Ashley Mareko on the beach near where her RV is parked in Mission Bay, San Diego. (Ariana Drehsler for The Free Press)

Motherloading: Inside the Surrogacy Boom

‘It’s almost like a heterosexual relationship. I’m the provider. And this other woman that I met on Facebook is staying at home and having my kid for me.’

Ashley Mareko was built for pregnancy. “I have great hips,” she told me over the phone. 

Mareko, 38, a Hawaii native who lives with her husband and teenage daughter in their RV near the beach in San Diego, heard about gestational surrogacy—where she would grow someone else’s baby in her own womb—at a Bible study group. “I thought it was the coolest thing,” she remembered. She said she felt called to do it. 

Mareko, who already had two kids of her own, had a friend who was going through chemotherapy, and she offered to carry a baby for her. But both women were worried: “What if I got attached to the child? What if it doesn’t work, and the friendship is ruined?” Mareko told me. 

So she decided to carry for another family—one she didn’t know—first. 

There were hurdles. Mareko needed to have a certain BMI, which meant she had to lose forty pounds. So she cut down on sugar, adopted a high-protein keto diet, and took up boxing. Then she started the drugs—synthetic versions of the hormones estrogen and progesterone—to prepare her uterus for the embryo transfer when the contract from the family came back. 

It stipulated that the couple she was carrying for would have the final say over “reductions”—which is surrogacy-speak for abortion. “I’m a pro-life surrogate,” Mareko told me. “I was heartbroken, but I had to walk away.” 

Eventually, it worked out. Mareko carried for a Chinese couple that she met through an agency, who were also pro-life and who she said she connected with immediately, even though they didn’t speak very much English. They had tried to have a baby for five years. When that failed, they did multiple rounds of IVF to create embryos with their own genetic material, which they transferred to Ashley. That first time, she made $25,000. She carried another baby for them again two years later, bringing in $40,000. Right now, she’s 34 weeks pregnant for a third time for the same couple, for which she’ll be paid $55,000.   

When her husband got sick and was out of work for five months, Ashley used the surrogacy money to pay their mortgage and keep their kids in a private Christian school. “I felt like God had said ‘I know this is gonna happen. So let’s set you up with some safety for your family.’ Otherwise, I don’t know how we would’ve survived.”

Kayde Mason, 31, had three kids of her own before agreeing to carry for two gay actors from Los Angeles. Surrogacy had come onto her radar while she was in training to become a doula. “I thought, ‘I would be good at that,’ ” she said. 

Which is how, on the night before Halloween in 2021, Mason found herself pacing around the maternity ward at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. She was a week overdue and the baby girl inside her—a baby girl she bore no biological relationship to—was nearly ten pounds. She used a breast pump to help speed things up and listened to Sam Smith’s “Pray” and Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love”—part of a playlist she’d created just for the birth. She took a hot shower while her husband tended to her. 

Finally—she was in a ton of pain by now—she got an epidural. It was time to push, and that was when the baby’s fathers, Taylor Frey and Kyle Massey, swooped in. They held Kayde’s legs and squeezed her hands. “There’s no such thing as modesty at that point,” she told me. 

The dads, she said, “were a little bit like deer caught in the headlights.”

When the baby finally came out, all of them—the dads, Kayde, Kayde’s husband, the midwife—cried. Five days later, the dads and their daughter, Rafa, flew back to Los Angeles. Aside from a few months of pumping breast milk, which she sent to the dads frozen and in coolers, Kayde’s work was done. She used the money she earned to take her family on a trip to Hawaii, and to put toward college savings accounts for her kids. 

Mason and Mareko both called their experiences with surrogacy “empowering.” Mason added that, for her, it was “a very feminist thing to do.” 

It’s also very in demand. 

Once limited to A-listers (who didn’t want to lose their figures) and gay men with means (who lacked the proper equipment), gestational surrogacy is becoming a mainstream, increasingly normal way of making an American family. In 1999, there were 727 embryo transfers to gestational surrogates in the United States (not all resulted in a live birth). In 2013, that figure was 3,432. In 2019: 9,195. 

