In the pioneer episode of The Family Circle, Kristin Marsoli, Circle Surrogacy & Egg Donation's Director of Marketing, interviews Circle founder John Weltman.
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Hello, and welcome to the family circle podcast. I am Kristin marsali Circle surrogacies, director of marketing and more importantly, I'm also a parent through surrogacy with circle. I am so excited to be hosting circles very, very first podcast episode, and to be speaking with our special guest none other than Mr. John Weltman. John is the founder of circle surrogacy and egg donation. He is a lawyer and he is also a parent through surrogacy to two boys. I'm calling them boys, but they're actually adults now. So welcome, John, I am so excited to be chatting with you today.
My pleasure. Cristian, nice to talk to you as well.
I can't imagine anyone else being the very first guest on this podcast, then circle surrogacy is all about growing families. I would love to just start our chat, John, by having you talk a little bit about your family, how and when you began thinking about having a family and what that was like for you?
Well, Kristin, I think I've always wanted a family, I was the oldest of four children. And I used to teach swimming to kids, I used to bring my brother and sister along on dates with women with me, I suppose that's a bad sign, an indication that I was gay early on, but I just loved having kids around. And so it just never crossed my mind not to have kids. I think one of the most challenging things about coming out in the early 80s Was that at that point in time, there just was no option for gay men to have children. And that, to me was an absolute. And really, from the very beginning of my relationship with my husband, I was talking to him about having kids and making sure that he would be okay with that. Because if anyone had ever had them, I wanted to do it. I'd seen an article about a man who had adopted three children in their teenage years who was gay. And I said, I want to do it. And my being gay isn't going to stop me. But I don't want to be with someone who wasn't okay with that.
So you mentioned the very funny story on how you used to take brothers and sisters along on dates with you. And you said that might have been a very early sign that you were gay, what was it like growing up gay and then finally coming out to your parents?
Well, I'm not sure that I would have said I grew up gay. I don't think a my generation was quite as comfortable as today's generation are. I had experiences early on in life with other guys. But I mostly did women until I was in my early 20s. And so I really didn't come out until I was about 24.
And what was that like with your family?
It wasn't a good experience. For me. My mother's response was that I was dead. My father's response was that he wished I'd told him when I first started having experiences in my early teens, because then maybe he could have gotten me to what would today be called Conversion therapy. And they weren't good about it at all. I felt that over time, they changed dramatically. My being strong in myself, the world changing, my getting married, having children, all those sorts of things, made them more and more comfortable. And they were very, very excited about being grandparents. So that was helpful.
Oh, I think all parents get excited at the prospect of being grandparents.
We'll talk about that later. So you knew you wanted to have kids? You know, the world in general was much different back then. It's a lot more open talking about gay men having kids now but back then it was a little bit different. So did you know it was going to be surrogacy? Or how did you even start to begin growing a family or even thinking about growing a family?
The conversation began with My future husband, and talking to him within about nine months of the relationship beginning about not really wanting he and I to move back to Boston where we had both decided to go for work. And I had grown up from Virginia where we met when I was in law school and who was in nursing school about that absolute fact that I wanted to have kids. And I think at first he thought I was holding on to my long lost heterosexuality, and ultimately realized that I was serious. And his response was, I love kids. And you know, if it's feasible to do, then I'm open to doing it. So that was the very first step. For years following that there really wasn't much discussion, we weren't really ready. I wanted to get married first. And so we talked about that, for me being the center of attention, having a big wedding was something I love the idea of, and he was much more introverted. And it really wasn't until about 88, that the Unitarian church first accepted gay unions as something they would have commitment ceremonies and see if a spiritual marriage, that was when we got married. And really what happened following that was that we each lost, in my case, two of my closest friends, in his case, one of his closest friends, at one to AIDS, one to leukemia, and one to breast cancer. And it just brought to the fore for me the importance of having in my life, which could be short, the most important thing in the world, which was children. And at that point, he was not as keen on it as he had been seven years earlier. He liked our life, our freedom, our ability to travel, but he was reticent. And we entered into a couples counseling session at which at the very first session, he said reality was that he wasn't so averse to it as he was afraid for the children, and what life might be like for them. And so we spent really a couple of years discussing how to have children that really didn't venture down the journey of looking into both what way to have children and with what agency to do that.
