GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Zach and Meagan Zoodsma are out of ideas.
They’ve already exhausted their own circle of family, friends, and friends of friends — both personal and Facebook.
But the couple, both 29, married five years and living north of Kent County with a 2-year-old son, has been unable to find a gestational surrogate.
It’s not a simple request.
“I mean, how do you ask someone, ‘Hey, do you want to help me out for nine months or more?’ That’s a huge commitment that I feel guilty even asking. How do you ask that of someone?” Meagan Zoodsma questioned.
So when the Zoodmas got a call from Target 8 about sharing their plight, they decided to go for it.
“I hope someone’s watching who says, ‘I’ve always wanted to do that.’ You see those comments online where a woman will say, ‘I’ve always wanted to be a surrogate,’ and internally, I’m like, ‘I’m here. I’m looking for someone,’” Zoodsma said.
PATH TO GESTATIONAL SURROGACY
Meagan Zoodsma was just a child herself when she learned she’d never carry her own.
At 9, years old, the Petoskey native was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, becoming at the time the disease’s youngest ever survivor at University of Michigan.
She underwent a complete hysterectomy two days after her 10th birthday, but her dad convinced doctors to leave one ovary intact.
It would take 15 years and a wedding for the implications of that early hysterectomy to truly hit home.
“When we got married, it was like a freight train. I was in the depths of fertility grief and I didn’t know how to function. I was crying in the middle of the night,” she recalled.
On the spring of 2017, the Zoodsmas consulted The Fertility Center in Grand Rapids to find out if they could create their own biological embryos for someone else to carry.
“I was expecting the doctor to say, ‘No way,'” Meagan Zoodsma remembered. “I was told (as a child) that the eggs were damaged beyond anything you could ever use.”
Incredibly, The Fertility Center was able to retrieve 33 eggs from her remaining ovary, 13 of which became embryos that were frozen for later use.
The Zoodsmas documented each step of the process on Facebook, unaware their eventual surrogate carrier was among those following their journey online.
SURROGATE: ‘I HAVE A UTERUS AND I’M NOT USING IT’
Nicole Barker was one of Meagan Zoodsma’s closest friends in high school but — as so often happens — the pair had lost touch since.
That is, until Barker came across Zoodsma’s Facebook posts.
“I thought, ‘Hey, I have a uterus, and I’m not using it,'” recalled Barker, who was 25 at the time and already had two young children of her own with her fiance.
Among other requirements, gestational carriers must have given birth previously to at least one healthy baby.
“I think I (gave Zach and Meagan) the whole spiel of, ‘I understand this is a big thing. If I’m not right for it, my feelings will not be hurt whatsoever. This is a you-guys thing. But I want you to know I’m here. I’m an option if you choose to accept it,'” Barker said.
A couple months and one embryo transfer later, an early ultrasound confirmed it was a success. Barker was pregnant with the Zoodsmas’ biological babies: twins.
The pregnancy was nine weeks along when an ultrasound revealed one of the babies had not survived.
“We had lost Baby B,” Meagan Zoodsma recalled. “We were reassured that Baby A looked wonderful (but) navigating that piece, being elated for your one baby but being heartbroken for your other, it is really hard.”
The three tried to support each other through the miscarriage.
“How do I manage my own emotions, but help our surrogate?” said Meagan Zoodsma, recalling the difficulty of the circumstance.
Barker struggled too.
“Here I am, not only is this my first miscarriage, but I just lost my best friend’s baby. It was devastating… It was hard. It still is… But it definitely got easier throughout the pregnancy watching (Baby A) do so well. Watching him grow and flourish throughout, it definitely helped soften the blow,” Barker recalled.
‘IT’S LIKE HE KNEW I WAS ALWAYS HIS MOM’
Seven months later, in the middle of the night, the Zoodsmas and Barker — whose fiancé was also on hand — welcomed Peter Zachary Zoodsma into the world.
“The nurses were very kind about, ‘What do you want to do? What’s the plan?” Meagan Zoodsmas recalled.
“Nicole said, ‘I want Peter to get into Meagan’s hands as soon as possible,'” she continued. “So they laid a blanket on Nicole’s belly and cleaned him off really quickly, but then I was over in a chair ready to go to hold to our son for the first time. That was the best moment. All that grief and fear associated with infertility just left the moment he was in my arms. It’s like he knew I was always his mom, and I always knew that he was mine.”
Barker was overjoyed for her friends.
“Everything I went through was beyond worth it. Beyond,” she said. “There’s nothing better (than) watching them be a family.”
Barker believes The Fertility Center’s comprehensive program prepared her well for the pregnancy journey and the birth itself.
“There’s so much that goes into preparing you for that moment,” she said. “I knew from the beginning; this is not my baby. It’s 100% their baby. I’m here temporarily. I’m the nine-month long babysitter.”
She said she’s always considered herself an aunt to Peter.
“I said it when I was pregnant, after the birth, and now two years later, not an ounce of me was emotionally, maternally attached to Peter… I love him like an auntie, and that’s the only connection I have to him.”