That number doesn’t just include those able to drop $100,000 to avoid the indignities and the stretch marks and the sheer pain of childbirth. It’s also women like Sophie Islip, a 39-year-old florist in Utah, who “always wanted a baby” and figured she’d end up with “the marriage, and a white picket fence” but now finds herself freezing her eggs in Greece, where it’s cheaper, and lining up a surrogate in Argentina. Or women who turn to surrogacy so they can stay on antidepressants. Or it’s the infertile couples that Ashley works with in China, where surrogacy is illegal, but who know to take advantage of the lax laws and friendly agencies in states like Idaho and California. 

The democratization of birth—surrogacy for the everyman—is on the way. The question is, are we ready for it? 

Sonograms adorn the fridge in Ashley Mareko’s RV. (Ariana Drehsler for The Free Press)

Buying, or rather renting, a woman’s womb is arguably the strangest business there is. It’s at once hyper-modern—an industry fueled by cutting-edge tech, globalism, capitalism, and a modern worldview that favors convenience, consent, and choice over everything else—but in service to the most ancient and primal of all desires. 

And while there’s beauty and generosity in the new surrogacy market, there’s also something very jarring about it.

For starters, there are the eyebrow-raising optics—the poor catering to the rich; the religious serving the secular; the Americans, Asians, and Europeans flocking south in search of often non-white women to carry their babies. Then there are the technically legal but morally nebulous situations surrogates find themselves facing. After one surrogate gave birth—the parents were absent—she learned she was one of three women they’d hired simultaneously. (The couple had wanted triplets.) I heard of another surrogate who was asked to carry a baby for a single, elderly man. 

What’s clear is that the global surrogacy market—with its clinics, agencies, and apps like Nodal that make finding a willing woman as easy as swiping right—is booming. In 2022, the market was valued at $14 billion. By 2032, it is projected to skyrocket to nearly $129 billion according to Global Market Insights, a company that predicts industry trends. 

Proposed laws like the Right to Build Families Act would make it so there are no limits on who could access assisted reproductive technology like IVF and surrogacy, while companies like Ford and Walmart have recently followed in the footsteps of Apple and Facebook, liberalizing their family-planning policies to include reimbursement for it. 

“It’s already been an interesting year. But for the years going forward it’s going to be interesting to see what people start to resort to,” said Tiffany Hallgren Crook, a concierge fertility consultant. Alonso Marin, a surrogate fixer in Puerto Vallarta, put it more bluntly: “It’s going to blow up very, very soon.” 

Alonso Marin in Puerto Vallarta. (Jorge Mercado for The Free Press)

Marin is at the epicenter of the international surrogate market: Mexico. 

When he started out as manager for LIV Fertility Center in Puerto Vallarta, Marin told me, “I didn’t even know what a menstrual cycle was.” That was in 2015. 

Now Marin runs his own company—it’s called AMx3 Solutions—and he is trying to corner the Australian market. He told me this last month on speakerphone as he was driving to the airport to pick up some IPs, or intended parents, flying in from New Zealand. It seemed like everyone was calling him to find a surrogate. 

The beginning of the craze, he said, was June 2021, when Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled surrogacy was legal. 

Since then, Marin spends his days criss-crossing the country in a 2017 Ford Figo, connecting couples—mostly gay men from rich countries like France, Great Britain, the U.S., and Israel—with Mexican women who gestate their children. 

For $4,000, through Marin, you can choose your baby’s sex. For $10,000, you can have twins. 

“Everyone asks to pick out the eye color, but it’s not possible,” he said. 

One California woman, who is 31, single, and childless, called up a few months ago to ask for his help to achieve her dream of having 12 kids by the time she was 40, all through surrogacy. Marin said no because “I’m not going to create trauma for the surrogates, to her, or to the twelve babies.” But there’s no law preventing him from saying yes.

