Oct. 15, 2010— -- For a new mother, there is no greater joy than the miracle of birth. And for the growing number of surrogate mothers, their joy is found in carrying babies for couples who cannot have their own.
"To see [parents'] faces when their sweet precious baby came out was priceless," said Colleen, 30, who gave birth to another couple's child last year.
In addition to nine months of pregnancy, gestational surrogacy can require a several-months-long process involving embryo transfers, in-vitro fertilization, medications and doctor's visits before finally conceiving an embryo. For Colleen and other surrogates, this long-term commitment is a labor of love.
"The labor, the pain, it was all worth it," said Colleen, who has two children of her own and lives in California with her husband, Duane.
It was also a financial boost. Duane earns about $30,000 a year in the Army. Colleen made $30,000 for carrying a surrogate child while Duane was serving in Iraq.
"It truly was a way for me to earn some kind of income, but also bless the family," she said, adding it gave her the freedom to stay at home with her kids. "I mean, you have to have your heart in it to be a surrogate mother."
There are an estimated 1,000 surrogate pregnancies each year in the United States. Surrogate agencies say 15 to 20 percent of surrogate babies nationwide are born to military wives -- even though the military makes up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.
Melissa Brisman, who runs Reproductive Possibilities, a surrogacy agency in Montvale, N.J., that matches intended parents with gestational surrogates, said military wives often make perfect surrogates.
"They move around a lot, so they really can't get their teeth into a career, and if they want to contribute to society and do something useful, it's a good use of their time," said Brisman, whose agency employs about 20 military surrogate mothers out of more than 200. "A lot of them are just strong family people...and what a better thing to do for somebody than have a baby for somebody who can't."
Surrogacy has long been a hot topic in military circles. It was featured in the pilot episode of the Lifetime series "Army Wives," in which the show's protagonist secretly becomes a surrogate to earn money to get her family out of debt.
It was a secret, in part, because taxpayers often help pay part of the bill for military surrogacies.
Government Health Insurance Often Foots Part of the Bill for Surrogates
Government health insurance, provided by the Tricare program for military families, covers pre-natal and delivery costs, but as a policy, does not cover surrogacy.
Colleen says Tricare did not question her surrogate pregnancy and she did not notify the insurance provider. She says she does not think there is anything wrong with Tricare covering some of her pregnancy costs.
"[My husband] worked for that benefit...he was out there, fighting, doing his work, and that is a benefit that is awarded to us," she argues. "Pregnancy is covered, under the benefit of your medical care. So I was just using a benefit that was awarded to me."
The cost of surrogacy is usually about $100,000, but Tricare ends up paying only a small portion of that -- $5,000 to $10,000. It does not pay the in-vitro fertilization costs, for instance.
In a statement, Tricare said it "has a right to recover funds" from surrogate mothers. So far, they rarely do.
"It certainly is a slippery slope to start and it invades all kinds of privacy rights to ask about what women are doing with their bodies," Brisman said.
While some might argue that government-funded surrogacy is a use of taxpayer dollars that ought to be questioned, Brisman says the actual costs are not worth the battle.
"Your average pregnancy paid out by Tricare isn't a heck of a lot of money," Brisman said. "So investigating all of that, first you have to say, 'Is it worth it? Is it right?'"
Freelance journalists Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellmann spent two years investigating the practice of surrogacy by military wives.
Partnering with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, Nosheen and Schellmann's findings appear in the November issue of Glamour magazine.
"We found out that there is basically no regulation," said Schellmann. "We were like, "This is the Wild West. There are no [federal] laws regulating this industry at all, and almost anything is possible."
Surrogacy is not regulated and in several states, including New York, it's illegal for money to change hands for a surrogacy.
"It's probably not in Tricare's best interest to be using their resources to track down these surrogate mothers," said Nosheen. "The question, I think, will become more important if more and more women are doing this...If we start seeing this number go up from 15 to 20 percent to maybe 50 percent or something higher, then we may have Tricare saying, 'Wait a minute, we can't fund this.'"
Military Community Split on Surrogacy
Opinions in the military world vary. Some bloggers on military websites are not supportive of military wives being surrogates if it means using government healthcare.
On MilitarySOS.com, an online support network for military spouses and family members, a blogger wrote: "Taxpayers are footing the bill for medical care for military beneficiaries. They should not be expected to pay to care for someone who isn't a military beneficiary."
Nosheen and Schellmann also have a warning for surrogates.
"A lot of women who are signing up to be surrogates and using their Tricare policy...have no idea that Tricare actually has a policy...that says 'We can come after you and recoup the money for the pregnancy, if we find out you are doing a surrogate pregnancy,'" Nosheen said.
To avoid any insurance problems, Heather, a four-time gestational surrogate, had the intended parents pay out-of-pocket costs.
One of those parents is Taryn, who found Heather after several in-vitro fertilizations and a failed pregnancy.
Taryn paid Heather $25,000 to carry and deliver a baby. She also picked up about $10,000 of Heather's medical bills. In 2005, Taryn was there in the delivery room for her son's birth.
"It was just unbelievable, and he came out, and he just started screaming and I was happy to hear that cry...I looked at him and it was like looking at myself in a mirror."
Today, thanks to surrogacy, Taryn has two sons, ages four and two. She cannot imagine life any other way.
"It just was everything I dreamed of, everything I wished for. I see no down-side to surrogacy. I would not have my family if it wasn't for Heather," she said.
As for Heather, being a surrogate is an experience she treasures.
"You go into it knowing that it's for another couple that has struggled so very hard to have a family," she said. "The end result is this beautiful child and to see their faces as they hold their baby for the first time...brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it every time."