One Baby Too Many

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Helen Beasley says she did not set out to become a surrogate mother. The 26-year-old legal secretary from Shrewsbury, England, a single mom with a nine-year-old son, was thinking more about becoming a paid egg donor. When she bought her first computer and did some research on the Internet, the tales of childless couples she came across broke her heart, she says, and made her think of going one step further, as some 20,000 surrogate moms do each year in the U.S. "The more I thought about it," she says, "the more I thought of happy endings."

Six-and-a-half months after her first surrogate pregnancy began, as twin babies kick inside her, Beasley could not be much farther from a happy ending. She's mired in a bitter legal battle with Charles Wheeler and Martha Berman, the San Francisco attorneys who found her classified ad on the Internet and flew her over last March for a trip to a fertility clinic. Pregnant with one more baby than Wheeler and Berman wanted, Beasley says she has received only $1,000 of the $20,000 they originally agreed to pay her. The fate of the twins she's carrying but does not want or have legal rights to will be decided by a California court, in one of the most bizarre surrogacy cases yet.

Beasley acknowledges that Wheeler and Berman, who have refused to talk to the media, made it clear in their discussions that they wanted just one child. What's more, notes Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode, "theirs was a very extensive contract. There were 50 clauses providing for every contingency," including the case of a multiple pregnancy, a real possibility given that three donor eggs fertilized by Wheeler's sperm were implanted in Beasley's womb. The contract required Beasley to honor the couple's decision about whether to have a selective reduction, the termination of one or more fetuses in a multiple pregnancy. Still, Beasley says, "I didn't realize they would go so ballistic" over the idea of twins.

Beasley claims she would have gone through with the selective reduction had Wheeler and Berman made the arrangements early in the pregnancy. But, as she tells it, there was a lengthy e-mail row between the two sides after Beasley returned to England: it was a petty affair in which each accused the other of going on vacation without warning, but it took weeks to mediate. By the time Wheeler and Berman booked Beasley's flight to California for the reduction, it was week 13 of her pregnancy, she says.

At that stage, Beasley felt that terminating a fetus was wrong. Plus, the late date increased the risk that both fetuses would be lost in the procedure. Her high blood pressure was already complicating the pregnancy. Beasley claims that Wheeler and Berman's lawyer, who declined to comment, presented her with two options: to terminate one fetus as requested or terminate both and still get paid.

Unwilling to do either, Beasley tried the compromise option of seeking other potential parents. She says both sides offered candidates but fought over what--if anything--the newcomers would pay Wheeler and Berman for their in-vitro fertilization and donor-egg expenses. In Britain the matter would have been simpler. There, surrogate mothers have full legal rights to the babies they bear for at least the first six weeks. But since the contract was signed in California, Beasley, now living in San Diego, supported by her lawyer there, is suing to sever the couple's rights over the children and claim unspecified damages. By last Thursday the blood was so bad that Berman had the man who came to serve her with papers thrown out of her office building.

This very public debacle has surrogacy supporters pretty steamed too. "The only victims I see in this case are those babies and surrogate parenting itself," says Shirley Zager, director of the Illinois-based Organization of Parents Through Surrogacy, herself a surrogate mother. According to law professor Rhode, changes of heart happen in only 4 out of every 10,000 legal surrogate arrangements; however, such cases usually involve the surrogate mom wanting to keep her offspring after they're born. And even though they have been through a lot together, Beasley has no such plans for the twins. "Financially, emotionally, I don't have the means," she says. Their happy ending will have to wait.