So John, when you were thinking about and starting to be ready to grow your family feel you probably had two options as a gay man as a gay couple, either adoption or surrogacy. So how did you start to think through those two options to determine which one would be best for you?
I went to a place called the Fenwick Community Health Center in Boston, which had a woman running their artificial insemination program for lesbians, who was herself a parent with a gay couple of shared custody arrangement with a child. And she referred me to the guy who was putting together a group for gay men interested in parenting. And because they had no materials there, they referred me to center kids in New York to find materials on adoption and surrogacy. That group sent me about four inches of materials on each one and I come to them really looking for the how tos because I think in our couples counseling sessions, my husband and I really decided that surrogacy was the better option for us than adoption. His concern was not knowing what you would get by just having the fact that there was a woman who you would know very little about, and a man who you might know nothing about. From my perspective, my desire to have a genetic child was large piece of the reason for my wanting to do surrogacy. So we focused on surrogacy and I combed through the four inches of surrogacy material to focus on an article from 1987 in the advocate a gay magazine that talked about the two places in America that were working with gay men to help them have children. I reached out to Kathy Wycoff and and had a wonderful conversation in which she fulfilled my wildest dreams, which were of possibly finding a single surrogate who might carry both of our children so that they would be genetically related to each other. In that timeframe. 1991 There had been the development of gestational surrogacy in about 1990 for heterosexual couples. So the only option for gay parents was to do traditional surrogacy, where you inseminated a woman and she carried your own child and then give it up to in the form of adoption.
So you find an agency you have a lovely conversation with Kathy, what does the process look like from there? How did she go about finding you a surrogate?
Well, I might start by pointing out the Kathy Wycoff was a very special person. She herself was, I believe, the third surrogate in America. And she was about the third person who actually called on behalf of a friend This doctor to say, how do I find the surrogate and the doctor convinced her to be a surrogate. So she had had three children. She was then a surrogate herself. Then for a variety of reasons. She ended up with a hysterectomy. She met another gentleman. And then he wanted to have a child. And so she ended up having a child with one of her surrogates through surrogacy, so she'd been a surrogate, she'd run an agency and she had a child through surrogacy. So she was very special in that respect. In addition, when she came to visit us in Boston, and as she flew in, she handed me this child who was nine months old at the time, which is my one of my favorite ages for children, black hair, blue eyed, gorgeous kid and said, Here, hold him while I go get my bags. And there, I was standing at the curbside thinking, Oh, my goodness, I could drive home with this perfect child. It's everything I ever wanted. And she doesn't even know where I live. The trust that she exhibited was extraordinary. She spent the entire day with us. And we were playing with this little boy just delighting in him, and he was playing with our dogs. And when she left, we turned to each other and said, Okay, I want to go first. And Cliff said, No, I want to go first. And so we had this battle over who was going to go first, we signed the contract with her, I think by November, because one of the big issues was, this was going to cost I think she said $35,000 range, but ended up being more like $45,000 range. And that's, you know, 30 years ago now. So we didn't have that kind of money. So we had to sort of look to others to do that. And my parents were very generous, as was Cliff's brother in law and my grandmother in sort of helping us financially be able to figure out how to afford that. So we finally signed with her a contract, but to this day forms the basis for circles agreement for services, which then led to waiting around for a surrogate who was willing to work with a gay couple.
I'd love to hear more about what it was like meeting your surrogate and developing a relationship with her in those early years as because she went on to carry both of your children. So you had from what it sounds like a wonderful relationship with her. And I know she's very, very special to your family. But I'd love to hear what those those early days were like as you got to know each other.
Well, I think the reason Susan stood out, she quickly impressed us when she walked into a Denny's carrying her one and three quarter year old under her arm and brought out 43 questions asking us everything from Do you believe in spanking to what would you want me to do? If the child ended up having Down syndrome? Would you want me to abort it or not? And we hadn't even really thought about these questions. And we said, well, we weren't opposed to spanking, although we really would prefer not to if we could, and we had no idea what to answer to the second question, we asked her, What would you want us to do? And she said, Well, I guess I want you to tell me to abort it. But I would consider that to be your choice. And not mine, because it's your baby. And we thought that was a very good answer and really impressed us about her. So we were quite taken with her from the very, very beginning. I am still in touch with Susan, some 29 years after I met her on a every few months basis. And I absolutely adore and still have a wonderful relationship with her.
