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Every year, an estimated 1,300 babies are born in the United States to gestational carriers — women who bear a child from the egg and sperm of another couple. Only a small percentage of surrogacies are between friends, because close relationships make the situation even more complex. But in western Massachusetts, one woman is carrying a baby for her best friend, who has a disease that would make pregnancy dangerous.
'Sister By Heart'
Diane Kieras-Ciolkos and Meghan Hukawicz are crouched over a dozen grainy ultrasound pictures at the obstetrician's. Kieras-Ciolkos wipes the ultrasound gel from her belly, where Hukawicz's baby boy is growing. It's Kieras-Ciolkos' belly, but Hukawicz's baby.
Kieras-Ciolkos and Hukawicz are best friends. Kieras-Ciolkos already has two children with her husband, Dave. This will be the first baby for Hukawicz and her husband, Frank. If you're confused, you're not alone.
"Now I'm visibly pregnant and people will say, 'Oh, I didn't know you were pregnant, congratulations!' And I'll say, 'Thank you, but it's not my husband's,' " Kieras-Ciolkos says, laughing. "And then I wait and I see their reaction. And then I go, 'Well, it's not mine either.' "
"You know, it's not the most comfortable thing to tell someone you don't know, 'Well, I'm having a child, but I'm not carrying it, my friend is carrying it," Hukawicz says. "Some people look at me like I have five heads and they just don't get it."
But to Kieras-Ciolkos, a gregarious 40-year-old with long brown hair, and Hukawicz, 35, blond and petite, it makes complete sense. It all started 30 years ago, when Hukawicz and her parents moved two doors down from Kieras-Ciolkos' family in Hadley.
"She was this playful little girl that came over that my sisters and I decided we accepted into our little clan, and we call her, 'sister by heart, but not by blood,' " Kieras-Ciolkos says.
They were both raised Catholic, and loved to climb trees, build forts and perform skits together. But Hukawicz was not a healthy child. She was born with cystic fibrosis, a pulmonary disease that causes chronic mucus buildup in the lungs. It can lead to serious respiratory infections and digestive and reproductive problems.
Hukawicz adjusted her expectations for the future accordingly. "I always though I couldn't have children," she says. "I never thought I would even get married."
When Kieras-Ciolkos and Hukawicz were teenagers, Hukawicz's aunt, who also had cystic fibrosis, died a year after bearing a son. As Kieras-Ciolkos recalls, she never recovered from the pregnancy.
"I didn't want the same thing to happen with Meghan and her potential children," she says.
For years, Kieras-Ciolkos made casual offers to carry Hukawicz's future baby, and Hukawicz nervously laughed them off — until she met and married Frank. The couple confirmed that pregnancy would threaten her health, and that the medication she takes to manage her disease could harm a fetus. They decided adoption was too expensive. So they reconsidered Kieras-Ciolkos' offer, with some trepidation.
"She is really important to me, so my first concern is her — and her health, and how it would affect her family," Hukawicz says.
"And we talked about it again, then I think it really sunk in," Kieras-Ciolkos says. "And, there has not been one thing at all we have disagreed with throughout this whole process."
The Intimidating 'What-Ifs'
And there have been plenty of high-stakes moments.
At her 28-week check-up, Kieras-Ciolkos lies on a metal exam table with Hukawicz at her side. The doctor asks if they've come up with a name.
"We're looking at Brady Christopher," Kieras-Ciolkos says.
"That's the only name my husband and I can agree on," Hukawicz says.
And are they going to circumcise?
"What are they doing in the hospital after Brady is born?" Kieras-Ciolkos asks.
"Oh, we haven't talked about that," Hukawicz says.
"I told you to talk about that!"
Few topics are taboo between these women, but any surrogate relationship is fraught with unknowns. Experts in surrogacy say the situation can get even more complicated when the two parties are friends. So the Hukawiczes hired a lawyer to draw up a contract between the couples, and they were required to go through a battery of psychological tests before a fertility clinic would take them on as clients.
"We went over everything, like all the what-ifs," Hukawicz says.
Starting with how each one of them felt about the grueling process of getting pregnant. After the Hukawiczes used in vitro fertilization to create an embryo, Kieras-Ciolkos needed months of daily hormone shots into her stomach and back.
"My husband, after 10 weeks of daily intramuscular needles to me, did say, 'If we had to go through it again, my mother would have to come over and do it!' " Kieras-Ciolkos says.
"That's one of the reasons for my hesitation, originally, because I didn't want to cause her any pain or any discomfort," Hukawicz says.
The pregnancy did take on the first try, setting off the next round of "what-ifs."
"What if something happens during the pregnancy, or during the delivery, you know, something fatal?" Kieras-Ciolkos asks. "Whose life would be chosen? It's always been, Meghan and Frank said, 'You have a family, you have an established family, it's your life first.' Which is a very hard thing to even fathom and talk about, but everything needs to be talked about."
And if the fetus had a serious defect? Hukawicz says they're both against abortion.
"But we would have to address it, if something very severe was going on," Hukawicz says. "It was one of those situations that you really can't talk about until it comes up."
The psychologists also wanted to know whether Kieras-Ciolkos would have any trouble relinquishing parental rights. She assured them she would not.
"This is an oven that is culminating a beautiful baby for them," Kieras-Ciolkos says. "That's the way I look at it, and we are so close that I know we'll still have a very close relationship with the baby, and my children are very excited to have him over for sleepovers and play dates and all that fun stuff and teach him bad habits."
'We're In This Together'
Although some gestational carriers earn $50,000 or more for bearing a child, Kieras-Ciolkos didn't want any money. The Hukawiczes are paying all the expenses — about $30,000 worth of medical co-pays, legal fees, even maternity clothes and prenatal vitamins.
But what psychologists say may be most at stake is the friendship. Will Hukawicz feel overly indebted to Kieras-Ciolkos? After all, how do you thank a friend who's given you a child?
"She's going to give me a trip to the Caribbean and liposuction," Kieras-Ciolkos says, laughing. "No, we're in this together and we're looking for the optimal result of a healthy baby and years of memories together. That's what I gain out of this."
"I'm certainly grateful and I'll always be grateful, but the fact that she has a good attitude about it — it just feels right," Hukawicz says.
Back in the exam room, the doctor puts the heart monitor on Kieras-Ciolkos' stomach. The beat is strong.
Baby Brady is due in July. Since Hukawicz's husband is not a carrier for cystic fibrosis, the doctor says the baby won't have the disease. But Hukawicz's own health is still a concern. With a newborn in the house, she knows it won't be easy to keep eating well, exercising and getting rest — all critical to managing cystic fibrosis. Luckily, her best friend has promised to babysit often.
This program aired on June 20, 2011.
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