April 1, 2008 — -- Lisa Wippler had all the characteristics of a good surrogate mother: She had previously given birth to two healthy children, she had a supportive husband and she was psychologically stable.
The 36-year-old was also a military wife -- organized, disciplined and able to keep up with the grueling schedule of in vitro fertilization.
And, she had a big heart -- willing to put up with the morning sickness, stretch marks and even the postpartum blues -- to carry a child for not one, but three childless couples after the birth of her sons.
Some reports show military wives are offering to be surrogate mothers in increasing numbers. While stereotypes suggest they are strapped for cash, experts say these women -- used to altruism and hardship -- are capable of making the ultimate sacrifice.
"It's possible military wives are more independent," said Wippler, whose husband served in Desert Shield with the Marines. "They juggle family and doctors appointments. It's more involved than a normal pregnancy."
According to a report this week in Newsweek magazine, industry experts estimate about 1,000 surrogate mothers give birth each year in the United States. Agencies in Texas and California say military spouses make up 50 percent of their carriers.
With enlistees earning an annual salary of $16,080 to $28,900, renting out a womb can earn a woman up to $25,000 or more. Typically, military insurance covers most of the pregnancy costs.
For the adoptive couple -- or in surrogacy parlance "intended parents" -- the cost for egg donation, IVF and legal bills can exceed $120,000.
Kellie Snell, director of the California-based Creative Conceptions Inc., just began advertising for surrogate mothers on the San Diego Navy Base. "A lot of women are by themselves for a year and some want to bring in money for the family. They can be pregnant while their husbands are away."
But Stuart Miller, CEO of Growing Generations, which offers surrogacy counseling in New York and in California, doesn't think the number of military surrogates is any higher than 5 percent nationwide.
"Some agencies that are based in a city with a military base have a higher percentage but are not representative of the majority of surrogacies going on in the U.S.," he said.
Wippler was paid $12,000 for her first surrogacy in 1996; $15,000 in 1998; and $23,000 in 2005. For that, she committed to painful hormone injections, regular doctor's visits and a healthy lifestyle before giving birth.
"You hear a lot of negative common misconceptions about surrogate mothers," she said. "They must be financially strapped, lower income and uneducated."
But when she joined a support group to learn more about surrogacy, Wippler found all the women shared psychological similarities.
"We all had [the] same mind set of wanting to help," she said. "We were frequent blood donors, on bone marrow lists and did a lot of volunteering in the schools."
Her journey began in 1995, when her husband was transferred from North Carolina to California's Camp Pendleton. One night, while nursing her youngest son, she saw an ad in a parenting magazine looking for surrogates.
"I think I could do that," she told him. "It sounded fascinating to me. We had several conversations about how we took for granted how we were able to have children and how amazing it would be to do it for someone else."
When she decided to go ahead, her husband rose to the task, rubbing her back and feet, taking care of their young boys and "picking up the slack," according to Wippler. "There wasn't much gratification for him. But he was supporting what I wanted to do."
"It just felt right, from the moment I went to a support group meeting all the way to the delivery room," she said.
She explained to her boys -- now 13 and 15 -- "the baby's mummy's tummy was broken, so mommy is carrying it until it is healthy enough to be born."
The advent of in vitro fertilization in the 1970s has allowed infertile, but well-heeled couples another alternative to adoption. Most often, couples choose an egg donor -- for about $10,000 -- that will be fertilized with the husband's sperm. A surrogate mother is then paid as a "carrier."
Surrogacy contracts are not recognized in 12 states, including New York, New Jersey and Michigan. But in the last five years, Texas, Illinois, Utah and Florida have passed laws legalizing surrogacy. More than a dozen states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and, most notably, California, specifically legalize and regulate the practice.
Richard Paulson, director of the fertility center at the University of Southern California, said it's no surprise military wives make good surrogates.
"It's a totally logical thing to do," Paulson said. "She's at home with two small children and her husband is overseas. She can't go to work, and she feels useless and likes being pregnant."
The financial reimbursement makes sense, he said. "Obviously, we want them to take care of themselves. If you didn't pay money, no one would come down and volunteer their time. But it's more than the money. You have to feel good about it."
Melissa Brisman, a New Jersey lawyer who specializes in reproductive issues, has three biological children -- 10-year-old twin sons and a 5-year-old daughter -- because of the generosity of surrogate mothers.
"They are incredible people and it takes a very special woman to do this," she said.
In her legal practice, Brisman has seen a "distinguished percentage" of military wives offering to be surrogates.
"It is something they can do in a finite period of time," she said. "They can fill their time with a project. It's the altruistic thing to do for country and cause."
But, Karen Synesiou, director of the Center for Surrogate Parenting Inc. of Maryland and California, often hears criticism directed at surrogate mothers: "If God wanted [infertile couples] to have children, he would have let them."
For her, surrogacy is the ultimate act of a kind God. "I find it interesting that infertility is the only disease that volunteers come forward to help cure and the volunteers are questioned. … When was the last time we questioned people donating blood or bone marrow?"
She also disagrees that military wives make inherently better surrogate mothers. In fact, her agency specifically discourages couples from considering surrogacy if the husband is to be deployed.
"You have to take into consideration husbands being sent to war and the impact this can have on his wife and moving around," she said. "What if a pregnant surrogate is moved to a state that does not allow the intended parent's names to be on the birth certificate?"
In fact, Carole Jackson, who works at the Center for Surrogate Parenting, said the ideal surrogacy is a "family project," one that can last up to two or three years if pregnancy doesn't occur on the first or second try.
Jackson, a mother of two who has been married for 27 years, has given birth to three children as a surrogate. She can tell within a few minutes if the woman is only interested in money.
"People speak from the heart right away," she said. "Or if the first five questions are about money."
Jackson is still close to the couple who are raising the twin girls she carried in 1999. "They know what I have done, and they call me Aunt Carole. It has been great watching them grow up and learn how they were created."
Wippler, who now lives in Oxford, Ala., agrees.
"The money isn't enough," she said. "You have to get more out of it. There's nothing like seeing the couple with the baby for the first time, knowing you made a commitment and seeing the end result. I wouldn't take four times the amount of money to be anonymous."