California mom, Chinese dads: The story of an American surrogate

Chinese couples hire surrogates in the U.S.
Chinese couples hire surrogates in the U.S.

The Anderson family curled up together on the living room couch, all eyes on 32-year old Audra and her prominent baby bump.

Audra's seven-year old daughter Nadia cooed and gently placed her hands on her mother's belly.

"She likes it when he kicks," explains Audra's husband Shawn. But this was not a typical pregnancy.

"It's not my baby," Audra says. "I have no genetic relationship to this child."

Audra Anderson is a surrogate mom. She is the mother of one biological child: bubbly, blonde-haired Nadia. But the baby boy she delivered Friday grew from an implanted embryo from a donated egg, and sperm from a man in China.

Who are his legal parents?

"A Chinese gay couple," Audra says with a laugh. "They are the most wonderful people that I know. They are loving and caring, and if I didn't think that, I wouldn't give them two wonderful children."

This is the second surrogate child Audra has carried for the same couple in China. The "intended parents" -- as they are referred to in the surrogacy industry -- have asked not to be identified.

"I'm just babysitting," Audra explains. "I'm just an oven, and at the end of the day I give the cake back."

Related: Chinese are hiring surrogate moms in America

Audra is one of a growing number of American women being hired to give birth to children for foreign families. Industry insiders say much of the increased demand is from China, where surrogacy is illegal.

Amy Kaplan, founder of West Coast Surrogacy, who has worked on both of Audra's surrogate pregnancies, estimates that 40% of her clients are from China, and a third of those are LGBT families.

The small desert town in southern California where the Anderson family lives has little in common with Shanghai, the heaving Chinese commercial capital where the baby boy will eventually live with his two fathers.

Audra is a homemaker and volunteer Girl Scout leader. Shawn works in construction. On the weekends, the family enjoys hiking in the Joshua Tree-dotted lowlands of the Mojave Desert.

The Andersons first became interested in surrogacy a decade ago, when Audra offered to carry a child for a gay American couple who were friends. That pregnancy ultimately failed. Several years later, Anderson tried again to serve as a surrogate through West Coast Surrogacy.

Surrogate mothers can earn between $35,000 and $45,000 for carrying a child.

"You don't do it for the money," Audra insists. "Yes, the money helps with things, especially when you're running to the doctor all the time and your clothes no longer fit. But it's not why you do it. You do it because you want to help."

Related: This country will have more people than China by 2022

Before the first surrogate pregnancy, the Andersons met the intended parents from China during a visit to the U.S. The two families immediately clicked.

"If you don't like someone as a person, you're not going to do very well carrying their child," Audra says. "We became instant friends."

Throughout the pregnancy, the Andersons sent monthly photos back to China showing the growth of Audra's belly. Shawn wrote the month on her stomach in Chinese. He began studying Mandarin in his free time.

When the first baby was finally born, the Chinese parents were in the delivery room at the hospital.

"I got to see the family I made and oh! The twinkle in [the biological father's] eye looking at his little girl," Audra recalls.

"There is nothing better than that ... you did it! You made a family. You're a superhero of sorts," says Audra, a self-described geek and comic book fanatic.

After that birth, the Andersons used part of the money they earned from the surrogacy to take a 10-day tour of China. In addition to a stop at the Great Wall, the Andersons visited again with the Chinese family.

"They asked if we would be godparents to the baby!" Audra says.

The American legal system lures many Chinese couples to have their babies in the U.S. as opposed to competing surrogacy industries in India, Russia or Thailand. Once a baby is born, there is no question who the intended parents will be thanks to legally binding documents.

Surrogacy offers a way to skirt China's one-child policy, and comes with another incentive: The child is eligible for U.S. Citizenship, and can sponsor their parents for a Green Card on reaching the age of 21.

While there is currently a debate in the U.S. over birthright citizenship, some surrogacy centers say they carefully screen applicants, and require couples to demonstrate a medical reason for seeking surrogacy.

In China, there is still great discomfort about discussing the process publicly. Cost is also a concern -- Chinese families seeking to have children through West Coast Surrogacy can expect to spend $150,000, and possibly more if the child is born prematurely or has unanticipated health problems.

But with demand from China growing, the biggest challenge at the moment is finding enough surrogate mothers.

Audra is already contemplating having a third.

"It's fine with me if she wants to do it again," says Shawn.

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