Barker said it’s frustrating when people ask her how she could give Peter away.
“He was not mine. I wasn’t giving him away. I was giving him back. He was theirs,” she said, noting the difference between her role as a gestational carrier and that of a traditional surrogate.
“A gestational carrier carries someone else’s biological child, whereas with a surrogate, it’s typically that woman’s egg or embryo,” she said.
HOPE FOR A SECOND CHILD
Peter is a bubbly, adventurous 2-year-old now, and the Zoodsmas are ready to try to give him a sibling.
They still have 11 embryos frozen and ready for transfer.
But Barker is not an option this time. With each of her three pregnancies — her own two children and Peter — she experienced progressively worse postpartum depression. Barker knows she needs to step back this time and the Zoodsmas agree.
“Nicole needs to take care of herself,” Meagan Zoodsma said. “You have to be in the right frame of mind as an intended parent to really think about your surrogate, think about who this person is, what might they be going through in their life, and is this the right choice for them.”
Barker is hopeful the Zoodsmas will find someone. She urges anyone who’s interested to do their research upfront.
“It’s a lot of put yourself through and you really need to be in this head space of, ‘This is going to be equal parts hell and enjoyment,’ and how much of that are you willing to put yourself through?” she said. “It’s intense. It’s scary, and it’s beautiful. Equal parts to all of it.”
REQUIREMENTS FOR GESTATIONAL CARRIERS
Under guidelines from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), gestational carriers should be between the ages of 21 and 45 and have had at least one uncomplicated pregnancy, but not more than five previous deliveries in total or three via cesarian section.
Before and after embryo transfer, carriers must give themselves injections weekly for a dozen or so weeks to regulate and stimulate their natural cycle.
Intended parents and gestational surrogates must also undergo psychological evaluation and counseling.
The parents have to hire an attorney who specializes in assisted reproduction to draw up a legal contract that covers unforeseen circumstances.
ASRM also recommends that gestational carriers themselves have a stable family environment with adequate support.
Barker’s health insurance covered some pregnancy bills, and the Zoodsmas’ picked up the rest. In total, the Zoodmas paid $32,000 out of pocket from their first fertility consultation through to Peter’s birth.
Paid surrogacy is a felony in Michigan, so gestational carriers receive no personal compensation.
But there’s another barrier as well.
MICHIGAN ONE OF THREE ANTI-SURROGACY STATES
While most states are considered at least surrogacy-friendly, Michigan is one of three states in the nation categorized as anti-surrogacy.
Map courtesy of Creative Family Connections LLC. State surrogacy laws can change, so the map is updated frequently.
>>Online: Gestational surrogacy laws by state
Michigan was one of the first states to ban paid surrogacy in the wake of the Baby M case in the mid-80s.
The New Jersey surrogate who carried Baby M decided she wanted to keep the baby, leading to a protracted and high-profile court battle.
The surrogacy broker who arranged that disastrous deal was based in Dearborn, Michigan, prompting state lawmakers to take action to outlaw the practice.
But 30 years ago, surrogates like the one who carried Baby M used their own eggs. Today, through medical advances, surrogates use the eggs of the intended mother or a donor.
While unpaid or “altruistic” surrogacy is not illegal in Michigan, state law deems surrogacy contracts “void and unenforceable as contrary to public policy.” That means biological parents sometimes must go to the trouble and expense of adopting their own children back from the carrier.
That didn’t happen with Peter Zoodsma because Zach and Meagan happened to draw a friendly judge who was willing to sign a pre-birth order naming them Peter’s parents upon birth.
Whether intended parents must adopt their biological children depends on the county and, at times, even the individual judge.
“In the state of Michigan, essentially each judge has the opportunity to make their own choice whether they sign the pre-birth order or not,” Meagan Zoodsma said. “I’m speechless. Can you imagine having to adopt your biological child back?”
The Zoodsma are not pushing for paid surrogacy in Michigan, but they do want to see state lawmakers remove unnecessary barriers to altruistic surrogacy.
In some states, there are private agencies that help would-be parents connect with surrogates and gestational carriers. In Michigan, families are largely on their own to find someone willing to carry their baby.
If you or someone you know feels called to explore the option of becoming a gestational carrier for the Zoodsmas, you can contact them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If they’re unable to find anyone, they will likely adopt.
“We put so much effort into creating our embryos that we’d prefer to use our embryos. But both journeys are beautiful. I just knew I wanted to try surrogacy, but I would absolutely adopt,” Meagan Zoodsma said.
“I’ve had people ask, ‘Why didn’t you just adopt?’ It’s such a personal choice. Kind of snottily, I just want to say to someone who has just bio kiddos, ‘Well, why didn’t you just adopt?'” she continued. “We shouldn’t even say ‘just’ adopt. Take the ‘just’ out. No one should have a hand in other people’s family choices. If you want to adopt, adopt. That’s a beautiful story. If you want to use a surrogate, use a surrogate. Everyone’s story is different.”