Layered on top of the hard biological limits and much fuzzier ethical ones are the regulations and laws that vary greatly among countries, and often among the states and municipalities within them. 

Most Western governments ban surrogacy outright (French president Emmanuel Macron called it a “red line”). Some places have no laws, or weak ones, around surrogacy, like Laos and Nigeria. Heterosexual married couples only can contract a surrogate in Ukraine, Georgia, and Russia. In Canada, altruistic surrogacy only is legal—meaning the woman can’t be paid. And it’s illegal to do the type of gender selection that Marin offers. In America, regulations vary by state. In New York, for example, intended parents can get a pre-birth order so they, and not the surrogate, are listed on the birth certificate, while in Idaho, the intended parents have to adopt the child after he’s born. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine in the States, along with the CDC, dictate best practices, including that one embryo only at a time should be transferred to avoid high-risk twin pregnancies, and that the surrogate has carried a healthy pregnancy before. 

But in this world, as in the womb itself, timing is everything.

New restrictive anti-abortion measures in former surrogate hubs like Texas and Florida have unwittingly pushed out IPs (intended parents) and surrogates, who generally prefer having the option of aborting in the event that there’s something seriously wrong with the baby.

India was a popular destination for surrogacy, but after reports came out of women being forced to sign contracts they couldn’t read and live in “gestational dormitories,” away from their families, the government made the commercial trade illegal in 2019. Ukraine was another hub, but then Russia went to war against the country, forcing women to give birth in bomb shelters, trapping dozens of babies inside the country, and pushing the market to nearby Georgia. 

The supply of surrogates is lagging behind the demand.

Tiffany Hallgren Crook says her business is booming. Crook, the fertility consultant, acts as a concierge egg-hunter. If you’re a Silicon Valley exec and want a five-foot-six Punjabi Ivy Leaguer with an interest in STEM as your egg donor, she’ll track her down. Then, she’ll find you a surrogate who will agree to eat organic and avoid parabens during the embryo transfer and pregnancy. 

The surrogacy surge, Crook said, also reflects a new awareness of the “trauma” of the birthing process. “It is now a space where people are just realizing that it’s okay to speak out about these anxieties and fears,” Crook said.

Take Paris Hilton, 42, who welcomed a baby boy via surrogate in January and told Glamour magazine, “I’m just so scared” when asked why she outsourced her pregnancy. “[C]hildbirth and death are the two things that scare me more than anything in the world.” 

“It’s becoming a space where people like Paris are speaking up,” said Crook, who recently had a client who had her first child naturally, but then opted for a surrogate for the second because of her “traumatic” birth experience. “Her and others normalizing it and talking about it has made people say, ‘You know what, I have been scared of carrying a child myself, and it’s not so rare to have to seek help.’ ”

In the past year, she said, the wait times for American IPs have jumped from three to six months, to six months to a year. 

All this is pushing prices up—and prospective parents abroad.

It’s not unheard of for international IPs to call Marin in the middle of the night. Hopeful mothers—undergoing IVF treatments in order to extract their own eggs, inseminate one or more, and transfer them to a surrogate, pumped up with hormones and out tens of thousands of dollars—have melted down in clinics, freaking out the other IPs.

“Fertility is not for the faint of heart,” he told me. 

Francky L’Official. (Hilary Swift for The Free Press)

On February 2, 17 months after he’d signed the contract with Miracle Surrogacy in Cancún, Francky L’Official watched as his son, whom he and his husband named Munroe, was born via cesarean section in Mexico City. Francky filmed the whole thing, and got to cut the umbilical cord when Munroe came out. “It was so beautiful and surreal,” Francky told me. “It’s hard to find the words to explain how I felt.” 

L’Official is 46 and French, and works at a hair salon in New York City. “I almost married my girlfriend at twenty because I wanted a child,” he told me. In January 2020, he became a foster dad to a two-month-old baby girl whose mother was living in shelters and struggling with addiction, according to L’Official. But the goal of the American foster system is reunification—bringing the child and her birth parents back together—and he was forced to give her up two years later. 

