december 2003
Photo: Charlotte Jenks Lewis/Studio D
Susan Ring agreed to carry twins for an infertile couple. But what began as a simple surrogacy ended in money problems, lawsuits, and accusations of kidnapping—raising the singularly modern question, What, exactly, is a mother?
If you happen to have a laboratory-created embryo on hand and need someone willing to carry your child—you're over 40, say, with a serious infertility condition—the moment you meet surrogate Susan Ring, you'll probably want her to be the one. At 42, Ring is like the all-around nice mom in the PTA: She's pretty, without any attitude about it, and sure of herself in a way that suggests she must have had good parenting. A full-time human resources assistant, Ring lives close to Los Angeles, where she gets around in a 1989 gray Volvo with broken air-conditioning. Although a friend suggested that her romantic life might improve if she bought a new car, Ring is too sensible for that. As a divorced mother of two young boys, she'd rather drive in the heat with the windows open than make a big purchase without having half down in cash.

Still, being levelheaded doesn't mean she never runs into trouble. Surrogacy is an edgy occupation. While pregnancy and giving birth make Ring feel terrific and powerful, she knows that getting paid to have someone else's baby makes a lot of people uneasy; when she's on a date and mentions her line of work, it's a real conversation killer. And while the vast majority of surrogate arrangements go beautifully, when a situation turns sour, tricky questions bubble up. Who are the baby's legal parents? Who has more of a claim: the people who hired the surrogate, the woman who carried the child, the donors of the sperm and egg? Who is responsible when plans go awry? Ring learned just how much heartbreak can lie in the answers after a Los Angeles couple hired her to give birth to twins.

Matt and Jackie don't want their real names used. Heavyset and teddy bear–ish, Matt is a technology entrepreneur who has made and lost a lot of money; these days he's trying to stage a comeback. Jackie works as a nurse practitioner in a doctor's office. Matt describes her as "pretty volatile" and says she "doesn't have a great bedside manner with other people." Jackie declined to be interviewed for this story, except to say of Ring, "I feel she's a kidnapper."

The couple was eager to have a child, but because of Jackie's age—mid-40s—and various medical problems, a traditional pregnancy wasn't an option, says Matt. So in 1999, they contacted an egg donation and surrogacy agency in the Los Angeles area and met with Ring.

Ring hadn't been a surrogate before, but she'd been considering the idea since 1989, when she'd met a husband and wife who were looking for one. At that time, Ring had recently given birth to her first son, Brian, and was ecstatic about being a mother. She felt intensely drawn to couples struggling with infertility and to the possibility of offering them hope—it helped that she loved being pregnant and found giving birth relatively easy. "Many of the surrogates I've talked to have a calling for this work," she says, "and I felt that." But her husband nixed the idea. Nine years later, however—after the birth of a second son, Steven, and a divorce— she contacted a surrogacy agency. In addition to her interest in the profession, she figured she could use the money.

Susan's first meeting with Matt and Jackie

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