Making it an Option: The Barriers to Building a Family

An introspective look on how inequality can affect the 3rd-party reproductive sphere

My mom and dad have a few famous sayings. Not the kind of famous that means that they are necessarily unique or specific to them (no offense y’all), but rather the famous that means my brother and I can always tell when one is coming. I learned how to secretly roll my eyes whenever I’d hear a few of these repeated words, and prided myself on zoning out while still maintaining a look of interest a few times as well. My dad’s favorite was “so what are you going to do about it?” Usually, this phrase came after a disappointing grade and the expectation was that you would provide a few ideas that you would do to improve. (“Tutoring! Test corrections! Anything to end this conversation?”). However, one that they both seemed to enjoy is one that has followed me even today.

“We don’t know what we don’t know.”

When I first learned about accessibility, it seemed to me that it was a big word which really just meant being left out. Sure, I thought, being left out sucks. When my brother refused to let me join in on things, I was angry, sad, and itching to tattle. But for my parents, it seemed to carry a much bigger weight. It loomed over their shoulders and seemed to appear in a variety of different forms. For them, it wasn’t just about being left out of a video game, rather it was about being left out of opportunity. It was about being left out of the entire conversation America seemed to be having with her white citizens. Meanwhile, marginalized communities continued to fight for basic information, resources, and access to be able to even participate in the conversation—let alone actually heard.

There are plenty of areas that steer the “conversation” toward white people. Surely, we can look to education, housing, healthcare, food, and, perhaps in its most glaring way, the very infrastructures that make up our cities (from trash covered sidewalks that make navigation for many people impossible and dangerous to a lack of ramps or elevators that literally prevent access). All of which act as basic areas wherein certain groups are denied access or given proper resources to fund fundamental components of survival. Beyond this, lack of access can be found in the entertainment industry, the job market, and in access to a number of models for family building. And in a lot of ways, surrogacy seems to be another one of these areas.

There are a number of barriers that prevent surrogacy from seeming like a realistic option for many people. A few of which, though certainly not all, happen to be racial, financial, and a general lack of information provided to specific communities.

Black infertility is a topic not usually up for discussion. In fact, a University of Michigan study even looked to the cultural significance of remaining silent about the subject. The study explored religion, expectations about Black sexuality, and the normalization of adversity and the maintenance of privacy through it that seemed to lead to an even greater silence surrounding Black infertility in Black women than in that of white women. This coupled with the longstanding idea—propagated by racism and the over sexualization of the Black body—that Black women are especially fertile, seems to call into question a lot about how the Black community views alternative methods to family building. But there is also much to suggest about the surrogacy world’s views of offering alternative methods to family building to people of color. The truth is many agencies just aren’t that proactive about working with Intended Parents who are also people of color. In my experience, I haven’t seen a lot of advertising, consultations, or acknowledgments about many people of color who are interested in using third party reproduction as a method of building their family. Even many agencies’ social media seems riddled with white women in chic dresses, and white dads in polo shirts, and the notion of a Black person as an Intended Parent seems relatively…nonexistent. Before my first interviewed for Alcea, I was on Facetime with my mom and was scrolling through their Instagram. I instantly made a face.

“Why did you make that face?” My mom asked, laughing at the scrunch of my nose, and interrupting her own story.

“They have Black people on their Instagram. I’m looking at Black art.” There was something so shocking about it at the time. I clicked on one post, thinking it would be the obligatory Black History Month picture, but it wasn’t. It was simply a part of their page, with no ulterior motives. And it wasn’t the only one. It seems a bit ridiculous now, having worked for Alcea, having understood and even explained the mission myself, but in that moment, after witnessing the whiteness of family law and, by extension, surrogacy, the idea of having an agency that seemed genuinely concerned about disrupting that? Weird. Very. Weird.

