhoads: I just thought it was something you do, like organ donations. I wasn’t financially motivated whatsoever.

This: How did your husband feel about surrogacy?

Rhoads: He didn’t like the idea very much at the beginning because he didn’t understand it. When he learned it would be a gestational surrogacy, where I would be carrying an embryo created by the intended mother’s eggs and father’s sperm, their genetics, he decided it was OK.

This: How long after your child was born did you consider surrogacy?

Rhoads: Three months.

This: How did you choose a couple to help?

Rhoads: Through the internet. From March 1999 through September, I had more than 200 emails from couples, pretty well all from the U.S. I went with Heather and Sergey from Maryland. They said they would take care of all my expenses, including travel.

This: But you were eventually paid.

Rhoads: Much later, when we started talking about a contract; they brought it up. That’s what you do, especially in the U.S. You pay a monthly fee. Maybe $2,500 in the U.S. and $1,700 or $2,000 in Canada. For me it didn’t matter. They threw out $1,100, plus expenses. That was fine with us.

This: How was the pregnancy?

Rhoads: I had the embryo transfer in a clinic in New Jersey in April 2000. When I got pregnant, I got so sick my family doctor urged me to get an abortion. The morning sickness was so bad I ended up losing my job. I also got an infection from all the needles you have to inject yourself with. It felt as if I had the flu every day for months.

This: Did you start to wonder if you had made the right decision?

Rhoads: No. Never.

This: How did the rest of the pregnancy go?

Rhoads: We learned there were twins—actually, it had started out as triplets—so the sickness then made sense. They had to induce me at 37 weeks. So the birth was in Stratford, and Heather and Sergey weren’t there for it. They were both breech babies. And there was a prolapsed cord [where the umbilical cord emerges from the uterus before the fetus]. I ended up having a C-section. I had a boy and a girl, Peter and Victoria.

This: A question I’m sure you’re often asked is whether it was difficult to give up the babies.

Rhoads: Not at all. Heather had been with me through all the testing. The day they put the embryos in me she held my hand and cried the whole time. Right from that point, you see that those aren’t your children at all. So for me there was a huge detachment there.

This: How many more times did you act as a surrogate?

Rhoads: Nine.

This: Did any succeed?

Rhoads: No.

This: Do you know why?

Rhoads: Embryo problems…at the couple’s end.

This: Why did you keep trying?

Rhoads: I never really wanted to do another surrogacy. But the couples would have the worst stories imaginable. One couple had spent $150,000 on IVF. They had lost their home, everything, trying to have a baby. They would plead with me to help them, and I always relented. One, in 2005, almost killed me. I had just had a miscarriage from another surrogacy and I told myself I was through. But a couple came from China. They had lost three babies. They said “please put our last embryos in you.” How could I say no? They put three embryos in me and I got pregnant. A couple of weeks later I was bleeding and they said it looks as if you miscarried, and that was the end of it. A week later I was feeling awful. I went to the hospital and my blood pressure was almost not there. Lo and behold, I had twin babies in my left tube. They had gotten between the tube and the ovary, and I got a big clot and it had ruptured. I lost half my blood and needed emergency surgery. They said I would have died if I hadn’t come in.

This: So that was the last surrogacy?

Rhoads: No. I had three more transfers after that.

This: When was your last try?

Rhoads: January 2008. I’m retired now. I’m divorced and my new partner wants to have more children and is worried that surrogacy might prevent that. I’ve already lost a fallopian tube because of it.

This: Have your views of surrogacy changed at all over the years?

Rhoads: In some ways. Altruistic surrogacy is very idealistic. I don’t really agree with it anymore. I strongly believe compensation should be involved unless it’s like your sister or a relative you have a connection with. I’ve seen a lot of surrogates go through this with altruistic ideas and come out of it feeling very used and hurt at the end. Most couples don’t want any connection with you after the birth. When you’re pregnant and you have your own baby, you come home with a baby. When you’re a surrogate you come home to nothing, not so much as a picture.

This: Is that what happened with Heather and Sergey?

Rhoads: No. But they got divorced a couple of years later. And I wondered, God, what I went through for these people, and they didn’t even stick together. Heather and I became close and we still talk almost every week. The twins [who are 10] know all about me. They think it was neat they were born in Canada. They added me as friends on Facebook.

This: What did you get out of surrogacy?

Rhoads: I loved it. I was always so happy to find out I was pregnant for a couple. And I always felt so cheated if I couldn’t help them. I guess, for me, it was almost addictive.

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