Oh, that's wonderful. I didn't know that. I love the story you tell about the two of you arguing on who got more out of the surrogacies. I think it was even on TV, you guys were arguing, but I love when you tell that story.
So I don't know if it's still on television. But for many years, it was a show called The Entertainment Tonight and one of the first posts was a woman named Lisa Gibbons and Lizzie Givens left the show started her own talk show. And she invited Susan and I onto that puck show and ask the question that sort of led to the comment about who got more out of the surrogacy, shear I and I said, Well, I have two kids, and what did you get? And she said, the best experience of my life and you made me feel so good about myself. And she has talked to me later, but the fact that she was able to stand up to her mother about some things that she'd never done before, that she was able to go on for more schooling and get a better job, because the entire experience in servicing made her feel so good about herself. So I actually begin to believe that maybe in fact, the surrogates get at least as much if not more than we as parents do out of the surrogacy experience, and believe to this day that it is the most joyous way of having a child on the planet and the most secure
the relationship between intended parents and gestational carriers through surrogacy journeys is truly amazing. And I know it is one of the the building blocks of circle on it. It sounds like your personal experience with Susan really helped to shape that.
I think it really started with Kathy Wycoff. So Kathy is no longer in business as a Surrogate Parenting agency. But her experience doing surrogacy back in the early 70s Was that you gave this child up to the parents for adoption, and you never saw that child. And to this day, to my knowledge, Cathy has never seen the child she gave up. That was very challenging for her. And she built a program that basically said that surrogates had to meet the parents had to maintain a relationship with them. And I thought that was critical. I also found during the course of my surrogacy, that the fact that we had a relationship with Susan was not just important in terms of during the course of the surrogacy, which had many challenges in it, but also afterwards, when the children wanted to get to know her and things like that.
How did raising your boys and answering any of their questions? How did that sort of shape your view of surrogacy because I think it's important to mention that your boys were born through surrogacy before you even began working professionally with surrogacy. So your first experience with surrogacy was a personal one. And how did that sort of shape how you went on to work professionally with surrogacy?
Well, I think that my eldest son was born in 1994. And the youngest one was born in 1995. And I didn't start the program until October of 1995. So it'd be 26 years old this year. And I think my hesitation had been that I considered family law to be something that always involved divorce. And having been involved in family disputes. As a commercial litigator, I found that to be really challenging and something I didn't want to get involved in. So I really wasn't interested in being involved in surrogacy, what happened for me was that I had done some legal work for the Surrogate Parenting agency, both in terms of drafting contracts. And then when they were sued for malpractice, they asked me to represent them in a malpractice suit, which we won, and then was appealed by the other side, and we won the appeal and got a tremendous amount of press. So I started getting calls from all over the country saying, Would you help me with surrogacy and again, I would say I was not an agency. I wasn't a social worker. I didn't know how to pick a surrogate. And I didn't really want to get involved in surrogacy, but I could do a contract for them. So I basically went into this process, because one of the people who hired me to do a contract for her who was a physician who had found two potential women to be her surrogate, both of whom passed all the psychological and medical tests. And when she picked the nurse sent me a package on a Friday afternoon saying match me. And I was saying myself, haha, comes in at three o'clock on a Friday afternoon. On Monday, I'm going to call her and tell her sorry, don't do this. And was talking to a friend at a cousin's brunch, who conveyed to a couple who had been working with a California agency they didn't have a very good experience with and called me and asked, Could we possibly work with your surrogate? And I said, well, not an agency. And they said, Well, you know how it goes well, and we know how it goes badly. And I said, Well, I wouldn't know what to charge you. And they said, How about $5,000? And I said, Okay, well, I think there was about $27,000 Just of legal work involved, but I did help them and they were successful in about 11 months and having a baby that launched the program for me, because at that occasion, they had a breast Jewish circumcision for the baby and pass the baby up the family line, which I've actually never seen before since. And that person hold the job before them was me as a way to say thank you the most for what you've done. And I found myself welling up with tears thinking, wow, I've been trading money between big companies as a commercial litigator for many years. But I've never done anything as meaningful as this and I'd like to do it and from their bathroom called my friend who had introduced me to surrogacy in the first place at the Fenway center, and she was a social worker and said, I wouldn't have a slice if you had to find another surrogate. But I didn't have to do illegal work, maybe together, we could create something. And as that progressed, my experience with my own children, led the way to my forming