What Is a Gestational Carrier? How Is It Different From a Surrogate?

Understanding the Different Kinds of Surrogacy Arrangements

Pregnant woman's belly with a blue ribbon around it
Acting as a surrogate for a couple who can't have a baby otherwise is an amazing gift. It is not, however, risk free. Daniel Grill / Getty Images

Surrogate is a frequently misused and misunderstood term. When people refer to a “surrogate,” they intend to refer to a woman who carries a pregnancy for another person. However, the proper term (in the vast majority of cases) is gestational carrier. Surrogate is only correct if the gestational carrier is using her own eggs (as opposed to the eggs of another, such as an egg donor’s or the intended mother’s.) Because this is legally and psychologically complex, traditional surrogates are rarely used.

The commissioning person or couple who is trying to have a baby with a gestational carrier's help is known as the intended parent or parents. While the gestational carrier carries the pregnancy and gives birth, the intended parents raise the child and are listed on the birth certificate as the actual parents. 

What is a Traditional Surrogate?

A traditional surrogate is someone who is genetically related to the child she is carrying. In other words, the surrogate's eggs will help conceive the child. A traditional surrogate may also be called a partial surrogate, natural surrogate, or just surrogate. The procedure is also sometimes known as straight surrogacy.

Sometimes, people refer to traditional surrogates as the “surrogate mother.” However, this isn’t a term that should ever be used. Referring to a surrogate or gestational carrier as a “surrogate mother” causes confusion regarding whom the intended mother or parent of the baby is. The mother of the baby is the intended mother. The surrogate is not the intended mother of the baby in a surrogacy arrangement, even if she is genetically related to the child.

In traditional surrogacy, the surrogate’s eggs are fertilized via an insemination procedure, so IVF is not required. The insemination may be via intrauterine insemination (IUI), where specially washed sperm cells are transferred directly to the uterus via a catheter, or another form of artificial insemination may be used. Alternative options to IUI are intracervical insemination and intravaginal insemination. 

Usually, the male intended parent provides a semen sample to the fertility clinic. There, it is cleaned and prepared by a fertility clinic. In other cases, a sperm donor is used. If a sperm donor is used in traditional surrogacy, there is an increased risk of legal complications. This is because the child is not related to the intended father or mother, but is genetically related to the surrogate. In this case, an adoption procedure may be required to establish parenthood for the intended parents.

Traditional surrogacy is riskier from a legal standpoint. Since the baby is genetically related to the surrogate, and she is giving birth to the baby, surrogacy contracts may be questioned if the surrogate changes her mind about giving the baby to the intended parents as originally planned. This may occur regardless of what papers are signed beforehand. 

Due to legal complications, traditional surrogacy is not recommended and is rarely used.

What Is a Gestational Carrier and Gestational Surrogacy?

A gestational carrier is a woman who is not genetically related to the child she carries for an intended parent or intended parents. Gestational surrogacy is also called IVF surrogacy, host surrogacy, or full surrogacy.

In gestational surrogacy, the egg and sperm are usually taken from the intended parents, as in an IVF procedure, and any resulting embryo is transferred to the gestational carrier. But this is not always the case. 

Other possibilities include...

  • the intended mother's egg along with a sperm donor
  • the use of an egg donor with an intended male parent's sperm
  • an egg donor with a sperm donor
  • an embryo donation

In some states and countries, a surrogacy arrangement can only take place if the baby is genetically related to at least one of the intended parents. In other locations, this is not a problem. In places where this is a problem, using both an egg and sperm donor, or using an embryo donor, may cause legal issues. 

Compensated vs. Compassionate Surrogacy

The term compensated surrogacy refers to an arrangement where the gestational carrier receives financial compensation above and beyond expenses. This is a legal arrangement in some states and countries. Another term for compensated surrogacy is commercial surrogacy, though this term is considered to be outdated. 

In some places, compensated surrogacy is illegal. The intended parents may pay for medical costs, legal costs, lost work, or other "reasonable expenses," but they cannot pay the gestational carrier purely for her role as a gestational carrier.

Surrogacy arrangements where there is no additional financial compensation beyond "reasonable expenses" is called compassionate surrogacy. An outdated term for compassionate surrogacy is altruistic surrogacy.

There are also places where any form of surrogacy is illegal, and contracts declaring the intended parents as the true parents are not recognized, valid, or enforceable. Surrogacy contracts may not be enforceable even in states or countries where surrogacy is technically legal, while other states and countries do enforce surrogacy contracts.

Due to the complexity of surrogacy arrangements, getting legal advice and consulting with an experienced psychologist about surrogacy is very important. Also, doing as much up-front research on surrogacy and other family-building options is essential to avoid potential problems or costly (emotional or financial) mistakes. 

Unfortunately, there are scammers out there looking to steal money from people looking for a gestational carrier. If an arrangement sounds too good to be true, walk away.

Who May Need a Gestational Carrier?

There are a variety of reasons why an intended parent (or parents) may need or want a gestational carrier to carry a baby for them. Some of those reasons include:

Who Can Be a Gestational Carrier?

Before you volunteer to be a gestational carrier to a friend or family member, be sure you understand everything you're getting into. Surrogacy is a beautiful gift you can give to someone you know or a stranger. However, it is also a highly involved process, medically and physically invasive, and emotionally trying. It's not uncommon for women to back out at the last minute, causing tremendous financial loss to the intended parents and great emotional pain.

Here's a short list of just some of the requirements to be a gestational carrier:

  • Be in good overall health, including being at a good weight.
  • Have had at least one healthy pregnancy and birth in the past.
  • Not have given up a child to adoption in the past.
  • Be older than 21 but younger than 35 (some exceptions may be made for a known gestational carrier).
  • Have health and life insurance.
  • Live in a surrogacy friendly state or country.
  • Be available and willing to attend many doctor appointments.
  • Be prepared to have vaginal ultrasounds and insemination (or embryo transfer) procedures.
  • Be willing to attend counseling, psychological and legal, before and possibly during surrogacy arrangement.
Was this page helpful?

Article Sources