CULPEPER, VA — Jessica Kern was sixteen the day she found the missing puzzle piece that finally made her life make sense.
Growing up, Kern, now 30, had always suspected something wasn’t right about her household. It was more than just the emotional and physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents. It was a deep and unsettling feeling that somehow, she didn’t really belong.
Kern grew up in an interracial home – her father was white; her mother, South Korean. Kern was raised as a half-Korean girl, attending Korean school on the weekends and her mother’s Korean church. But the mirror told a different story. Her appearance lacked even a trace of Asian ancestry. At times, she wondered if she’d been adopted.
The truth turned out to be much more complicated than that. At sixteen, a therapist she was seeing to help her deal with her parents’ abuse shared something hidden deep within her medical records: Kern was the product of a surrogacy arrangement. The woman who had raised her from birth was not, in fact, her biological mother.
In a single moment, a simple four-sentence statement buried in a doctor’s notes gave Kern an answer to the question that had been in the back of her mind all her life – but simultaneously presented a lifetime’s worth of additional questions that may never fully be answered.
“I think it’s wrong. It really is the buying and selling of babies, and the commodification of women’s bodies.”
When LifeSiteNews interviewed Kern last Friday, she had just returned from a whirlwind press tour to New York City and Washington, D.C., where she was promoting Breeders, a documentary about surrogacy produced by Jennifer Lahl of the Center for Bioethics and Culture, whose previous film credits include Eggsploitation and Anonymous Father’s Day.
Kern said she agreed to be part of the documentary because she felt like there was a very important voice missing from the ongoing cultural debate over surrogacy: the voices of the children themselves.
“I think it’s wrong,” Kern told LifeSiteNews. “It really is the buying and selling of babies, and the commodification of women’s bodies.”
“There’s a huge difference between the adoption world and the donor-conceived world,” Kern added. “[The] institution [of adoption] was not … created for the parents, to give them a kid. It was created for the opposite, to put children in a home, because they’re here already and we’re responding to a catastrophe.”
On the contrary, Kern says, “Donor-conceived [children], we’re creating them with the intent of separating them from their biology, and you know … it’s vastly different.”
Kern’s own story, in her view, is a perfect example of what can go wrong when science and the culture of entitlement meet – pitting the selfish desires of adults against the ultimate well-being of children.
In 1983, Kern’s mother wanted a child, but found herself infertile. She had just undergone a new, radical treatment for cancer that had put her into remission, but doctors still gave her only a five percent chance of surviving the next five years. That made adoption an impossibility – no responsible agency would place a child in such a high-risk situation.
“I don’t believe they would have [passed a home study for adoption],” Kern told LifeSiteNews. Aside from her adoptive mother’s cancer, “I don’t think she would have passed the psychological testing,” she added. “Also, my dad was 46 and had a family history of all the men dying in their early 50s. Adoption wouldn’t have touched that.”
Surrogacy, being comparatively unregulated, offered Kern’s parents a loophole. The practice was still unusual in the 1980s and not widely available, so the Virginia-based couple traveled to Michigan to make arrangements with a surrogacy agency. They never told anyone else what they were doing. Throughout the surrogate’s pregnancy, Kern’s adoptive mother wore pregnancy prostheses of increasing size in order to fool friends and family into thinking she was the one having the baby. When Kern’s biological mother went into labor three weeks early, “they were at a cocktail party,” Kern said. “The next day, she had to explain how she suddenly had a baby.”
The early delivery turned out to be a stroke of luck for Kern’s parents, if perhaps not for Kern herself. Several weeks before, Kern’s biological mother had mentioned the surrogacy arrangement to her doctor at a routine appointment. Out of concern for the well-being of her unborn child, the doctor called social services. A social worker was supposed to be present at the birth in order to interview Kern’s father and his wife, but on the advice of an attorney, the couple fled the state with the baby before social services could intervene.
