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
Two months after the boy was born, Ring agreed to be a surrogate for the couple's second child—or children—using the same egg donor and Matt's sperm.
Late in the winter of 2001, Ring became pregnant with triplets. The contract she'd signed required her, at Matt and Jackie's request, to undergo a "selective reduction"—an abortion—to reduce the number of fetuses from three to two. The reduction was for the safety of the remaining fetuses, Matt says. "We weren't looking for four kids, anyway."
So on a foggy Saturday morning, Ring lay on an examination table at a hospital in Los Angeles while Jackie and Matt hung out in the waiting area. It is part of the odd intimacy of surrogacy that the players know one another's biology but often not much else. Before the procedure, according to Matt, Jackie had asked the doctor if it was possible to tell whether there was a girl fetus—if so, she wanted to keep it. Jackie was obsessed with twin girls, says Ring. "She was always saying how neat it would be to have twins like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. She watched all of their specials."
Refusing to identify genders, the doctor stated that he would abort the fetus with the lowest amount of amniotic fluid in its sac. As it turned out, the remaining twins were a boy and a girl.
Soon after the reduction, Ring opened a collection-agency letter and found that Matt and Jackie hadn't paid a pregnancy-related medical bill, as they were obligated to do. Ring left messages on the couple's answering machine. She says Matt and Jackie never called back. More unpaid bills arrived. The owners of the surrogacy agency checked into the situation and came to Ring's house. That's when Ring learned the news: Matt and Jackie were divorcing, and there was no money in an account that had been set up for the surrogacy.
Although the agency owners agreed to pay her medical insurance premiums and some other costs, that left about $22,000 in outstanding fees and expenses. (The agency owners say they were planning to pay Ring out of their own pockets if they couldn't get the money elsewhere, but she didn't know this.) At the time, Ring was more worried about what would happen to the twins. Searching the Internet for court decisions involving surrogates and intended parents, the name of one lawyer kept popping up: Robert R. Walmsley. On a notepad next to her computer, she wrote down his phone number.
By the time she was 6 months along, Ring was already big. On an evening when her boys—now 11 and 13—were out with their father, she eased behind the wheel of her Volvo and drove to the gated condominium community where Matt and Jackie lived. Since they wouldn't return her calls, she was determined to speak with them in person. When the security guard stopped her, she pleaded, "I'm pregnant with their child!" Whether swayed by her bulk or her evident distress, he let her in. Using her cell phone, she called Matt and Jackie and left a message saying, "If you guys don't open this door, I'm going to create a scene and tell every person in this complex what's going on."
A few minutes later, according to Ring, Jackie came down to the parking lot wearing a white T-shirt and jeans and holding her baby boy in her arms. She made it clear that she no longer wanted the twins. Matt, who was having serious financial problems, had come up with a plan to place the babies in foster care until he was in a position to take them. Ring drove away appalled.
Later in an interview, Matt explained that he was desperate and foster care was only a three-to-six-month solution. His life was in shambles. "I really loved my wife when I married her. I felt let down when, just because I was having financial problems...," he pauses. "The reason my wife wanted to divorce me was that I wasn't doing well financially."
"The fear was that the twins would go to foster care and stay there forever. It was against everything I believed in."
But for all his stress—"I was having migraines," he says—Matt never did anything about setting up a plan to reimburse Ring for her medical expenses and fee. "Had he sat down with me and said, 'You know, Susan, I'm really screwed up right now,'" says Ring, "I would have worked with him." Instead she heard "foster care" and alarms went off. "The fear was that the twins would go to foster care and stay there forever. It was against everything I believed in."
Ring hatched a plan. "I didn't want to take the twins—I have a small house, and I have my boys," she says. "But if I could get parental rights, I could find a home for them with a mother and father who could adopt them." She grabbed her notepad and called Walmsley.
When it comes to reproductive technology law in California, Robert Walmsley is the guy to know. Married and the father of two, he has intense blue eyes and a confidence based on having personally argued some of the most important cases in the field. At the Santa Ana law firm of Van Deusen, Youmans, and Walmsley, where he is a partner, Walmsley devotes nearly all his time to a question that used to be simple, at least in legal terms: Who are a child's parents?
It was Walmsley who represented Crispina and Mark Calvert, the biological parents of a child carried by a surrogate who sued them for parental rights. In a 1993 precedent-setting decision, the California Supreme Court named the Calverts as the child's sole legal parents and terminated visitation by the surrogate.
Walmsley was also involved in a second key case involving a baby girl named Jaycee Buzzanca, born in 1995. Jaycee was the result of anonymous egg and sperm donors, a surrogate who gave birth to her, and John and Luanne Buzzanca, the couple who arranged it all. Shortly before Jaycee's birth, John filed for divorce and stated that he bore no legal responsibility for the child. About five months later, Luanne, who was busy raising Jaycee, hired Walmsley in hopes that she could be declared the girl's legal mother and obtain child support from her ex-husband. In 1997 the Orange County Superior Court declared that the baby had no legal parents at all, even though five people had played a role in her creation. But the decision was appealed, and Walmsley argued that by setting in motion the events leading to Jaycee's birth, John and Luanne had become her de facto legal parents. In a landmark 1998 ruling, the Fourth District Court of Appeal agreed, stating that when individuals initiate medical procedures to create a child, a parental relationship is established. If there were any doubts that intended parents had predominant rights to a child in California, this decision—which is cited around the world—wiped them out.
It's hardly surprising then that when Ring called, Walmsley wasn't encouraging. The law, which he had helped to shape, was designed to protect intended parents. "He told me, 'There's no legal support in the cases established in the field to help you,'" she recalls.
