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Why They Say OK : Surrogates’ Spouses: the Other Men

Times Staff Writer

For Vernon Blanc, the words come hard. He’s just an ordinary guy, a 25-year-old Denny’s Restaurant manager, and he finds it a little tough to explain something as intimate and complicated as why he is about to let his wife, Michelle, become pregnant by another man.

It could happen any time now.

Earlier this month, Michelle Blanc, 24, went to a doctor’s office near her home in Mount Clemens, Mich., for the first of a series of artificial inseminations. In all likelihood, she will soon become pregnant for an East Coast couple who will pay her $10,000 to bear the husband’s child. She will thus cross the line from conventional wife to surrogate mother.

And, after countless fights and threats of divorce, Vernon Blanc is letting her do it.

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“At first, I wouldn’t even consider it. I wouldn’t talk to her about it. As a matter of fact, we almost got into a divorce about it because I was so against it,” Blanc said slowly. “I had made up my mind that I didn’t want my wife having children for somebody else. I thought the whole deal was just out of this world, strange. I had made up my mind that I was going to take Brittany (their 2-year-old daughter) and leave.”

Yet just two months after Michelle first shocked and angered him with the news that she had already contacted a surrogate parenthood clinic, Vernon Blanc has reluctantly given in. He said he was won over after he learned more about the process, and after he met some couples who had tried every other way to have children.

He also admitted that he had, in a sense, simply caved in to his wife’s surprisingly strong stand: “She set her mind on this surrogate-parenting thing, and there’s just no stopping her.”

Baby M Stirred Debate

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Ever since Mary Beth Whitehead and the Baby M case last winter sparked nationwide debate over the ethics of surrogate motherhood, the focus of attention has been on the surrogate mothers, the desperate, childless couples who hire them and the babies born from their contracts.

Most of the women who become surrogate mothers are married themselves--yet their husbands have been all but lost in the background.

“We need to acknowledge the obvious--that we’re not just dealing with a surrogate mother and an infertile couple,” said Hilary Hanafin, a staff psychologist at the Center for Surrogate Parenting in Beverly Hills, one of the country’s largest programs.

Still, many such clinics seem to have given short shrift to the husbands of surrogates; these men have been left virtually to themselves to figure out how to cope with one of the strangest, and potentially most difficult, experiences that a modern American family can have.

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With no biological ties to the children born from the surrogate process, the husbands of surrogates have had to deal with the unusual emotional trauma of turning over the most private aspects of their married lives to strangers.

First, they must agree to abstain from sexual relations with their wives during the months the women are being inseminated, to ensure the paternity of the child. Then, they must help their wives get through pregnancies that they have had nothing to do with. Ultimately, they must endure the emotionally complex time when their wives come home from the hospital without new babies of their own.

Clearly, many marriages wouldn’t survive such stress; Hanafin notes that there have been two divorces so far among her center’s surrogates.

“If you had a weak marriage, this could be awful,” said Rodney Cage, a 32-year-old flooring contractor in Canyon Country, Calif., whose wife, Kim, 31, had just given birth as a surrogate.

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Most Mothers Married

Given the potential for such a wide range of marriage-threatening problems, it may seem surprising that any American man would agree to let his wife be a surrogate mother. Yet about 600 women, most of whom are married, have already born children under such arrangements.

What is perhaps even more startling is just how many of the husbands of those women seem to be happily married, middle-class men with good jobs and otherwise normal home lives--men who don’t appear to be desperate for the $10,000 fees their wives will earn. Most husbands said the money was not the reason they gave their approval. “You can’t do this for the money . . . I can think of a lot of other ways to make $10,000,” said Eric Pressler, a 28-year-old systems programmer in Canton, Ohio, whose wife, Peggy, was a surrogate.

Why They Go Along

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Hanafin, who is conducting one of the nation’s first studies of surrogates and their families, said that the typical husband earns $32,000 a year, and usually the surrogate mother also holds down a full-time job.

So, these are men with comfortable lives--husbands one might least expect to agree to something so controversial.

Why do they let their wives do it?