“I was a mess,” he said. “I cried every day for six months.” 

He and his husband initially sought a surrogate in the United States, but agencies quoted him $200,000 for a baby, and he was already financially strapped from the pandemic. They turned to Mexico, eventually settling on Miracle, where they found an egg donor through their database. “She has green eyes, like I do. She has full lips, high cheekbones, and her face was kind,” L’Official said. She’s into art, and loves animals. She plays tennis, is 5′10, and has no history of cancer. 

Miracle also connected them with their surrogate—or surrogates. Numbers 1 and 2 didn’t work out. Of Number 2, L’Official said, “She was young, 23, and I got a bad feeling.” He tracked her down on TikTok, where he found videos of her vaping shortly after two of Francky’s embryos were placed inside her. Neither of those took, he said.

The third—Brenda, 29, a single mother with a five-year-old son who lives in Mexico City and who L’Official described as “gorgeous” and “a CrossFit addict”—was the charm. The whole procedure—including travel, Down syndrome tests, and extra vitamins for Brenda—cost L’Official and his husband about $100,000. He ran into another New York couple at the American Embassy in Mexico City, who they’d met on the plane, and who likewise were securing citizenship for their own surrogate baby. 

L’Official is already planning for baby number two, and he’s asked Brenda to be the surrogate again. She’s in. 

Munroe L’Official. (Hilary Swift for The Free Press)

At the same time the fixers, consultants, coaches, and professional mama advocates are exploding onto the birthing scene, a growing number of would-be parents are looking for surrogates on their own.

Laura from Oakland, who withheld her last name for privacy reasons, gave birth to a baby boy in 2020. But then, over the next few years, she had several miscarriages, experiences she called “horrifying.” Her body, she told me, just could not do it. 

So she and her husband, wanting a second baby, started looking for a surrogate.

She did what you might expect a 37-year-old product manager at a tech company in the Bay Area to do: instead of paying some agency a $40,000 fee and then waiting 18 months to match with a surrogate, Laura methodically scoured dozens of Facebook groups hoping to connect with a surrogate. In surrogacy land, that’s called an “independent journey”—meaning no middle man.

“I’m trying to do this in the most ethical way I know how,” Laura told me on a call from her coworking space. 

She interviewed ten women in her search for The One. 

Eventually, Laura came across a promising woman in Arizona who had two sons. They agreed on the Big Three: money; the Covid vaccine (Laura’s pro-vax; so’s the surrogate); and the “reduction” question, meaning under what circumstances they might abort—whether for genetic disorders like Turner syndrome or Down syndrome, or if twins or triplets are growing—and who would get to make the decision. 

Soon, in the next few weeks, Laura told me, the prospective surrogate will fly to San Francisco for a physical and mental exam. If all goes well, Laura will then open an escrow account, and then Laura’s egg—fertilized with sperm from her husband—will be transferred to the surrogate at Laura’s fertility clinic. Laura is paying $75,000 for her baby, which is high for the market. 

“I think it’s a valuable contribution to society, and I think women should be paid for their work.” She considers it a feminist issue, “weirdly,” she told me, even though the gender roles feel all mixed up. 

“It’s almost like a heterosexual relationship,” Laura told me. “I’m the provider, and this other woman that I met on Facebook is staying at home and having my kid for me.” 

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If the gender roles feel mixed-up for Laura, for a lot of leftist feminists, the notion that surrogacy represents feminism at all is upside down.

“Surrogacy is evil,” Anna Slatz, a self-described Marxist who runs the “pro-woman” magazine Reduxx, told me. “When you have a subclass of purchasable female assets, it impacts how all women are perceived.” 

Kajsa Ekis Ekman, the author of Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self, sees surrogacy and prostitution as two sides of the same coin. “When the baby inside her belongs to someone else, who does she belong to? The buyers can say that they don’t want their surrogate to travel, or paint her nails, or breastfeed her existing children. It obviously goes against autonomy.”               

