July 30, 2021

Why one religious woman chose to be a surrogate

By Barbara Sofer

Sara Cohen explained her plans like this to her children, ages 11, nine and six: “If our neighbors were making a cake, got it all ready and then discovered that the oven didn’t work, and they asked us to use our oven, would we say yes?”

All three children nodded their heads. “Of course, we would,” said the oldest, a daughter named Sappir. “Helping others is a mitzvah.”

And so, continued Sara, how would it be, if someone couldn’t be as lucky as Abba and I am to have wonderful children, and we could help?”

The children agreed that it would be an even bigger mitzvah.
“We decided to be open with our kids from the beginning,” said Cohen, 38, an American-born Israeli, religious, an academic, and happily married to Simon Cohen, an educator from England.

She had decided to offer to carry and deliver a baby for strangers. Not just one, actually, but even twins.

The idea of being a surrogate was in the back of Sara’s mind for a long time. Talking to Sara three months after she gave birth to two healthy baby girls reminds me of conversations with the kidney donors I’ve interviewed. These are special persons who go beyond delivering casseroles to a new mom or driving a friend to a doctor’s appointment – as worthy as those kind acts are. Whenever surrogacy came up in discussion with friends, Sara would say that she would be willing to be a surrogate. “Simon would roll his eyes, and that would be the end of it.” The subject came up again at a Shabbat meal with friends when she turned 36. “You’re probably too old,” a woman friend said.

“No way,” said Sara. “And then it was time for a more serious private conversation with Simon. My pregnancies were relatively straightforward, and I felt wonderfully empowered by natural childbirth. We discussed it with our rabbi, and signed up with an Israeli agency that facilitates surrogacy.

“Israel is well organized for surrogacy, but there is a lot of paperwork, and long meetings with psychologists, including Rorschach tests,” she said. “We had to show we had no criminal record, too.”

Her record was strong in Zionism. She grew up in Upstate New York and came to Israel at 18 on the Young Judaea Year Course, later marrying Simon, who was her youth counselor (madrich). She develops programs integrating technology at Jerusalem’s David Yellin College of Education.

The process of being accepted into the program took several months, at which time the organization representative had a specific couple in mind for them.

The man and woman – called “the intended parents” – were from Tel Aviv, not religiously observant, but shared a conviviality and down-to-earthiness with the Cohens. Recalled Sara, “The first meeting, at a café, was awkward – sort of a first-date scenario, but we established an easy friendship. By then I knew that sometimes a couple can be very controlling – not allowing the surrogate to drink coffee or lift her own children. I could tell they weren’t going to be like that, and they weren’t.”

The intended mom had learned that she couldn’t carry a baby to term. At that first meeting, Cohen also agreed that she would be willing to be the gestational carrier, for a single child or twins. The intended parents would not only get two children, but save the considerable second surrogacy fee (about the price of buying a new car in Israel).

The first five attempts failed. Cohen, who had to take hormones and undergo embryo transferal, was discouraged.

“I was ready to give up because I thought the problem might be me. I didn’t want to ruin their chances,” she said.

The sixth transfer was the charm. Twelve days after having two five-day old embryos transferred, a blood test showed Sara was pregnant. She followed it with an ultrasound in her local health clinic.

“We live in Tzur Hadassah and the kupat holim clinic is in the mostly haredi neighborhood of Betar Illit. My nurse was extremely religious, and she cried with pleasure when the technician found two heartbeats.”

Sara’s phone call to the intended mom began with joyful shouting and crying, too, but ended on a sober note: everyone knows that risks are higher for carrying twins.

To complicate matters more, there was the pandemic. “We had to get special permission for the intended mom to come with me for the significant ultrasounds. At first the medical consensus was that pregnant women shouldn’t be vaccinated. Later, that was reversed.”
As the pregnancy went forward, Simon and the children adjusted to a tired Sara burdened with many medical tests. “By seven months, I was as big as I’d been at the end of my pregnancies… and then I kept going,” Cohen said.

As she got closer to delivery, Baby A refused to turn around. With a breech presentation Cohen lost the option of natural delivery and had to face a cesarean section. “I’d never had surgery, nor even an epidural for my previous childbirths,” she said.

She’d delivered her other three children at nearby Hadassah-University Medical Center’s Ein Kerem campus, and now prepped with an operating room tour.

“They knew I was a surrogate. Everyone was very supportive,” she said.

IN WEEK 37, the surgical team gathered. Simon stood by Sara’s side. The intended mom sat quietly in a corner.

The epidural numbed Sara’s lower extremities, and the surgeon made the first cut. Minutes later, Baby A was lifted out, making that exquisite newborn high-pitched cry of life. Then her sister, Baby B, joined the chorus.

Sara turned her head.

“I thought of the blessing that people often say to a pregnant woman – ‘May you leave with your arms full’ – and saw this radiant woman sitting with her arms full of babies.”

Sara felt an enormous rush of satisfaction and urged the new mom to go outside and show her husband their children.

“Simon stayed with me. I said a silent meditation. It was a time of enormous relief. I wasn’t at all sorry that the babies weren’t coming home with us. I knew my mission now was to heal and take care of myself and to return with energy to my husband and children.

“For us, this was a potent life lesson to appreciate our blessings and to know that sometimes you can do something for someone that will change their lives for the better and make their greatest dreams come true.”