An Illinois Woman Decides to Bear a Stranger's Child as Surrogate for His Infertile Wife

updated 04/21/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/21/1980 01:00AM

To Elizabeth Kane, the maternal instinct is powerful. She and her husband have two preteen daughters and a 3-year-old son. "I loved having my babies," the 37-year-old Illinois housewife says. "But we aren't emotionally or physically capable of bringing up another child." Yet Elizabeth Kane is pregnant again, under circumstances that may lead to one of the most unusual medical, legal and moral controversies of modern times.

This November she is scheduled to give birth to a baby conceived by artificial insemination—using the sperm of a man she has never met. Under the terms of a contract Kane signed, she will immediately hand over the infant to the man and his infertile wife and receive an estimated $10,000 for her services. "I'm thrilled," says the mother-surrogate-to-be. "I'm already looking at maternity clothes. I feel very grateful to be able to do this." (Elizabeth Kane is not her real name. She asked that it be changed for this article and her hometown kept secret, although she agreed to photographs of herself and her children.)

Last December a small classified ad in Elizabeth's local paper caught her eye: "Childless couple in Louisville, Kentucky looking for a surrogate mother to have a child for them." Without telling her husband, David, she wrote to the attorney who placed the ad and waited six weeks for a response. "I was so nervous, I'd jump at the sound of the phone," Elizabeth recalls. When the call finally came, it was from Dr. Richard Levin, a Louisville infertility specialist, suggesting an interview. "We had an instant rapport," she says. "He asked me to discuss it further with my husband and let him know." David Kane's first reaction was "Absolutely not. I've supported you in a lot of things," he said, "but not in this. It will tear our family apart." In the lingerie shop where Elizabeth worked, her colleagues were horrified. "I was shocked to see how hostile people were," she says. Eventually her husband relented. "One night," she recalls, "David came home and said, 'I don't agree with this, and I don't like it, but I'll support you because I love you. I have no right to tell you what to do with your life and your body.' I loved him for it."

The Kanes are still worried about public reaction, and the couple who will be the child's "parents" have insisted on total anonymity. Nonetheless Dr. Levin enthusiastically endorses surrogate motherhood. "I've devoted my life to helping women get babies," he says. "I will do anything that is legal and ethical. This is the best and quickest way to produce a child genetically most like the couple." Although most states now apparently prohibit surrogate mothers under broad statutes designed to prevent a black market in babies, Levin hopes that new legislation and court rulings will someday allow women everywhere to consider this revolutionary option. He says that other doctors have expressed interest in the program, and he has already inseminated three more surrogates in Kentucky.

"When you have a sterile woman and a fertile man, it doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to think this idea up," Levin says. After researching legal and medical precedents, he decided to advertise in six major newspapers for a surrogate mother. He considered dozens of responses—Elizabeth Kane's among them—and interviewed likely candidates, searching for "a mature person making a rational decision about something she was comfortable with." The adoptive parents specified only that the woman "be tall and have above-average intelligence." Lawyers were called in to write a loophole-free contract (if there are twins, for example, the parents will have to take both). "I can't smoke, drink or use drugs," Elizabeth explains. "It's all in the contract." She will go to Louisville to have the baby and immediately turn it over to the couple.

Accepting money for bearing a child actually bothers Elizabeth. "I would do this for free," she insists. David's pragmatism won out: "We don't need the money," the 45-year-old business executive says, "but if others are going to be paid when they do this, we might as well get something for it." Levin agrees with him, and the Kanes are being paid in two installments: the first upon confirmation of pregnancy and the second when the adoption is completed. "There is time, physical toll and work limitations on the surrogate," says Levin. "A contract and compensation make sense." Although the specter of "selling babies" may provoke opposition, Levin says it hasn't happened yet, and he has received open support from his friends and colleagues. "When you see a normal, stable couple that just wants children, who could object?" he asks. "I don't want to be a pioneer. But a family is a family no matter how you get together."

Elizabeth's decision may have delighted one family; it jeopardized her own. "I think this could ruin our lives," David said at first. A quiet, balding man, he now sighs: "I'll feel better when it's all over." Elizabeth insists that lately her husband has grown enthusiastic as her pregnancy reached the second month.

Meanwhile, in Louisville, the prospective parents are also following Elizabeth's progress with intense interest. Two years ago they adopted a son, and the 34-year-old wife was satisfied with the size of her family. The husband was not. "He wants and needs his own child," she explains. "He went through the adoption with me, and I feel this is something I can do for him." The 37-year-old husband, a contractor, says he "never stopped hoping there would be alternate means." Like the Kanes, they have shared their secret only with close friends and family. Keeping silent is difficult, says the wife. "When I heard she was pregnant I wanted to go to work and tell everyone the news—I was going to have a baby!"

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