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The Surrogate | Part one of seven

The weight of expectation

She's walking up the sun-streaked sidewalk in front of her doctor's office, trying to be positive.

I have a baby inside me, Carolyn Zinn tells herself. Ten days ago, a doctor placed two embryos in her uterus. I must have at least one growing in there.

But as she nears the beveled glass door, her confidence drains away. In the last week she has taken a dozen home pregnancy tests, and every one has been negative.

Now she is at the doctor's office to get the official word. What if it's negative too?

Try not to think that way, she tells herself. Think about all the times you've succeeded, all the life you have given.

Carolyn wants to be pregnant. She wants to give birth. She wants to watch the faces of the parents as they cuddle the newborn she has given them.

She'll be 40 this year. This may be her last chance.

Please Lord, she says to herself, opening the door.

Just one more time.

• • •

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but experts say surrogate mothers give birth to about 1,000 babies each year in the United States.

The process is straightforward and clinical: Eggs are joined with sperm in a dish, then transferred into the womb of the surrogate who has been hired to perform this service. She carries the child, gives birth, and hands the baby over to the parents.

This practice, 30 years old now, has always been controversial, because it injects science and commerce into what had been a natural process. Even now, surrogacy is banned in many countries and states — but not in Florida.

More and more couples are turning to surrogates, as evidenced by a growing number of surrogacy agencies, egg donor companies, and fertility doctors and lawyers. Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology reports show a 45 percent increase in babies born to surrogates in the three years ending in 2006.

The process begins with a woman who yearns for a baby and another woman who is willing and able to give her one.

You can imagine the motives of the prospective parents. They're determined to have a family or add to the one they have. They feel incomplete, even desperate. They've exhausted all other fertility options.

But who is this woman who is willing to carry a baby, give birth and then walk away?

Public perception has her as an opportunist who dares to tread on the hallowed ground of motherhood for financial gain. But the reality is that psychologists screen out most of the women who are motivated by greed.

The typical surrogate is white, married, a mother. She loves being pregnant and is altruistic to a fault. She yearns to transcend her ordinary life, to see the gratitude in the eyes of the parents when she hands over the baby, to attain a level of greatness that would otherwise be outside her reach.

She tells herself she's doing this for them. But part of her needs to do it for her.

• • •

This describes Carolyn Zinn, professional surrogate of a decade. Having babies is her calling and one of the greatest joys in her life.

Our story begins in 2006, when Carolyn is 39. She has a husband with a sense of humor, two almost-grown teenagers, two cats and a dog, and a nice home in Bradenton with high ceilings and a woodsy back yard. She has the bubbly exuberance of a high school cheerleader, buys all her clothes at Wal-Mart and organizes her life around the exploits of her family. She has a soprano voice, thick brown hair that is just beginning to be flecked with gray and denim-blue eyes that reveal her every emotion.

She works as a bank teller, but that isn't her passion. You could say she's the Ted Williams of professional babymaking. She's five for five.

In 2000, when her own children were in elementary school, she had triplets. Three embryos went in. Three babies came out. She had a baby the same way in 2003, and another in 2005.

Two families. Three pregnancies. Five new lives.

Because she's so good, she gets top dollar — her latest client is paying her $40,000. She even has her own agent of sorts, someone who matches her with prospective parents.

One doctor has even dubbed Carolyn "the Cervix of Steel."

Now, as she steps inside Dr. Stephen Welden's fertility clinic in Tampa, she is wondering if she can live up to the name.

• • •

Carolyn barely has a chance to sink into the couches in the waiting room before nurse practitioner Lenora Welden, the doctor's wife, hands her a pregnancy test. It's 10 days after the embryo transfer, time to find out if either of the two fertilized eggs is thriving.

Carolyn ducks into the bathroom to take the test, then rejoins Lenora to wait for the result. A line means she's pregnant. As they wait, Lenora can see the fear in Carolyn's eyes.

"I've never had a failed transfer," Carolyn tells her. "I suppose it can happen a first time. But they're relying on me."

"They" are the Orlando-area couple who want the baby. Carolyn met them through an agency that matches surrogates with prospective parents. After this appointment she will call the intended mother, whose name is Diane, and tell her the news.

Carolyn thinks back to her phone conversation with Diane this very morning. "I'm still 100 percent sure, I know I'm pregnant," Carolyn had said, though they both knew about the failed home pregnancy tests.

Now Lenora is gazing steadily at the latest test.

"Don't panic," she says.

Carolyn is trying not to, but it's hard. She turns to a wall of baby pictures. The triplets — her first three surrogate babies — are up there. Three smiling infants, blond hair, blue eyes. Two girls and a boy. It was so easy then.

"How's it looking?" Carolyn asks.

"I don't see a line," Lenora says.

• • •

That night, Carolyn calls Diane and tells her she's not pregnant.

It's an apology, really. A blood test had confirmed the bad news.

Carolyn knows she's not to blame, but she feels guilty and glum anyway. It's the first time she has told someone she doesn't have a baby for her.

Diane is shocked because everything seemed perfect — the doctor, the technology, all of it. But she understands that these things happen.

Diane, 42, is a former school administrator. She has one young child and wants another. She had difficulty carrying her first child because of an illness that required chemotherapy. Her doctor has advised her not to become pregnant again.

The embryos she is using to get her second child are a mixture: sperm from her husband and eggs from a Tampa woman in the military reserves. She paid the woman $5,000 for 19 eggs.

Diane doesn't want her last name used here. She worries that her future child will one day find out from this story that an egg donor is her biological mother. She will tell the child when the time is right.

The first embryo transfer has failed, but Diane still has fertilized eggs left in a freezer at Dr. Welden's office. She and her husband Don, who owns a health care company, must decide whether to try again.

As Diane and Carolyn end their phone call, Diane says they'll talk about it and call Carolyn later.

Carolyn spends the next few days worrying that Diane will dump her. But Diane isn't thinking that way. She longs for a larger family. She wants her son to have a sibling, hopefully a girl. Twins would be even better. And she's in a rush because she wants them to be close in age to her son.

Within a week, she calls Carolyn and asks her to try again.

• • •

Diane asks Carolyn if she's willing to let the doctor transfer six to eight thawed embryos into her uterus. Such a large number would be a first for Carolyn. It could mean six to eight babies.

But the success rate with frozen embryos is spotty. Dr. Welden says he has succeeded with them only 7 percent of the time. He says he's willing to put in eight — only because the chances are slim that they'll all thrive.

Carolyn's friends are dubious. She has become pregnant with a frozen embryo before, and she has a remarkable success rate in general. What if she ends up with octuplets?

Carolyn decides to let the doctor thaw eight.

"I'm not worried about having too many babies," she says. "I'm worried about not having one."

Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

Coming Monday: The story of how Carolyn began her career as a surrogate after seeing a TV talk show.

On tampabay.com

In a multimedia report, Carolyn Zinn tells her story, an embryologist demonstrates the miracle of creation in a Petri dish, and experts discuss surrogacy. You'll also find online resources about infertility and surrogacy.

Surrogacy time line

Surrogacy is as old as the Bible, but its modern history begins in 1976, with artificial insemination.

1976: So-called "commercial surrogacy" gets its start when a Michigan attorney negotiates the first contract between a surrogate mother and a childless couple.

1978: Louise Brown, the first "test tube baby," is born in England.

1981: Elizabeth Carr, the first American test tube baby, is born in Long Beach, Calif.

1980s: Roughly 100 surrogate babies are born by 1983, and 500 by 1986.

1985: The "Baby M" case. Betsy and Bill Stern of New Jersey offer Mary Beth Whitehead $10,000 to have a child for them. Four days after the birth, Whitehead disappears with the baby. After much courtroom drama, Bill Stern is awarded custody and Whitehead is given visitation rights.

1990s: With in vitro fertilization, it is now possible to harvest eggs from one woman, fertilize them with sperm outside the womb, and put them into a different woman, who carries the child to term.

Shirl Kennedy, Times researcher

The weight of expectation 10/17/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 24, 2008 6:13pm]
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