Many of them, such as Vernon Blanc, acknowledge that they initially gave their approval only to placate their wives, although most clinics won’t accept women as surrogates unless they have their husbands’ written permission.

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“I would automatically reject a woman if she didn’t have her husband’s support and consent,” said Noel Keane, an attorney who runs the country’s largest surrogate parenthood program in Dearborn, Mich. “But--consenting in the sense that they are 100% sure of what their wives are doing? I’m sure many of them are not.”

Some men who eventually become ardent supporters of the process as a way to help childless couples at first hate the idea of their wives getting involved.

But many find that their wives have become virtually obsessed with the idea. Most of these women enjoy being pregnant. At the same time, they may be a little bored with everyday life and see it as a way to do something unusual, something that will set them apart. Their husbands, confronted with mounting pressure, often simply give in to save their marriages.

“In the beginning, he basically said ‘do what you want,’ just to shut me up,” 26-year-old Peggy Pressler said of her husband, Eric. “I don’t think he felt I would really go through with it.”

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Mark Johnston, 33, a campground manager in northern Michigan who eventually became an advocate of surrogate parenthood, recalled: “We had some psychological testing when we got into the program, and the psychologist kept asking me, ‘why are you going to let your wife (Marilyn) do this?’ I said to the psychologist, ‘I’m not letting her do it, she’s just doing it.’ I thought the woman was crazy. Honest to Pete, I thought she had lost her marbles . . . . I considered it baby-selling at first.”

Hanafin said that most surrogates’ husbands she has studied fall into one of two groups--those who are opposed to the idea but go along because they have always been supportive of their wives, and those who agree because they “owe her one.”

Some husbands acknowledged that they agreed at first only as a way of repaying their wives for past transgressions, or to make up for career opportunities their wives had lost earlier because of commitments to them.

Melia Josephson, for instance, wanted to be a police officer, but Mark Josephson, a 31-year-old Moreno Valley, Calif., contractor, wouldn’t let her. Just two weeks before she was to graduate from police training, Mark told her to quit or face divorce.

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She quit, but didn’t give up her dream of doing something unique with her life. Three years later, she decided that being a surrogate mother might fill the bill.

“She started looking into the program, and I thought to myself, you’ve got to be kidding,” Mark recalled. “I didn’t say much, and whatever I did say was very negative. But then she started meeting couples, and it just started going farther and farther, and she really hadn’t asked me, one way or another, what I wanted to do. It was more or less, ‘hey, this is what I’m going to do.’ ”

Melia added: “I was doing this with or without him. I hoped I would have his support, but I told him he had stopped me once in my life from doing something I really wanted to do--I really wanted to be a police officer--and he wasn’t going to stop me again.”

Melia, 30, eventually became the third woman in the world to act as a surrogate by being implanted with an embryo produced from the eggs and sperm of the couple who hired her.

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Some husbands agree because they see a way to satisfy the wife’s deep need to become pregnant again without taking on the financial burden of a second, third or fourth child. Almost all women who become surrogates report having easy, enjoyable pregnancies, and about one-third of the surrogates’ husbands surveyed by Hanafin had had vasectomies to avoid having more children.

Rodney Cage, a father of two, recently had a vasectomy, but his wife, Kim, now wants to have a second child as a surrogate.

“I love being pregnant. I could be pregnant 12 months out of the year,” said Kim. “I feel like a whole woman when I’m pregnant. And Rodney knows it. But we didn’t want any more kids, because we feel two is enough. Kids are expensive these days.”

Once their wives do get involved, many husbands seem to become much more committed to the idea of surrogate parenting. A large proportion of them are men who deeply love their own children and are heavily involved in raising them, and they sympathize with the plight of the childless men once they meet them.

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Sympathy for the Childless

Dr. Betsy Aigen, a psychologist who runs the Surrogate Mother Program in New York City, said that other husbands of surrogates have relatives or close friends who are infertile, so they can easily identify with the childless couples.

After the husbands begin to take a more active role in the surrogate process, their marriages seem to get stronger. Their wives come to rely heavily on them during their pregnancies.