“I think it’s exactly like sex work,” Corey Briskin, 33, an attorney who lives in Williamsburg, told me over a bowl of muesli near his apartment. Briskin and his husband lodged a class-action complaint with the the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in April of last year, claiming that they were blocked from accessing the IVF services that were available to their straight and lesbian coworkers. Briskin worked as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan from 2017 to 2022, and was covered through the city’s contract with EmblemHealth, which insures 1.25 million people

“Kids, to me, come with marriage,” Briskin said. “I didn’t think there could be a situation where you’re insured in the United States, in a country in which gay marriage is fully legal, that we would have to fight for this additional right that every other married, or unmarried couple enjoys.” 

On the surrogacy-is-sex-work score, he sees it the same way as Ekman, but comes to the opposite conclusion: “It’s a very sex-negative position to take that a woman should not be able to be a sex worker, because somehow she’s being forced into it,” Briskin said.

Those questions of autonomy, consent, and power are far from settled, but they seem quaint compared to the ones coming down the ramp.

A Norwegian philosopher wrote a paper last year advocating for WBGD, or whole body gestational donation, where women in a persistent vegetative state would be impregnated with other people’s embryos, and gestate that child, all while brain-dead. Meanwhile, in Israel, posthumous procreation—where sperm or eggs are extracted from a dead person to create new life—is becoming more and more common. Already, people are using this method to become grandparents using the sperm of their sons who have died in combat.

Elsewhere, start-up Conception hopes to create human eggs using stem cells—opening the door to biological children for same-sex couples. Another company, Cofertility, offers free egg-freezing, with the stipulation that the woman donate half her eggs to another family through a program called Split.

For now, though, you still need a willing, healthy, conscious woman to carry an embryo made, if not the old-fashioned way, then at least with the same ingredients. There is no stork. 

Ashley Mareko and her daughter outside their RV. (Ariana Drehsler for The Free Press)

“I’m not a handmaid,” Mareko told me. She’s given birth five times, three of those were surrogate babies, and she’s about to do it again. She’s raked in close to $200,000 from carrying other people’s children, which has enabled her to pay off student debt, cover a mortgage, and buy a camper. “I’m a businesswoman.”

But it was hard to disentangle the personal from the professional. 

There had been a Chinese family that reached out to her in 2019. She didn’t really connect with them like the first family—they weren’t as warm—but they had been trying to conceive for five years. They were on a tight budget. This was their last embryo. She took on the pregnancy. 

Then, in July 2020, at 38 weeks, Mareko’s doctor wanted to induce. But the parents were still in China, and they wanted her to wait. Against her doctor’s orders, they asked her to check out of the hospital, which she did not do. They started texting her constantly, in Chinese, and Mareko’s blood pressure went up.

Eventually, she cut off communication with the parents, but had her husband FaceTime them so they could watch her give birth. Later, in a TikTok video, Mareko was bereft. “This is not how I saw things going,” she said. 

She spent only 15 minutes with the baby, who was whisked away to a nursery right after the birth, where she said goodbye and prayed for him, and then left. After that, the baby’s godmother came to take care of him until the parents could get to the States. Mareko’s gotten a few pictures from those parents, but they don’t really talk. 

Kayde Mason, in Knoxville, had a smooth labor, delivery, and handoff, but she could relate to the comedown. “Postpartum hit me in a way I didn’t quite expect,” she told me. “It was a super emotional process. I felt so needed, and that I was doing something so important for ten months, and then suddenly, it’s over.” 

The point is, Mareko said, it was stupid to reduce surrogacy to money, contracts, lawyers—no matter what you thought of all that. “The world’s going to tell you that it’s only transactional,” said Mareko, now pregnant with her fourth surrogate baby. “But when you start to grow a human, there’s something deeper there.”

Suzy Weiss is a reporter for The Free Press. Her last story was about the epidemic of cheating on college campuses.

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