History of Surrogacy

From the Bible to Today: The History of Surrogacy

Although we often think of surrogate motherhood as something new, the deep desire for children and the practice of using surrogate mothers is an ancient one.  Although historical surrogacy pregnancies had to be accomplished the old-fashioned way via sexual intercourse, rather than via IVF clinics and embryo transfers.

The history of surrogacy goes back to the dawn of time. Infertility is not a new problem experienced only by modern women. Since the beginning of time, women and couples have had trouble conceiving, and one way in which they were able to start a family was through the assistance of a surrogate mother. These “old-fashioned” surrogate motherhood instances were most likely rarely (if ever) spoken about, and not well documented.

The concept of surrogacy can be found in the Bible.  In the book of Genesis, the tale is told of Sarah, the barren wife of Abraham.  Since Sarah was unable to bear a child for Abraham, she had her servant Hagar serve as a traditional surrogate.   Genesis 16 asserts Sarah told Abraham “You see that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go into my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Gen 16:2, NRSV). Hagar did carry a son for Abraham; however, jealousy became an unbearable burden for Sarah. The story didn’t turn out as Sarah expected, but it didn’t stop the practice. Both of Jacob’s official wives (Rachel and Leah) reportedly asked him to foster multiple children by their handmaids (Bilhah and Zilpah) who would count as their own (Genesis 30).  Rachel described the practice of having the child delivered “on her knees” in the cultural language of adoption: “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her” (Gen. 30:3, NRSV).

The Hebrew Bible even attests to surrogate fatherhood through the practice of levirate marriage. If a married man died childless, his brother was supposed to marry the widow and father at least one child to inherit the brother’s estate and carry on his name. As the unfortunate Onan would learn (Genesis 38:1-11), that didn’t always work out well, either.

The most memorable example of biblical surrogacy, and one that did turn out well, is Jesus Christ. The gospels claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, fathered by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:26-35). That scenario clearly puts Mary in the role of being a surrogate mother for Jesus (although this is hotly debated).

Surrogacy also played a role in Native American history. If a couple was unable to conceive, the husband was encouraged to procreate with another woman to keep the family line growing. Different from modern surrogacies, the Native American child would remain with the biological mother.

History of Surrogacy: How Many Babies?

The first documented surrogate pregnancy was recorded in 1976. From that moment until 1988, approximately 600 babies were born via surrogacy in the United States. Between 1988 and 1992, that number rose significantly, to over 5,000 births.

The amount of babies born from surrogates in the United States has continued to rise throughout the last two decades, with thousands of babies born every year.  It is estimated that in Canada, roughly 400-500 babies are born via surrogacy annually.

1976: Noel Keane Brokers First Traditional Surrogacy Agreement

In 1976, lawyer Noel Keane brokered the first legal agreement between a set of intended parents and a traditional surrogate mother. Keane went on to create numerous infertility centers, and counted 600 children around the world whose births he had arranged. He was also involved in several high-profile cases and lawsuits over some of the arrangements made.

1978: First IVF Baby Born

On July 25, 1978, Louise Joy Brown was the first test-tube (IVF) baby born. While this was not a surrogate motherhood arrangement, this historic event paved the way towards gestational surrogacy in the future. The procedure was carried out by Doctors Steptoe (of Oldham General Hospital) and Edwards (of Cambridge University) who had been actively working on this project since 1966. Lesley Brown, Louise’s mother, became the first woman (after more than 80 attempts) that successfully passed the first few weeks of pregnancy from an IVF embryo transfer. Leslie Brown had blocked fallopian tubes, and after 9 years of trying, she and husband John Brown decided to try this highly experimental procedure.

1980: First Paid Traditional Surrogacy Arrangement

In 1980, 37-year old Elizabeth Kane (a pseudonym), gave birth as a traditional surrogate mother to a son. She made history as the first documented surrogacy arrangement that was compensated. Ms. Kane received $10,000 for the successful delivery of the baby. Kane was a good candidate for traditional surrogacy because in addition to her having children of her own, she had also, prior to her marriage, given a child up for adoption. None-the-less, Kane was completely unprepared for her feelings surrounding the birth of the surrogate baby, and though she experienced no trouble dissolving her parental rights at birth, she came to regret her decision to become a surrogate mother. Elizabeth Kane became an advocate against surrogacy, speaking out in the famous “Baby M” case. She chronicled her experiences in a book titled Birth Mother. In addition to the emotional difficulties she experienced, Kane’s children experienced teasing and emotional distress, the family’s social positions suffered, and her husband experienced difficulties in his career.

1983: Canada’s First IVF Baby Born

It’s a procedure that sounds simple now, but Margaret Reid, the mother of Canada’s first IVF baby, says back then she was made to feel like the subject of “some cloning or science fiction thing.”

