Believe It or Not

updated 08/23/1999 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/23/1999 01:00AM

As she fills bottles of formula for her 9-month-old twins in the cluttered kitchen of her suburban Del Mar, Calif., home, Becky Ripley is surrounded by the standard new-mom paraphernalia: high chairs, baby bouncers and a pair of "I Love my Aunt" terry-cloth bibs for her sons Brian and Ben. On a table in the family room is an emblem of the San Diego bank executive's life before motherhood: a photograph of Becky, seven months pregnant, hugging her equally pregnant sister Beth, in a frame inscribed with the words "sister," "confidante," "companion," "secret-keeper," "best friend."

Ever since growing up together in Arlington, Texas, Becky Ripley, 38, and her sister Beth Yates, 34, have been all those things and more to each other. But now their bond has become even greater. In March 1998, both sisters became pregnant at the same time, and last November each gave birth to a baby boy. But this wasn't a simple case of simultaneous motherhood. The first remarkable fact of Becky Ripley's pregnancy is that, after she and her attorney husband, Mike, 45, had struggled with infertility for years, she was finally able to carry a pregnancy to term. The second, and far more astonishing, fact is that one of Becky's boys, Ben's fraternal twin Brian, was carried for nine months and delivered by an ideal surrogate—his aunt Beth.

In the two decades since England's rosy-cheeked Louise Brown became the world's first test-tube baby, treatment for infertility has blossomed. Multiple births (witness the McCaughey septuplets of Carlisle, Iowa, and the Chukwu octuplets of Houston) are no longer rarities, and it is estimated that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of surrogacy births in the U.S. each year. But if the case of the Ripley twins—both conceived through in vitro fertilization using Becky's eggs and her husband's sperm—blazed no new scientific trails, it nevertheless constituted an extraordinary milestone. "We do surrogacy and TVF all the time, but it's the human part that made this so special," says Dr. Gabriel Garzo, of La Jolla's Reproductive Partners, Inc., who performed the Ripleys' procedure. "It was an incredible moment for all of us."

And for no one more than Mike and Becky. Though their route to parenthood was highly unusual at best, their relationship began conventionally enough. The two met in 1989 while she was vacationing in Southern California, and they married three years later. Mike, whose first marriage ended in divorce, shared a top priority with Becky: Both were eager to start a family. But after five years, including three with treatments at a local fertility clinic, there was still no pregnancy. "We'd had three in vitros, and they had all failed," says Becky. "Everything I'd read indicated that if it didn't happen after three tries, there was a real slim chance that it would happen at all."

Then, in late 1997, after hearing about the success rate of Reproductive Partners, Inc., a clinic with a branch in Redondo Beach an hour and a half north of their home, the Ripleys met Garzo's colleague Dr. Arthur Wisot. He concluded that, unlike many women trying to conceive in their mid-30s, Becky's problem wasn't the quality of her eggs. Rather, her endometrium, the uterine lining, was too thin to sustain a pregnancy. "The embryos were okay," says Garzo, "but would not be able to implant." Because small amounts of aspirin increase blood flow and thus may enhance chances of pregnancy for women like Becky, Wisot put her on a daily dose of baby aspirin. But he felt it was a long shot. "It was clear that Becky needed what we call a gestational surrogate," he says. "Someone to carry the embryo."

Throughout her five-year ordeal, Becky, as always, had shared her feelings with her sister Beth. Photos from family albums show the pair as tow-headed girls in matching outfits, hugging each other as well as their brother Greg, now 35, a law professor in Tahlequah, Okla. "Greg and me used to fight all the time," says Beth, a silkscreen artist at their parents' Arlington T-shirt company. "I can't ever remember fighting with Becky, though. Not even once." Becky had supported Beth, the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, Madison, through a difficult divorce from her husband. By the same token, "when we talked," says Beth, "I heard Becky crying. She'd be so let down because she couldn't get pregnant." Gradually, an idea had come to Beth. "Having Maddie made me think of it," she recalls. For months, Beth weighed how her life would change and discussed it with her boyfriend, Brian Murphy, 39, an executive with Pier 1 Imports and the divorced father of two, who gave his wholehearted support. Finally, says Beth, "I decided, 'Well,'I'll just carry their baby.' " One spring morning, Beth made the fateful phone call to her sister. "I can do this," she told Becky. "I want to do this."

Finally, Becky began to seriously consider the offer. At first, "it took us a while to kind of digest it," says Becky, shaking her head. But after discussing the offer with Garzo, "he agreed there wasn't any reason this wouldn't work," says Becky. "Beth had had a healthy baby naturally, a good pregnancy and recovery. And she's four years younger than me. That helped, too."