the type of agency it was. So that began in 95 When my kids were one and a few months old, but it was the events of of later years that really led to how circle developed. And in particular, when my eldest entered school, and that was just nursery school kids would come up to him and tell him that he had to have a mother that their mommy and daddy said that, you know that he couldn't have two dads, they had to have a mother. So he came home one night and asked, where's my mom? And we said, California, and she didn't have any questions for like, two years. And so okay, just add. So the question asked is people say, and you answer, honestly, and I did, and there were no more questions. So about two years later, he asked, Can I meet her? And I said, you already have? And he said, I don't remember. And we said, Okay. And then we had to talk to Susan, because first of all, the other one was only four. And we're quite sure he was ready, because he hadn't asked the questions. But second of all, we wanted to think about how that would go. So we decided to take a trip to California, where he visited a heterosexual couple who were when they were pregnant, about to have a baby. And so they could see a little bit of what that might be like. And I remember at a stoplight, when Zachary said, Well, in my case, how did the seed get in there? And luckily, my husband was able to say what in your case, the doctor put the seat in there, enough to answer the sex question at age five. But I recall that we set things up with Susan, where we spent those first five days in San Francisco, we decided we would spend Monday, Wednesday and Friday have a five day visit to her seeing her but Tuesday and Thursday, reminding them that we were their family by taking them one day to Disney and one day to Universal Studios. And we also said we weren't ready for them to meet her mother and her daughter and all those things. But it was so clear from the very first meeting with her that they really liked her that she really liked them. But they kept looking back at us to make sure that it was okay. That it ended up being alright to introduce them to her mother. And her daughter met them and was reading stories to them. And they love that. And so it became really just a love fest. But we had talked to her as well about what they would call her. And we decided that Susan was better than mommy that actually was her suggestion. And so when Zachary on the second day with her, which was Wednesday, said, Mommy, can you help me with this puzzle? And I gasped. She said, You can call me Susan. And I guess but again, and he said, Well, Susan, can you help me with this puzzle? And I was like, that worked perfectly. We were going home to Boston, my son turned to me and he said, Well, you she knows she's not really my mother. She's more my birth mother. And I was like the good answer. And you know, when those days since we're the very first, I guess, American couple that have a child, each of us through the same surrogate mom, nobody leading the way telling us what the PC proper titles were for these people. And so I use that from that point forward. I think the last question that I recall being asked by either one of them was about when my older son was 13. And he asked me if he was a bastard. I said, Well, how do you define bastard? And I'm a lawyer, what can I do? And he said, Were you married to my other dad? At the time you had me? And I said, Yes, I was. And about 20 minutes later, came back to me and said, How do you define bastard? And I thinking at the time he was 13, which is one of the most difficult ages you can have a kid said, Well, were you? Was I married to your mother at the time I had you? Is it No, no, I don't care. And so that was the answer to all the questions that came along. But I think that those questions said to me, kids want to know where they came from. And they may want to meet the person who brought them into the world. So not just having a relationship with a surrogate during the course of the process, and allowing her to meet the child as Kathy Wycoff had wanted to do. But also allowing the children to continuing that relationship so their children could later meet the surrogate was a really important thing, because not every kid I know agency heads, who have children through surrogacy, who have never asked anything about meeting their gestational carrier, and that's fine. But I think that some kids will want to and that that ability to do that is really important. And it dispels a lot of mystery for kids. All those things affected how circle has today relationships that last with surrogates known donation that it's had from the very outset so that it's possible to later meet the donor and carry on information about it. I've had many people who had anonymous donors come to where their kids are like seven or eight and start asking questions who want to get back in touch with the donors and we always keep information about donors, so we can always put them back I can touch. So from my perspective, those are things that have led, I think circle to a place where it was one of the smallest agencies, one of the newest in 1995, and is now one of the oldest and most successful, because I think we had our eye on what was best, first and foremost for the children, because of my experience.
I remember John, my own personal surrogacy story, I actually met with you in New York for my consultation. And I remember you telling me that what was most important to you? Was the baby. And was this baby going to come into a great home? And how did we plan to raise the baby. And I know, that's something that that circle talks about today. And it's part of the conversations that circle has with intended parents, just making sure that everybody is is ready to bring this baby into their lives and love them like they deserve to be loved.