Today, Kern is outspoken in her opposition to all donor conception, including surrogacy, egg donation, and sperm donation. In fact, she strongly objects to the use of the term “donation” at all. “It’s not donation if you get a huge check at the end,” she told LifeSiteNews. “It’s selling babies. … If you’re a sperm donor or an egg donor, you’re not selling your sperm, you’re not selling an egg, you’re selling your child.”
Kern says she went through an “evolution” in her attitude toward surrogacy after she learned the truth about her own origins.
At first, “I was relieved,” Kern told LifeSiteNews. “I knew something was not right, and honestly, the household was extremely abusive, so to a point, it was like, ‘Thank God I’m not completely related to these people; there’s hope for me yet.’”
But as time went on, and she gave the issue more thought, she began to feel increasingly conflicted.
“I think when you’re a teenager and you hear [you’re a product of surrogacy], you don’t think too much in depth about it. … I don’t know if that’s because it’s just too big a thing to think heavily about, or just because as a teenager you’re kind of self-involved,” she said. But once she began to process the information, she started to become curious about the circumstances surrounding her conception and birth. “You wonder about the logistics behind it, the motivations; you know, do they think of you?” Kern said. “It starts to become a little bit nagging.”
Despite her questions, Kern kept her newfound knowledge hidden from her parents, even after she moved out of their house at seventeen. She was “nineteen or twenty” before she gathered the courage to tell her father what she’d learned, and asked for her biological mother’s name and contact information. He refused to provide the details, even though he had allegedly promised the surrogate mother he would facilitate contact when his daughter turned eighteen. “I think because I was so unhappy with our family, he thought it would reflect badly on him,” Kern said.
So Kern turned to the internet for assistance, signing up for multiple websites where adopted children can seek to be reunited with their birth parents. “I knew I didn’t fit the profile completely,” Kern said, “but I hoped that maybe she was out there looking for me.”
Kern’s mother wasn’t looking for her. She assumed that because she had provided her contact information to Kern’s father, her daughter would come to her if she decided she wanted to. “She was just kind of waiting on me,” Kern said.
She would have to wait six more years. Kern was 26 when, fed up with her father’s refusal to give her the information she so desperately wanted, she stole two personal phone books from his house. When her father realized they were gone, he contacted the birth mother to warn her to expect Kern’s call.
When Kern finally reached her biological mother, “we talked for two hours,” she said. Kern learned that she was one of six children born to her mother – three of them, her mother raised, and three were surrogate children like her. She immediately made plans to travel to Michigan to meet her birth mom, along with three of her half-siblings and more than a dozen aunts and uncles. She was also able to establish contact with one of the other surrogate children born to her mother, a half-sister.
Kern’s birth mother told her she went through three surrogate pregnancies out of “compassion” for infertile couples. But in giving birth to Kern, she was rewarded with a $10,000 check for her trouble – an amount Kern is quick to note is more than a person would have made in a year of working a minimum wage job in the early 1980s.
Kern says she and her biological mother have had “a rocky road” since their meeting four years ago. As Kern has been more publicly outspoken against surrogacy, their relationship has cooled. But Kern is determined to keep speaking out for what she believes, in the hopes that increased public awareness might cause people to think twice before intentionally creating children who will spend nine months in a mother’s womb before being ripped away at birth to be raised by strangers.
“I personally am 100 percent against it; I don’t understand the purpose of it,” Kern said in the Breeders documentary. “I believe that there are too many children who need homes in this world.”
Kern now writes a blog called “The Other Side of Surrogacy,” where she shares her views on being a donor child and tracks the rapidly developing legal landscape surrounding surrogacy. She hopes to transition into full-time activism on the issue and perhaps write a book.
“There needs to be more education on the downfalls of surrogacy,” says Kern. “I think that it’s too easy to look at surrogacy from the point of ‘What are my wants, what are my desires and how do I get them met?’ But it’s a lot harder to look at how it could possibly affect the child.”