Still, Walmsley believed Ring had been treated unfairly, and he was impressed by her concern for the twins. "She was sincere," he says. "I thought she was involved in a terribly unselfish act in assuming responsibility for the twins." He agreed to represent her.
"How do you handle a guy who, in theory, has an actual right to the children but who you believe isn't emotionally stable enough to care for them?"
With a load of diapers from the hospital nurses and two bassinets bought on her credit card, Ring settled into her modest two-bedroom rental house with the twins. She didn't breastfeed them—"I'd get too attached," she says. Her sons also kept their distance, taking long breaks between playing with Megan and Matthew.
"It was hard for my mom," says Steven, "because when she holds a baby, she falls in love."
By January 2002, in courtroom 421 on the fifth floor of the Edmund D. Edelman Children's Court in Monterey Park, part of the Los Angeles Superior Court system, a hearing was under way to consider Ring's petition for parental rights. Ring was nervous. Jackie had told Judge John L. Henning that she didn't want the kids, but Matt was talking about possibly taking them after a temporary foster care placement.
The idea worried Ring. Matt's personal problems were continuing to spiral downward: He was sued again for nonpayment of rent, and this time Matt had been evicted. He showed up in court unshaven and looking like he hadn't slept, says Ring. Initially, he represented himself.
Mike Kretzmer, an attorney appointed for the twins, interviewed Matt three times and had serious concerns. "It came down to one question," says Kretzmer. "How do you handle a guy who, in theory, has an actual right to the children but who you believe isn't emotionally stable enough to care for them?" Most damaging, according to Walmsley, was that Matt never made a clear statement that he wanted the kids. "The intended father was, at best, waffling," Walmsley says. "Here's a man who never inquired as to how the twins were doing, who at one point agreed that they should be adopted."
Kretzmer advised the court against placing the babies with Matt. But there was no guarantee that the judge would follow his counsel. And when a county social worker showed up in court, Ring freaked. "I was afraid they'd come to the house and take Megan and Matthew," she says. "The law has proved over and over again that surrogates don't have any rights."
Searching for leverage against Matt and Jackie, Ring made the decision to go after their finances—against the advice of Walmsley, who cautioned that this might hurt the court's perception of her. Working with another lawyer, she filed a civil suit against the couple for breach of contract and fraud and asked for an unnamed amount in damages.
It didn't take long for the parties to strike a deal. "It would have cost me a quarter of a million to half a million to fight the civil suit," says Matt. "I'd go bankrupt." Even if he could gain custody of the twins, he wouldn't be able to support them—and Jackie had already said she wanted out. The couple agreed to tell Henning that they would allow Ring to be named the twins' legal parent, giving up their own parental rights. In exchange Ring promised to drop the lawsuit.
Jackie, during the brief comment she made for this story, characterized Ring as "a very disturbed and opportunistic young woman." (She said this in the same heated breath in which she called her a kidnapper.) As for Matt, he was definitely unhappy with the way things turned out. He still had visitation rights to his son, who is now 3—Jackie has full custody—and he told himself that he could always have more children. "But it was pretty devastating," he says, "because I lost two kids that were mine."
Susan's luck turns, and a new couple steps in to help
For Ring, being declared the twins' legal mother that day in court brought tremendous relief. "I made a promise to those babies when they were in my womb that I'd find them a good home," she says. Now that was possible.
Twenty-five miles away in the San Fernando Valley, Robyne and Harry, who want to keep their last names private, were having a difficult time. After ten in vitro fertilization attempts, two miscarriages, three failed donor attempts (two using a gestational surrogate), and 16 frozen embryos in storage—at a total cost of $150,000—they had called it quits on pregnancy. When a friend from Robyne's infertility support group said she'd heard a weird story about twins and a surrogate, Robyne figured it was just another disappointment lying in wait. Reluctantly, she applied to adopt the twins.
Three weeks later, her luck turned. The phone rang, and Ring was on the other end. "I'm holding the twins, and they're calling to say good morning to their new mommy and daddy," she announced. After meeting Robyne and Harry in person, Ring had come away impressed by their warmth and passion for a family. ("You could really tell that their arms were aching for a child—or two," she says.) At Robyne's house, pandemonium broke loose. "My whole family was crying and screaming," she says. "Everybody was out of their minds." Robyne and Harry even offered, after the adoption was in place, to reimburse Ring the $22,000 Matt and Jackie owed her for her surrogacy expenses—and Ring took them up on it.
One year later, the twins, who have been renamed, are walking all over the place. The dark-haired girl just happens to look a lot like Robyne, while the fair-haired boy bears an uncanny resemblance to Harry. Someday they'll want to hear the story of how they were born. "Susan, you'll always be part of our life," says Robyne, sitting with Ring in an ornately decorated suburban living room. "And when my kids are old enough, it will be easy to say Mommy's tummy was broken and Susan was our special angel who helped us."
And if the kids want to meet their biological father or brother, Robyne says she'll support them. After a moment, however, another thought comes to her, perhaps closer to her true feelings. "Because my family is so loving," she says, "I hope my children will feel that they've gotten as much love as they possibly can and will never need to go anywhere else."
Susan Ring couldn't be happier. She'll never enter another surrogacy arrangement without finding out as much as she can about the intended parents. Recently, through her agency, she found a couple she liked. She's trying to get pregnant again.
For more information on Susan Ring and surrogacy issues, check out the documentary Bloodlines (available at PBS.org/bloodlines).
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