First came a battery of psychological tests to determine such things as whether Beth could really give up a child she had carried to term. She passed easily. Then, on March 3, both sisters reported to RPI's La Jolla office for what they, along with Garzo, had decided would be a two-part procedure. Two days before, he had extracted 18 eggs from Becky and fertilized them with Mike's sperm in a petri dish. Now, as Beth lay on a gurney, Garzo, in a 20-minute procedure, used a bulbed catheter to insert three of the embryos into her uterus. Then Beth stayed at her sister's side as Becky underwent the same procedure. "We knew that we had our best chance with Beth, and that was the plan," explains Garzo. "But with the possible effect of the baby aspirin that Becky had been taking for the past two weeks, I said, 'Why don't we try with you, too, and see what happens?' We assumed she wouldn't get pregnant, but we decided to give it a try."

Afterward the sisters were wheeled to a darkened recovery room, where "we spent two hours together," says Beth. "We'd laugh and keep asking each other, 'Do you feel pregnant?' 'I feel pregnant.' " Two anxious weeks later, on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, Mike in his law office and Becky at the bank received a conference call from Dr. Garzo. "I said, 'Becky, you're pregnant—the test is positive,' " recalls Dr. Garzo. "We were all so astounded. And she was absolutely speechless." Mike and Becky telephoned Beth in Texas to give her the good news and promised to make a return call when her results came in. A half hour later they did. She, too, was pregnant. "Becky found out before I did," says Beth. "She, Mike and Dr. Garzo called and told me." As for Mike, "I just had to get out of the office for a while. I walked around for about 45 minutes. I was just walking on clouds."

Over the course of the next eight months, Becky and Beth compared notes long-distance on their pregnancies. That summer, within a week of each other, both babies kicked for the first time; later they both reacted to music. Becky, who gained 25 lbs., "did everything right," says Beth, who put on 50. "She ate all the right stuff, took her little walks. Me, I'd eat everything and stay on the couch." By July sonograms showed that both women were carrying boys. Even Beth's daughter Madison was drawn into the excitement. At the grocery store, whenever strangers pointed to Beth and asked, "Is your mother having a little sister or brother for you?" Maddie would pipe up with, "Neither. That's my cousin in there!"

In late October, as the sisters' due dates approached, their mother, Ruth Farnik, 59, along with Beth and Maddie, flew from their homes in Texas to Becky and Mike's. Later that month friends held a baby shower for Becky, and the women helped Mike decorate the pale yellow nursery with Winnie-the-Pooh mobiles and crib bumpers. "We were putting borders along the walls—all that measuring," says Mike. "I was tickled it came out all right."

But that was only a prelude to the morning of Nov. 4, when Becky's doctors ordered her to Scripps Memorial Hospital for a C-section. At 8:30 a.m., with Garzo as attending physician and Mike standing by, Becky gave birth to 7-lb. Benjamin Eugene Ripley. "They wrapped him in a blanket and put him on my chest," she says. "He came out so beautiful. I just remember the tears wouldn't stop when he was born." Adds Mike, who cut the umbilical cord: "The anesthesiologist and I were both looking around for tissue. "We ended up finding some coarse paper because there wasn't any Kleenex in the delivery room. I thought, 'You're giving birth to babies. You've got to expect people to cry.' "

Sixteen days later, Becky made the trip to Kaiser Permanente Hospital to be by Beth's side as she delivered 7-lb. 15-oz. Brian Michael Ripley, also by C-section. "Being able to watch and give support, and hold Beth's hand, and cut the cord when Brian was born ..." says Becky, her voice trailing off with emotion. Within 15 minutes she was nursing her newest son. "There was my sister, by my bed, holding Brian, feeding him, with a mask on and tears coming down her face," says Beth. "We were all crying—the nurses, too."

A few days after Thanksgiving, Beth and Maddie returned to Texas. "If I had any regrets, it was only once, when I was leaving to go home, at the airport," she says. "I kissed Brian, and it sort of sank in: This is it." Today, with Beth back home and Becky juggling work with the demands of twins, both families say they are overjoyed at the way things have turned out. "I knew how badly Becky and Mike wanted to be parents and that they'd be such good ones," says Beth. "I've never regretted having done it, and I never regretted giving Brian to them." And as for the Ripleys, although they've agreed that Beth will not be called into service again, as Mike says with a sheepish grin, "It would be neat to have a little girl."

Susan Schindehette
Karen Grigsby Bates in Los Angeles

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