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Rough Translation: American Surrogates

Sep 6, 2017
Originally published on September 6, 2017 6:16 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When you hear the words international surrogate, you might think of American couples hiring women from poorer countries to carry their babies. But more and more, with China's economy booming, wealthy Chinese women are the ones finding surrogates in the United States.

And today, we're going to tell you the story of two women - a mom from China and an American surrogate - and about the crash course in transcontinental communication they get along the way. This story comes from NPR's new international podcast, Rough Translation. Here's reporter Marianne McCune.

JACQUIE: Hi (laughter).

JESSIE: Hi, nice to meet you.

JACQUIE: I'm so excited (laughter).

MARIANNE MCCUNE, BYLINE: Were at the Portland airport. Jacquie is 20 weeks pregnant. And for the first time, she's meeting the woman whose baby she's carrying.

JACQUIE: I have a big belly (laughter).

MCCUNE: Jessie, the Chinese mother-to-be, takes a look, and everybody starts crying.

JESSIE: Sorry.

JACQUIE: It's OK.

MCCUNE: We agreed to use first names only to protect their privacy.

JESSIE: Thank you very much.

JACQUIE: You're welcome.

MCCUNE: Jacquie, the American, will make $30,000 for this, but that's not the reason she did it. She's a mother herself, and a nurse, and she wanted to help someone. And she's become excited about something else - this friendship - forging an intimate bond with someone on the other side of the world.

JACQUIE: I've never been to China, and I'd like to see what their lives are like.

MCCUNE: She hardly knows Jessie, the Chinese mom. All of their conversations have been translated by an app.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I now see you he has been with us because I...

MCCUNE: Now she'll get to find out what Jessie wants from their partnership.

The next day, we bring an interpreter, and Jessie tells her story. She and her husband tried for years to have their own child. And when she did finally get pregnant, at seven months in...

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) My face, my hands, the skin, it's so tight.

MCCUNE: Jessie ended up in the hospital with a condition called pre-eclampsia. Her blood pressure was dangerously high. The doctors worried her kidneys would fail. And the only way to save her was to remove the baby by C-section.

JESSIE: After one and a half day, my baby's gone - didn't make it. (Speaking Chinese.) I also feel that I killed my baby.

YIN: No, no.

JACQUIE: No.

JESSIE: (Crying).

JACQUIE: We're starting to form a bond that I hope will continue for our lifetime.

MCCUNE: Jessie is spending several hundred thousand dollars to have a baby through an American surrogate. It would be much cheaper in Ukraine, for example. One reason more Chinese couples are choosing American surrogates is that blue passport - not necessarily to immigrate to the U.S. though.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: Jessie told us that an American passport has advantages in China. Some universities in China want to attract foreigners, so they actually lower their tough admission standards for them. But a much bigger benefit of having a surrogate here, Jesse says, is clear laws.

In American states where surrogacy is legal, there are lots of protections. Jacquie and Jessie negotiated a long legal contract that says things like, Jacquie cannot change her mind after the birth and keep the baby. And Jessie can tell her to abort if the baby has a genetic disease. But during this visit to Jacquie, there's something the Chinese mother needs to get off her chest that's not in the contract.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: In China, she tells Jacquie, only her parents and her husband know the truth. She's told all her friends a lie.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) I only told them I am pregnant; I am going to have a baby.

MCCUNE: And she's pretending she went to the U.S. to give birth herself.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) You are the American. You cannot understand that somebody knows my baby not from my own uterus. It will be really difficult for my child to grew up as normal kid.

MCCUNE: In China, Jessie says, surrogacy is not only illegal, it's stigmatized. She fears people will tell her son she's not even his real mother.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) I know this is not fair to you. And I know you won't feel good about that, but I'm sorry. I really cannot keep contact with you after my child born. I'm so sorry.

JACQUIE: It's OK. You know, you're his mother. I was just hoping that maybe we could keep, like, a friendly relationship without mentioning the surrogacy. But even if that's not possible, I'll understand.

JESSIE: Thank you. You are my angel.

MCCUNE: The next time I check in with Jacquie, her legs are swelling. She's had to take off work. Jacquie's blood pressure is weirdly high. And five weeks before the due date comes bad news - she has pre-eclampsia, the same condition that caused Jessie to lose her baby and almost die. When Jacquie starts to have trouble breathing, her doctors decide they have to get the baby out now.

Jessie gets the message in China and sends a message to us saying, she feels like ice water was thrown at her heart. And the surrogacy agency has told her something else that doctors are only just starting to understand - that the baby's genes are likely a factor in Jacquie's pre-eclampsia. The surrogacy may have put Jacquie's life in more danger than she realized.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: Jessie says that, to Jacquie, she will forever be sorry. And that's the start of a mad dash to northwestern Oregon. It will take Jessie a day and a half to reach the hospital from China. And while she's in transit, the baby is born.

In the delivery room, the baby starts to grunt a little. He's having trouble getting a breath. They whisk him away to put a tube in his nose. By the time Jessie drives up to the hospital, she still doesn't know if her baby is healthy. She runs inside, and the nurse shows her two doors. Jacquie is on the left, the baby on the right. She chooses.

JESSIE: Hi, Jacquie. Are you OK?

JACQUIE: Oh, my God. I'm OK, I'm OK.

MCCUNE: It's Jessie who pushes her surrogate's IV across the hall so they can meet the baby together. He's still got a tube in his nose, but he's OK. Jessie holds her baby for the first time. He opens his eyes and stares up at her.

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE: Hey, that's the most we've seen his eyes.

MCCUNE: In the contract these two women signed, Jacquie, the surrogate, requested at least two hours with the mother and baby after birth. But after all that's happened, the Chinese mother isn't thinking about the contract anymore. She lets Jacquie hold the baby as often as she likes, and she even invites Jacquie to cross the Pacific. The translation in Jacquie's phone reads, welcome to China. For NPR News, I'm Marianne McCune.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANY GIVEN PLACE'S "OF WATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.