One Saturday night a few months ago, a friend of mine who works in the tech industry announced the good news that she and her husband were expecting a baby. This September, they will engage in that quintessential parenting ritual: a mad dash to the hospital and the return home with their newborn. Their birth experience, however, will have a modern twist. My friend is not having the baby herself.
Their new arrival will come courtesy of a female stranger whom they screened, paid and entrusted to incubate their embryo. Only after their surrogate goes into labour will they make their way to the hospital, flying from the Bay Area to southern California, where their surrogate lives and will deliver their child.
This was not their first choice. My friend, who is in her 40s, went through repeated rounds of egg extraction through in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and quietly suffered miscarriages, until their clinic suggested they might consider surrogacy. At first I thought the story was a rarity. But not long after that a close friend from college, who also works in tech, told me that if she ever has a child, she also plans to use a surrogate. Then her male roommate chimed in to say that if he doesn’t get married by a certain age, he will find one too. And with that, I made a mental note, as any off-duty journalist does on a weekend. Three makes a trend.
As a native of the always avant-garde Bay Area, I am used to having frank conversations on topics that might be unmentionable elsewhere. But I admit that even I was surprised by how quickly surrogacy has come to be seen as a viable path to procreation. Surrogacy is not new. The first legal, compensated surrogacy arrangements began in America in the 1980s but remained stigmatised and uncommon. According to the Centre for Disease Control, in 2015 surrogacy accounted for only 3% of babies conceived in America through IVF.
In the Bay Area, there is now a “seemingly sudden explosion of demand” for surrogacy, says Tammy Sun, who runs a software startup focused on fertility called Carrot. According to her firm’s data, requests for it are growing more quickly than for egg-freezing or IVF (albeit from a smaller base), and have risen 500% year on year. Requests for surrogacy now account for 20% of all enquiries her firm receives. “In Silicon Valley people are much more willing to talk openly about deeply stigmatised ideas,” she says.
Tech firms have started to subsidise surrogacy services, as they have done for years for egg-freezing, because many women choose to delay having children and struggle with fertility as a result. Facebook and Google both offer generous surrogacy subsidies. The social-networking giant, for example, reimburses employees for $20,000 of surrogacy costs, which can easily add up to $150,000 for the surrogate’s compensation, hospital bills and other expenses. Younger firms such as Uber, Lyft and Pinterest offer surrogacy subsidies too, betting that this can help boost employees’ loyalty in the competitive Silicon Valley job market.
Male gay couples – of which San Francisco has many – were the earliest adopters and have helped break down social taboos surrounding surrogacy. According to Cheryl Lister, a “fertility journey coach” who has many Bay Area clients, about a third of those who pursue surrogacy are gay couples. Around 60% are heterosexual couples who have struggled with infertility and may have physiological reasons for not being able to reproduce, such as age or illness. These couples have the easiest time finding a surrogate. Those who have the hardest time are the remaining 10%, a smattering of single, heterosexual men who want to have their own child. Many surrogates are married and “it just seems too intimate to get involved with a hetero man” as a client, Lister tells me.
Besides being a liberal place, there are three reasons why Silicon Valley is an incubator for the future of fertility. One is that surrogacy is extremely expensive, and people in the tech community can afford it. High-profile examples of people who have gone public about their use of surrogates include Marc Andreessen, a prominent venture capitalist, and his wife Laura. A second reason is the culture. The Bay Area is entrepreneurial, and people are generally happy to go off script to attain what they want. George Arison, boss of the online car-marketplace Shift, is having babies by two surrogates with his husband. (They are using the same egg donor and their own sperm to have what are called not twins but “twiblings”). He admits that having babies by surrogate was about as much work as starting his company. The process of finding and matching with a surrogate is complex, despite the growth in “fertility concierges” who do much of this work for you.
People in Silicon Valley are also interested in “life design” to streamline their busy existences. They hire errand-runners, use all sorts of delivery services and obsessively track what they eat and how often they exercise. This is true of my friend’s male roommate – he has a fixed date in mind by which he’s going to seek a surrogate if he can’t find a mate because yes, techies are planners.
California’s legal regime is a third reason why surrogacy is growing. Many states, even apparently easy-going ones like New York, do not recognise compensated surrogacy services as legal. California is one of the most surrogacy-friendly states: people from elsewhere in America come here to find surrogates, as do some from abroad.
Surrogacy still produces strong reactions. I’ve had heated debates with friends about whether people who cannot have children should simply adopt, and whether surrogacy reinforces inequality between haves (who can afford to bear children via female carriers) and have-nots. It’s for this reason that my friend who’s having a child by surrogate in September is telling so few people about it. I’ve heard that some women who use surrogates go as far as to fake pregnancy, staying indoors or even wearing a plastic pregnancy belly.
But as more babies are born by surrogate, the process will become more acceptable. What people are talking about on Saturday nights in the Bay Area these days often gives a clue to what the rest of America will be talking about in ten years.•