Paris Hilton joined a growing list of celebrities this week who have talked publicly about having a child with a surrogate. We rarely hear the surrogate’s side of the story, but as Shanna St Clair explains, it can be great – or awful.
The names of the celebrities have been changed throughout to protect the identity of those involved.
Shanna’s phone flashed. It was Catherine.
As Shanna remembers it, Catherine began without even saying hello: “Listen, I wanted to tell you before you see it in the news. I was using another surrogate and she has just given birth.”
Shanna sat down to steady herself. Here she was in the early weeks of pregnancy, with Catherine’s child. Except Catherine now had another child. This was the first time she’d heard that she wasn’t Catherine’s only surrogate. What did it mean? Would Catherine still want the baby Shanna was carrying?
“I wish you’d told me,” Shanna managed to muster. “Should we talk after I’ve been for my check-up tomorrow?”
Catherine agreed and hung up.
Shanna texted Catherine a few hours later.
“I was a little bit taken aback with the news, but I’m so happy for you. Enjoy your baby. Let’s talk after my check-up.”
Catherine didn’t reply. Nor did she call the next day.
The world of surrogacy entered Shanna’s life in rural Pennsylvania through a woman’s magazine article. Sipping a hot drink as her three children played outside on the family farm, she was engrossed.
The article approved of surrogacy, arguing it was a gift to single parents, infertile couples and LGBT families, even if someone did it for money.
It said nothing about the huge gap in power and wealth that usually separates the parents and the surrogate – and the problems this can cause.
For Shanna, who had just turned 30 with three easy pregnancies behind her, something clicked.
To join a surrogacy agency Shanna and her husband filled in piles of questionnaires. They were assessed by psychologists and doctors and had “dozens” of meetings with lawyers, Shanna says.
A few weeks later she got a call. A celebrity couple, Jennifer and Mark, had read her profile and wanted to meet in New York.
Shanna instantly bonded with them.
“They were kind people,” she says. “They made an effort to get to understand my life, to get to know my children.”
Shanna’s payment would cover travel to the IVF clinic, hotels, fuel, food and any income she lost from her day job as a hairdresser while pregnant. Over three years, she received $50,000.
It took several attempts to get pregnant. When she gave birth, Jennifer and Mark held her hand, crying as they thanked her for their new family.
So when Jennifer called months later to ask if she could introduce her to Catherine, Shanna agreed.
Catherine came from a famous family and had been trying to have a child of her own for years, with and without surrogates.
“Looking back, there were red flags from that first telephone conversation,” Shanna says.
Catherine suggested that they bypass a surrogacy agency in order to save fees, and just get their lawyers to draw up a contract, Shanna recalls.
“Then she said that as I had already passed a psychological evaluation in my experience with Jennifer, I didn’t need to do one again.”
Shanna agreed to three attempts.
When she and her husband travelled to the IVF clinic for the first fertilised egg to be implanted in her womb, Catherine was waiting, glamorous and beautifully dressed. It was a warm day but she wore a large coat that almost swallowed her body.
Shanna went to embrace her but Catherine pulled back. She wasn’t a hugger.
Privately, Shanna thought: “This is going to be nothing like Jennifer and Mark.”
Catherine told Shanna that she would stay for the transfer but would have to leave soon after, Shanna says. Her driver would take them back to their hotel.
The first attempt at pregnancy was unsuccessful. The night before the second, Catherine invited Shanna and her husband for dinner, and told them stories about private jets and designer furniture. Shanna felt uncomfortable as she sat listening in the opulent restaurant wearing black leggings and a department-store sweatshirt. They had nothing in common.
The next day, at the clinic, Catherine was clutching a pill bottle, Shanna says. Perhaps the first attempt hadn’t worked due to Shanna’s nerves, she suggested.
She handed Shanna a valium tablet.
“No, thank you,” Shanna replied.
But Catherine didn’t give up.
“She kept saying, ‘What is your problem, Shanna? One pill isn’t going to hurt you,’ and I felt I couldn’t argue,” Shanna says.
Shanna placed the pill in her mouth, only to discreetly throw it away when Catherine wasn’t looking.
Again, Shanna did not become pregnant. They had one more go.