“Without him, I couldn’t have been a surrogate mother,” Donna Regan, 24, said of her husband, Rich, a 32-year-old Detroit machine operator. “You can’t go off and do something this unique, that you know you are going to get a lot of backlash about, unless you have someone very strong sitting behind you saying, ‘go ahead, it’s OK, don’t listen to what these people are saying, you made your choice and it’s all right.’ ”

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Families May Be Friends

The husbands who handle the situation most successfully appear to be those who have always had close relationships with their wives, and who are self-confident enough not to feel jealous or inadequate as a result of their wives’ pregnancies.

Men who are able to develop friendships with the infertile couples who hire their wives also become very strong supporters of surrogate parenthood. Mark and Marilyn Johnston and their children, for instance, frequently visit the couple for whom Marilyn, 34, was a surrogate. Mark has even urged her to have a second child for them.

“When the baby was born, and we were all at the hospital together, I was excited for the guy,” said Mark Johnston. “So I opened my big mouth right there and said let’s do it again.”

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Many husbands also insist they are not jealous of the fathers, since the surrogate pregnancies are achieved artificially.

“It’s not like there was any form of adultery involved. It was purely technical, so the fact that she was having a baby for another man never really bothered me,” said Chris Dodson, 31, a Long Beach, Calif., refinery worker whose 27-year-old wife, Janey, is about to give birth as a surrogate. “I guess I just feel good enough about our relationship that I’m not threatened by that.”

Still, even the most accepting husbands sometimes have nagging doubts, and all of them object to the intrusions into their personal lives. Some have had to abstain from sex with their wives for a year or longer, because so many inseminations were required before pregnancy was achieved.

“I don’t like abstinence,” Eric Pressler said with a sigh. “I think it does intrude,” added Vern Blanc. “That part of it does interrupt my life style.”

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Some husbands also conceded that they would be concerned if their wives wanted to break their contracts and keep the babies; they say that would indicate their wives had strong emotional ties unrelated to their marriages.

“I wasn’t jealous, because I knew she didn’t have an attachment to the man, and I knew there was no sexual relationship,” said Pressler. “But I told her if she wanted to keep the child, I wouldn’t support her.”

Other husbands noted that their parents and in-laws are often strongly opposed to surrogate parenthood, and this can lead to damaging rifts between generations.

Blanc said that his wife, Michelle, will no longer visit his parents because of their hostile stand on the issue.

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Meanwhile, many husbands are deeply concerned about the medical risks to their wives. (AIDs testing is now routine at surrogate clinics, to protect the surrogates.) “What happens if she gets sick? . . . What if she can’t have any more children as a result of this? What are we going to do if we decide later we want more children?” Blanc asked.

Some surrogates and their husbands also privately complain that they feel compelled to mislead their medical insurers about their pregnancies. Since such a birth is not covered by the infertile couple’s insurance, they usually rely on their own family coverage to pay for their hospital stays. But, uncertain of how their insurers would react, they usually do not inform them that they are acting as surrogates.

Other husbands also remain uncertain about the long-range impact on their own children, who are aware of pregnancy even at a very early age. Today, most are still very young and seem to be taking it in stride, but no one really knows how they will be affected later by the knowledge that a half-sibling was turned over to another family.

That was why Mark Josephson would allow Melia to be a surrogate only by being implanted with the other couple’s embryo--she would then have no direct biological or genealogical connection to the child, would not really be the “natural mother.”

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“If she had been a surrogate in the regular way, I think that would have taken away the special mother relationship she has with her own children,” said Josephson. “I think it had the possibility of infringing on my life, and hers, years later. How would our children feel if that person came to the door 18 years later saying (to Melia) ‘You’re my mom’? That’s another side of the surrogate program that people haven’t seen yet.”

Right now, Vern Blanc has a more immediate dilemma--how to get through Michelle’s surrogate pregnancy.

“I remember when she was pregnant with Brittany, I walked around and people said, ‘Oh, your wife is pregnant, what are you going to name it?’ I just don’t know what I’m going to say yet. I haven’t figured that one out.

“I also made a few comments to Michelle--that when she has her morning sickness, she should call the couple and complain to them. This is their program. They should have to go through it.”

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