The barriers to third party reproduction don’t end there. Surrogacy is a famously expensive process. Discounts, pro bono cases, or flexibility of any kind is just not a priority for a lot of agencies. I get it. It’s a business. However, if you only concern yourself with the money—where does that actually leave you? Who is able to actually work with you? The surrogacy process comes with an overwhelming amount of information and medical language, and money only seems to add another layer of crushing weight to the chests of so many Intended Parents. But perhaps even more daunting, is at the refusal to be clear about the money. When I first decided to work with Alcea, I figured the best way to prepare was to try and do as much research about surrogacy as possible. But there was one thing I couldn’t really get a clear picture on. The money involved. Some places provided a range, Google did wonders, but when I looked at other websites, social medias, and even advertisements when they came across my screen, often times when it came to it, they boiled it down to one quick sentence: schedule a consultation to hear about our pricing. We’ve all seen a version of this of course. We’re no stranger to a “fill out this form to get a quote” to “talk to a team member to learn more” after the end of a very long quiz. And truthfully, my usual move after I read this is simple. Bail. It always seems like a bad sign if they—whichever they you might be thinking of—is refusing to assign a single dollar amount to anything. To me, it’s always felt like they want the opportunity to talk you into it, before the number—whatever that number may be—can scare you away.

During my actual interview with Angela, it felt more like a mutual rant about the injustices of our society than a formal interview. We threw our hands in the air, and talked about the biggest issue with third party reproduction. As no area is perfect, I found myself appreciating her willingness to be honest. The thing that grinded her gears? Transparency. No one wanted to be transparent about their prices, their beliefs, their ethics. It all seemed to get lost in grey waters; however, Alcea, she assured me, was different. Transparency was the thing she’d been seeking the entire time. Not just about money, but about the medical racism that lead to scientific progress that lead to surrogacy. She wanted transparency about what her employees would be making. Transparency about what the surrogates could be compensated. About how long the process could be. About everything. Perhaps it’s because she was a surrogate herself, but regardless of the exact motivation—Alcea’s mission was rooted in being absolutely clear about what the process entailed, and what it would require. It was clear about guidelines and issuances of discounts, fee structures, and pro bono contracts, and the entire team seemed to carry that mission out. For many of our Intended Parents, this transparency provided relief to that weight on their chest.

Sometimes in law school I’ll find myself realizing that I am nodding along to something I know absolutely nothing about. The first time, was in my first year when the professor asked if we all knew about 1L summer. To me, that genuinely sounded like gibberish. But everyone else around me, nodded and groaned appropriately, and in an effort to blend in I nodded too. This would happen to me several times (and even today in my second semester of my second year). There’s always some information or internship or outline, that everyone knows from their lawyer dad or judge mom, that I seem to have missed completely. In the beginning, I genuinely thought I’d missed something important in orientation. Then I was convinced there was some special networking or after hours coffee zoom I wasn’t getting invited to. The truth is, I simply didn’t have someone in my life who was telling me things many of my white counterparts already knew going in (that is until my mom and dad began texting or calling me with updates they’d began to pick up from their white peers, in an effort to help me keep up).

The point is simple. You don’t know what you don’t know.

Perhaps the biggest barrier in surrogacy is in all that so many of us don’t know. It’s not just who it prioritizes, or how much money is associated with it. It’s literally that for so many, its not an option because it’s not even registered as an option. The silence about infertility, for example, stretches into a general silence about how many of us can build our families in other ways. Access, is about so much more than just an open door. It’s about the need for a map, a symbol key, and a cartographer. You need to know what an option even is to be able to consider it. In a lot of ways, this still goes back to racial barriers in surrogacy, but it also speaks to barriers in education, law, medicine, and how we serve our general communities. Who we are providing information to matters.

Alcea truly does try to provide as much information and assistance on the surrogacy journey as possible, to intended parents, surrogates, prospective intended parents and surrogates, and to those in the community who have never even really heard much about third party reproduction. But even we must continue to do the work. There’s no end to this road. There’s no bow to tie it up with, we can’t pat ourselves on the back when it’s all done. I’m not sure it’ll ever be done. Acknowledging some of the many barriers to surrogacy is one small step in providing more information, resources, and attention to third-party reproduction. But the real goal is about making surrogacy more accessible to a number of communities, the real goal is making it an option.

By Madison Heggins