One of the main concerns Kern and other donor children cite is the lack of oversight and transparency at every stage of the assisted reproductive process. Not only are would-be parents not required to go through the same vetting process to which they would need to submit for traditional adoption, there are no requirements for donors of eggs or sperm to keep agencies apprised of their own health status post-donation. An egg donor who later developed breast cancer, for example, would not be required to report that to her agency, even though any female child conceived using her eggs would be at an increased risk of developing the disease and should therefore be monitored more closely. That means donor children are often left totally in the dark about potential health problems down the line.
Kern told LifeSiteNews that filling out routine forms at doctors’ offices can often feel “like a slap in the face” to donor children who have no idea about their genetic history. If they’re lucky, she said, they will have information about at least one of their genetic parents, like she does. But for those born to so-called “gestational carriers” – surrogate mothers who are sometimes implanted with both donor eggs and donor sperm – “it’s like, ‘I don’t know, your guess is as good as mine,’” she said with a shrug.
Kern also talked about the “primal wound,” an idea promulgated by Nancy Verrier in her book of the same name. In the Breeders documentary, the author explains, “The primal wound is what happens when you separate a baby and its mother. Babies know their own mother through all their senses, and when for some reason … the baby is separated from that mother, the prenatal bonding is interrupted, there is a trauma that happens to both the baby and the mother, and they both feel as if something is missing within them.”
In addition to Kern and Verrier, the Breeders documentary features a number of surrogate mothers, all of whom keenly felt the loss of the children they carried for nine months, whether genetically related or not.
In one difficult case, a mother was pressured to abort after the 20-week ultrasound, when it was revealed the infant – not biologically related to the surrogate – had a brain deformity. After a week of avoiding the prospective parents’ calls, the surrogate hired a lawyer and told them she couldn’t go through with the abortion. She gave them the option of placing their child with a different adoptive family or raising him themselves. They ultimately chose to keep their son, but in acting to protect their baby’s life, the surrogate formed a bond with that child that persists to this day, long after the parents walked out of the hospital with their new baby, without even leaving their contact information. “I still think about him every day,” the surrogate said, through tears.
Another surrogate said it was her daughter who opened her eyes to the oddity of the situation. Already a mother of two who had enjoyed both pregnancies and had easy births, the woman said she felt like offering the use of her womb to an infertile couple would be a compassionate thing to do, along with helping her to pay her bills and stay home with her kids. But she hadn’t counted on the emotional attachment her eldest daughter would form with her unborn half-sibling.
“She loved babies,” the surrogate said. “I mean, what was I thinking? I had two daughters at that point, and when my second daughter was born, it was the biggest thing that had happened in her life. It was like the best thing in the whole world to her. How on Earth did I think I could just give one away, and that she would be okay with it?”
That same surrogate – who has a relatively open relationship with the adoptive family – later recounted the experience of visiting her surrogate daughter for the first time at the couple’s home, some two months after the birth. The baby had been colicky and sleepless, crying for hours a night from the moment she had been removed from her birth mom at five days old. Within minutes of being placed in the surrogate’s arms, she was fast asleep on her chest, seemingly content for the first time in weeks.
“At no point did I consider how it would affect her,” the surrogate said, “being a baby, spending, you know, nine months in my womb, and then five days in my arms, and then being taken away.”
Five years later, on a visit to her birth mom’s house, that little girl would look at her three half-siblings and observe that she looked more like her birth mother than any of them did.
“She looked right at me, innocent as could be, and said, ‘We have the same hair, and we have the same eyes,’” the surrogate recalled. “'Why did you give me away and keep them?’”
To order the “Breeders” documentary or to watch the trailer, click here.
To read Jessica Kern’s blog, “The Other Side of Surrogacy,” click here.
If you are a child of donor conception, or an egg/sperm donor searching for your biological family, click here to join the free registry at DonorChildren.com.