I think that's a very, very important thing. I've said this to people for years that my primary concern is about the children and to make sure that they're going to come into a loving home, children are raised by a village. And so I think that whenever there's a third party involved in helping people have children, the most important question to ask is, What have you done to think about having children and how this is going to change your busy working lives? What happens when your nanny quits in the same day, you have a very big meeting and the other person is on a work trip? And isn't at home? How are you going to manage that? I'm always asking those questions if parents for our program. So I think that having children is the number one concern has probably made a lot of sense to a lot of people and made it another reason that circle has been so successful.
John, so much of what you've shared with us today about your personal experience, your relationship with your surrogate, and how you raised your boys and how you addressed their questions. And even when you shared the list of questions that Susan asked you when you guys met at the restaurant, so much of that shaped circles foundation, but it's been 25 years, almost 26 years, what has changed in the surrogacy industry in those 26 years, but what has absolutely stayed the same that circle.
I think the number one change is the movement from traditional surrogacy to gestational surrogacy. Once if you follow the track of IVF it gives you an understanding of why that development happened. The first IVF baby Louise Brown was born in 1978 and surrogacy began in 79. The first egg donation was done around 84. And by donation followed through a donation agencies right around then the first gestational carriers situation where we were doctors in California, realized that you could have someone carry for someone else whose uterus was filled with fibroids or had lost it during cancer or whatever it might be, had happened about 9090. And it wasn't until about 1995 that could combine the two and do a gestational surrogacy with an egg donation. And the legal system did not like traditional surrogacy every state had a law. Now Arkansas is different. But every other every state had a law. That said when a woman is carrying her own genetic child to term that is her baby and to have a contract that says it's not her baby it belongs to you, is in violation of the law. It's an illegal void from the outset contract and can't be enforced. So cases like baby M about Mary Beth Whitehead gave rights to traditional surrogates pretty consistently. And that made that a legally risky proposition. Although in 98 99% of the cases like ours, there was no problems that weren't any fights. It was not a secure contract. When gestational carriers came along. The courts effectively said this is a different scenario. We're have a woman carrying a child that is not genetically related to her, and therefore because we have no law in California on the subject, it isn't illegal. It isn't an illegal contract isn't a valid binding contract, and we're going to enforce it and because it said the intended parents get the child, that was the way it went. Well, there have been about four cases since then that I can think of that went deeper into decisions where surrogates disputed gone in favor of the intended parents. So it's pretty close to 100% secure in the United States now that people having a child who gestational surrogacy whether there's an egg donor involved or not, are the parents of that child. The other thing is the number of states that have gone from when I first did this, where basically, that decision came down in 93. When I was we were already pregnant with Zachary. So there are literally been no legal decisions except for things like the very Beth White Case, from 86 that were against surrogacy, decisions have come more and more and more consistently in favor. So legally, it is now a very sound framework for surrogacy. Finally, because I was struggling to find doctors who for a set fee would make a price point that parents could be assured of to make sure they had a child that they didn't enter this process without security that in the end, they'd have a child. I ended up moving from doctors in Connecticut, all the way up to a doctor in California, because he realized that as a business proposition, adding a $10,000 to his fees when he was getting, you know, 90 plus percent successful by the second try with IVF transfers would allow him to guarantee a baby for people. And that became huge and everyone wanted that. So I see those as big changes in surrogacy.
John, I have one last question for you. What is the one thing you'd say to somebody who either may not believe in surrogacy or may feel that surrogacy could be detrimental to those involved or even the babies born through surrogacy? That it's not the right way? To have a family? What would you say to somebody,
you're wrong? Get an education. In the first grade, my children had a family section of the themes for the year. And I brought a movie called that's a family for them to show and they did show it. It was a Levin different seven year old kids talking about their families, everything from mom and dad, families to single parents to gay families. And one woman in particular was very upset about this saying, you know, why didn't you tell us before you showed this to our children, my child, I didn't want them to think that that's an okay way to have a family. And she was open to seeing the film. And when she did, she started talking in words of fear rather than words of anger. And it was a first step forward, because she educated herself. So I say, educate yourself, learn about it. Talk to a surrogate from circle sometime, learn what her motivation is, learn how she felt about it. Try to understand better why so many people like yourself, Christian, who have a child through surrogacy and working in this field. