In 2001, Lior lost a baby, and with it, the ability to carry a pregnancy. The experience almost took her life, and in that fragile state, she switched paths on her rocky road to motherhood.
Lior, who asked that we don’t use her full name, and her husband, chose surrogacy. First, they met with a “broker,” but Lior wasn’t satisfied with the screening process and the couple began to search independently. A friend of a friend promised everything the couple would need, but that didn’t end up working out, either. Lior was left confounded and crying.
Her faith in humanity was restored by a woman who’d been through it already. She handed Lior a list of contacts in the United States, complete with phone numbers.
“Agencies send you a few pages about surrogates,” she says, “but there’s no barometer. It’s a gut feeling.”
The surrogate she ultimately chose had a combination of life experiences that Lior felt would work. “She’d had her own kids through a sperm donor, due to her husband’s medical issues, so I knew that she understood the pain of wanting a child and not being able to conceive. And they needed the money,” says Lior.
Next, Lior attempted egg retrieval twice at a New Jersey clinic. At an average cost of US$15,000 per procedure, plus travel costs, it was all the more heartbreaking that they failed to retrieve a single egg. Finally, Lior transferred her file back to Canada. But just 10 days later, it became illegal to pay surrogates in this country.
“I collapsed on the floor sobbing,” Lior recalls.
Shirley Eve Levitan is a lawyer who specializes in fertility law. In 2004, she explains, Canada adopted the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, which makes it illegal to pay surrogates, as well as egg and sperm donors. Contravening the law can result in a fine of up to $500,000 and/or 10 years in prison.
“The law does allow for payment of expenses to a surrogate or donor,” Levitan adds, “however, those expenses have not yet been defined,” which leaves many people in legal limbo.
As it turned out, Lior was lucky: because her surrogate was American and no money would be exchanged in Canada, she could continue the process.
Lior and her husband flew their surrogate, Lisa, to the clinic in New Jersey and then later to Toronto. Sometimes, they flew Lisa in from her home in Pittsburgh, along with her entire family. Finally, after the fourth trial, they were pregnant.
But with the jubilation came a conundrum: trusting a near stranger who lives far away with your unborn baby for nine months. Was she eating well? Sleeping enough? Working too hard? Was she smoking? Drinking? Panic ensued when Lisa lost her job – and medical coverage – but they overcame each hurdle. Lisa never tried to “milk” them, Lior says. On the contrary: of a $3,000 discretionary fund, she returned $2,700; and when Lior and her husband offered to replace Lisa and her husband’s worn winter tires, they declined.
Meanwhile, Lior’s mother in Israel was having a hard time understanding whose baby it would be. Lior drew an analogy: “You wake up one morning and you want to bake a cake. You have all the ingredients and you assemble it, but you discover that your oven doesn’t work. So you go next door and say, ‘Shoshana, can I put my cake in your oven?’ Forty-five minutes later the cake is ready. Mom, whose cake is it?”
Then, the call came: Lisa’s water broke. Lior and her husband rushed to Pittsburgh, but it was a false alarm. They holed up in a lacklustre hotel for two interminable weeks, but in the end, they had a healthy baby girl. Lior cut the umbilical cord, held the baby first and, in gratitude, passed her to Lisa next. Pittsburgh is a surrogate-friendly city where the biological parents were immediately listed on the birth certificate. Back home, there was a trip to the mikveh with a rabbi. Many celebrations ensued.
Lior diligently stayed in touch with Lisa afterwards. “I treated her as an equal. God forbid she should think I used her,” says Lior. Two years later, when the families met for a visit in Niagara Falls, Lior sensed Lisa was letting go. “There’s been no contact since then, but maybe I’ll send her this story,” Lior says.
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Surrogacy is one of those things people used to not talk about in the Jewish community. Not anymore. Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, the director of education and spiritual enrichment at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal, cites the work of Carrie Bornstein, who documented her surrogacy experience online, on a blog called, There’s No “I” in Uterus.
Bornstein, who is married and has three children of her own, is the executive director of the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and the Paula Brody & Family Education Center in Newton, Mass. She is also a rare and precious commodity: she’s a Jewish surrogate. She decided to raise awareness of the need for others like her by tracking her “oh-so-crazy, oh-so-logical idea to give birth to someone else’s baby.”
Other religious leaders also refer to Bornstein’s blog and lament the dearth of Jewish wombs. Given the strict interpretation of Jewish law as to what constitutes a Jewish baby, the lack of Jewish women willing to act as surrogates is notable.
“There are two biblical terms for strangers in our midst,” says Rabbi Yossi Sapirman of Toronto’s Beth Torah synagogue, “ger and toshav – a foreigner and an alien resident.” For both, the Torah tells us to welcome them, not hurt them or cause them discomfort. (In fact, we are commanded twice not to eat pork, but 35 times to welcome the stranger.)
“One of the truths of our time is that most rabbis are no longer the first stop,” Rabbi Sapirman says. “People arrive at our door having already made the most difficult decisions of their lives. They come to us to help them navigate a lifelong struggle to be accepted.”
He stresses that it’s important to avoid whisper campaigns about a surrogate child, as it’s already complex enough for children who come from surrogate mothers. School applications, for example, can be difficult when it comes to navigating origin questions. Instead, Rabbi Sapirman says that, “The quest for acceptance is an opportunity to welcome them fully and sincerely, and outperform our own identity in welcoming them to Judaism.”
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With blond locks and impish smiles, Eytan and Yael are the faces of a fairy tale – one with a decidedly modern twist.
Mitchell Marcus’ best friend, Bethany, offered to donate her eggs to him when they were just teenagers. Years later, Marcus and his husband, Orrin Wolpert, accepted.
For Bethany, “It came down to if I wanted to live my life from fear and doubt, or I could live from a place of joy and love and faith and know that no matter what happens, we’ll find a way to go through it.” There’s more to being a parent than a biological link, she believes.
Marcus and Wolpert found their surrogate, Niki, after three months of searching online.
“We met Niki and her husband at their house,” Marcus explains. “She was amazing. So were her husband and five kids. He’s a paramedic, so we knew she’d have medical support in the house. I remember leaving Niki’s house excited, feeling that bashert instinct.”
The couples shared a positive relationship from the get-go. “It’s more difficult to be a surrogate for a woman who can’t have a child and wishes she could, whereas for us, this is all upside, just joyous from beginning to end. Our guiding principle was that whomever we chose should be someone that we’d be proud for our kids to have been born from. They’re good people,” Wolpert says.
The very first ultrasound revealed two heartbeats. Marcus and Wolpert wanted to be involved in the pregnancy, so they went to all the appointments. They even developed a friendship with the surrogate couple.
The babies were born five-and-a-half weeks early and were placed in intensive care. Niki was only in the hospital for the first 24 hours. When she left, she bought the new parents a gift. It was bittersweet, “like the end of a chapter,” says Marcus.
Eytan was discharged before Yael, but the family stayed together in the hospital for another 48 hours. “Driving home, we were a weeping mess,” says Marcus. “To suddenly have these little people, tiny five-pound things, was very intense.”
With their son and daughter now in Grade 1, Wolpert highlights some of the changes over the intervening years: “Anecdotally, I’d say the competition to find surrogates is much greater. There’s funding for fertility, which wasn’t available, but the laws around surrogacy aren’t any clearer. I can’t overstate the awe we felt for all the people who came together to enable us to be parents. Bethany and Niki top the list. But it includes doctors, nurses, neighbours, family and friends who helped us along this journey.”
“We experienced altruism on the part of so many,” adds Marcus. “Other than the cost, I wouldn’t choose a different way to bring a child into the world. It was so deliberate and such a team effort. There’s something beautiful about a woman just getting pregnant and having a baby. But there’s something so profound about this effort and the number of people offering their contribution. It’s a very meaningful way of creation.”
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Lindsay and Sam are open about their surrogacy journey – it’s easy when you have a beautiful five-month-old. “She’s a treat,” Lindsay says. “She’s at Jewish daycare at our Winnipeg campus. Sam and I feel tremendously blessed that she’s so integrated into the community.”
When a health professional told them that in vitro fertilization was unlikely to work and suggested they consider other options, Lindsay “had no grief or clinging to the notion of carrying a pregnancy. Sam and I were vested in having a family, not the method by which we came to that. Your family is made through love,” she says.
Rabbi Adam Cutler of the Adath Israel synagogue in Toronto has spoken to plenty of individuals who never imagined they’d be in this position. “For many people,” he says, “it’s the last resort. It shouldn’t be a first resort. There are challenges that arise. But when it’s the only option, it’s a good option and the community should be welcoming. If we can bring more Jewish children into the world, I’m for it.”
Rabbi Cutler also emphasizes that if couples can’t conceive naturally, then they are exempt from the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. “Their worth in the world isn’t measured by how many children they bring into it. Sometimes they feel judged if they don’t have a child. That would be a failure on the community’s part,” he says.
For Lindsay and Sam, finding their surrogate was uncommonly quick, as a friend of theirs stepped up to the plate. Since the surrogate was not Jewish, she was concerned about what that would mean for the baby, but Lindsay and Sam were not.
Their family and friends were overjoyed when they heard the news, as it was no secret that the couple had experienced significant challenges en route to parenthood. Some were curious, but Lindsay and Sam didn’t feel compelled to share every detail.
Part of their challenge with a known surrogate was the absence of intermediaries. “Our surrogate wanted to believe that meant we didn’t have to follow the law,” says Lindsay. But she and Sam feared the consequences of not doing so, so their relationship ended on somewhat of a sour note.
As grateful as they remain to her, they don’t have an ongoing relationship with their surrogate. Lindsay plans to tell her daughter her birth story in the simplest, most age-appropriate way possible. “To us, it’s just part of how we built our family,” she says.
Although their surrogate relationship didn’t end as they hoped, Lindsay says that, “We’ll always be incredibly grateful and have love in our hearts for our surrogate.”