This time, when they met at the clinic, Catherine was mostly on the phone to her mother, arguing over interior design for one of their homes. She barely spoke to Shanna.
Ten days later there was good news. Shanna’s levels of hCG – a hormone produced by the placenta – indicated a positive pregnancy.
“I was elated,” Shanna says.
Catherine, on the other hand, said she didn’t want to get excited as a previous surrogate had suffered a miscarriage.
Shanna said, “I’m so sorry I didn’t know that happened.”
“It was her fault,” Shanna remembers Catherine replying.
The surrogate had waited 12 hours at an airport for a flight to visit her father, who was unwell, Catherine said.
Shanna says she was dumbstruck by Catherine’s next comment: “I told her not to travel but she did, and look what happened!… Dead baby.”
Surrogacy around the world
- Ukraine, Colombia, Mexico and Russia allow commercial surrogacy, but surrogacy for non-residents has been banned in Cambodia, India, Mexico, Nepal and Thailand
- In the UK, commercial surrogacy is illegal, so a third party cannot profit from matching people, but it is not illegal for a surrogate to be paid expenses – the number of surrogate births in the UK rose by nearly four times between 2011 and 2020
- In the US rules vary from state to state – Pennsylvania, where Shanna St.Clair lives, permits compensated and uncompensated surrogacy agreements, and is considered surrogacy-friendly
- High-profile feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Julie Bindel argue that surrogacy commodifies a woman’s body, and leaves surrogates, who are often from poorer backgrounds, open to exploitation
Soon after that Catherine called Shanna with the shocking news that another surrogate had just delivered a baby. Then she went silent.
Shanna continued with her regular check-ups, driving over an hour each way to a clinic, not knowing whether Catherine still wanted the baby.
Then, four weeks later, she was told that her hCG levels had dipped too low. She’d had a miscarriage.
Shanna called Catherine, who didn’t answer, so she messaged her to tell her the sad news.
Hours later Catherine replied, “I’ll call you soon.”
Several days later she hadn’t. So Shanna messaged her again.
“Hi, I hope you and the baby are well. Should I forward the remainder of the bills to you?”
A text pinged with Catherine’s reply.
“Shanna, our relationship has ended,” she said, as Shanna remembers the conversation. “I am appalled at your coldness over the birth of my child. Forward your bills.”
Shanna and Catherine did not speak again.
Then, months later, Shanna’s mother called to say that Catherine was on TV.
“Shanna, she is trashing you right now,” she said.
Catherine was making disparaging comments about surrogates, including women who had miscarried her fertilised eggs. After all she had been through, it was too much. Shanna burst into tears.
“Celebrities may be more open about surrogacy now, but it’s been going on for years,” says Aria Simuel, who runs Modernly, a VIP surrogacy agency in California.
She and her business partner have both been surrogates themselves, so understand the challenges.
“When a high-profile person comes with business managers, assistants, head of security, that can be very intimidating for a surrogate,” she says.
Good agencies manage the relationship, Aria says, checking that the surrogate is comfortable and advocating for her if necessary, as well as doing background checks and psychological evaluations.
There have been instances when the surrogate has crossed a line too, she adds, by pitching reality TV shows to the biological parents, or asking if they can introduce a cousin who wants funding for his movie script.
Contracts should make clear that this “is not on the table”, Aria says.
Four years after her experience with Catherine, Shanna’s former surrogacy agency asked her if she would be willing to be introduced to another couple. After meeting them, and loving them, she agreed to go through it one final time.
This time she gave birth to twins.
“I think I needed something good to wash away the mortifying experience with Catherine,” Shanna says.
“I’ve had two beautiful surrogacy experiences, and one that was terrible and transactional.”
Today, Shanna runs a local hairdressing salon in town. Over the whir of a hair dryer, her clients talk to her about local and celebrity gossip, and often the conversation falls to fertility and family.
“Every week I speak to people who are trying for babies, who just had babies, who have lost babies, who can’t have babies, who say they never want babies, who want to try any way to have babies,” Shanna says.
“Surrogacy is not for everyone. But for something this personal, if everyone involved feels happy and empowered, we shouldn’t judge other people’s choices.”
All names of biological parents have been changed