“All they did was take my egg, fertilize it in the petri dish and place it back in my womb,” Reid says.

Her son, Robbie Reid, says all his life he’s felt the same as any other kid. “To me, there’s no difference between me or anyone else. I mean, I was born the same way, except just put together differently.”

Robby was conceived in Vancouver. He was born December 25, 1983. Robby Reid, now over 20 years of age, thinks IVF is a great procedure. “After all”, he says, “without it, I wouldn’t be here!” With 1,400 IVF babies born in Canada last year, it’s clear some of the stigma has now abated.

1983: First Successful Pregnancy via Egg Donation

In 1983, a menopausal woman at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia became the first mother to give birth to a baby using donated eggs. Though again, not a surrogate pregnancy, this remarkable event made gestational surrogacy possible.

1985: First Gestational Surrogacy

The first gestational surrogate pregnancy took place in 1985, a monumental moment in the history of surrogacy. The surrogate carried the biological child of a woman who had had a hysterectomy, but had retained her ovaries.

1986: Baby M Case

In 1986, Mary Beth Whitehead gave birth to Melissa Stern as a traditional surrogate mother. Upon the birth of her child, Mary Beth decided she wanted to keep the baby. What followed was a two year legal battle with Melissa’s biological father, Bill Stern, and intended mother, Betsy Stern, over custody, which finally ended in the Sterns getting custody, and Mary Beth getting visitation. This highly publicized case prompted legislation concerning surrogacy in New Jersey.

1988: Patty Nowakowski Gets Custody of Surrogate Twins

In 1988, Patty Nowakowski gave birth to boy/girl twins as a traditional surrogate mother. Upon their birth, the intended parents told Patty that they did not want a boy, only a girl, so they left their newborn son with her in the hospital. Patty, who had entered into surrogate motherhood with no intention of ever having another child herself, was suddenly left with the prospect of raising an unexpected child. Patty and her husband eventually decided not only to raise her biological son, but also to seek custody of the twin daughter the intended parents chose as though they were picking a puppy from a litter. After a custody battle, the Nowakowski’s kept both children.

1990: California Surrogate Refuses to Give Up Bay

In California, gestational surrogate Anna Johnson refused to give up the baby to intended parents Mark and Crispina Calvert. The couple sued her for custody (Calvert v. Johnson), and the court upheld their parental rights. In doing so, it legally defined the true mother as the woman who, according to the surrogacy agreement, intends to create and raise a child.

2000: First Openly Same Sex Intended Parents via Surrogacy

Tony and Barrie Drewitt-Barlow of the UK welcomed twins via surrogacy in the US. They are the first case of openly gay parents via surrogacy. Tony and Barrie went on to have three more children via surrogacy! (It is believed the first same sex parents via surrogacy occurred in 1989).

2005: Surrogate Mom Gives Birth to Quintuplets

On April 26, 2005, 54 year old Teresa Anderson delivered five boys as a gestational surrogate mother to a couple she met online. The intended mother, Luisa Gonzalez, and her husband had battled infertility for over 10 years. When she found out she was carrying quintuplets, Teresa waived her $15,000 compensation, feeling that the intended parents would need it more than she to raise their boys.

2007: Oldest Surrogate Mother to Twins

In August 2007, 58 year old Ann Stopler gave birth to her twin granddaughters. Her daughter, Caryn Chomsky, was unable to conceive due to cervical cancer.

2008: Oldest Surrogate Mother to Triplets

In 2008, 56 year old Jaci Dalenberg became the oldest woman ever to give birth to triplets. She acted as a gestational surrogate mother for her daughter Kim, and delivered her own grandchildren.

2008: Oldest Surrogate Mother in Japan

The oldest surrogate mother in Japan gave birth to her own grandchild in 2008 at 61 years old. Her daughter had no uterus, but doctors were still able to use her eggs. Surrogacy is generally frowned upon in Japan, but this unusual case made headlines.

2016: Oldest Surrogate Mother

2016: Anastassia Ontou of Greece gave birth to her own granddaughter at the age of 67.
2012: Cathy Donnelly of Canada gave birth to her own granddaughter at the age of 58.
2011: Pamela Butler of the UK gave birth to her own grandson at the age of 57.
2011: Kristine Casey of the US gave birth to her own granddaughter at the age of 61.

2016: Surrogate Mother Delivers Own Child AND Surrogate Child

Jessica Allen of California gave birth to twins in 2016 with one child being genetically related to her intended parents and the other to Jessica and her husband Wardell Jasper. Doctors explained that Allen must have become pregnant with the intended parents child but then ovulated and conceived another baby with her husband. Doctors say double pregnancies, which are called “superfetation” are extremely rare since most women stop producing eggs during pregnancy.