During the past few years, Oregon has quietly become a prime location for women willing to carry children for those unable to get pregnant. There are several reasons for that: lenient laws, a critical mass of successful fertility clinics and a system for amending a birth certificate pre-birth.
But surrogacy arrangements are often informal agreements, and they can go wrong. A surrogate may face unexpected medical bills, or the intended parents may change their mind.
Yet Mardi Palan is excited about becoming a surrogate, and that’s due in part to a very thorough contract she has signed governing the terms of her surrogacy. It includes Palan’s compensation, standards she must meet and a wide array of protections for her. “The contract needs to be black and white, because there has to be some clarity at one point in the process regarding expectations,” said John Chally, the director of the NorthwestSurrogacy Center in Portland, where Palan signed up.
Palan is 30 and a hair stylist. She hopes to carry twins for a gay couple from Israel. She has a partner and a 1½-year-old son.
“I carried my son really well, and I really enjoyed being pregnant,” she says. “People mentioned surrogacy as an option to make money on the side and do something really nice for someone else.”
Palan’s contract covers what’s expected of her and a multitude of contingencies. The basics are that Palan will get about $25,000 if she successfully delivers one child, and an additional $5,000 for twins. She says she’ll use it for a down payment on a home.
The contract also deals with ethical issues. It states, for example, that Palan is not selling the children, nor agreeing to terminate her parental rights. That is because none of her genetic material is involved in the pregnancy. The two eggs will come from a donor, and the sperm will come from the two fathers in Israel.
“The analogy is that I’m the soil and someone else is the seed and someone else is the water, so we come together to make the child,” she says.
The contract says Palan is getting paid for “services rendered” and compensation for any pain and emotional distress she may suffer.
Palan’s lawyer, Marlene Findling, says it’s a good contract. “By far the vast majority of these contracts go really smoothly. This contract does protect her.”
And there’s a lot at stake. The intended parents are paying more than $100,000 for their child, or children.
Doctors will get about $45,000.
The NW Surrogacy Center will get about $23,000.
Chally wrote the contract. He says he’s tried to include every possible situation, even if it seems painfully direct — like when it says Palan will get $2,500 if she loses her uterus.
But, he adds, “As with most of those things, those contracts don’t describe relationships between people.”
Chally says he works hard to make sure surrogates aren’t turned into commodities. That takes a lot of work, because 70 percent of Chally’s clients come from `. He has worked with people from 23 countries.
Palan went out to breakfast and dinner with the couple from Israel. She was worried they wouldn’t like her tattoos, rainbow hair or nose stud. But they’re artists, and she says they took her appearance in stride.
Chally says it’s critical for surrogates to get along with prospective parents. He’s turned away unsociable couples seeking a surrogate.
“Surrogates want to know who [the parents] are,” he says. “They want to know what kind of relationship the two of them have. They want to see the joy in their eyes about realizing that there’s a pregnancy. They frankly want some time and attention during that process, as a manifestation of their care and concern for her, as she’s doing a truly remarkable thing for them.”
The contract goes on to stipulate Palan’s behavior with requirements designed to help keep the fetus from harm.
For example, she’s subject to random drug, alcohol and nicotine testing at a clinic. She can’t clean a litter box, get a tattoo or have an X-ray.
Another interesting clause in Palan’s contract is that she has agreed not to travel across the border to Washington during her pregnancy. Washington allows surrogacy for only a limited set of reasons, and surrogacy for financial gain is illegal there.
Sister Sharon Park, of the Washington State Catholic Conference, says, “The potential for exploitation of surrogates is huge, especially when money gets involved.”
For her part, Palan feels protected and empowered by the contract. She started hormone injections July 4 and expects to have two embryos implanted in August.
By Kristian Foden-Vencil, Oregon Public Broadcasting
This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, Oregon Public Broadcasting and Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit national health policy news service. Photo by Bill Johnson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via Wikimedia Commons.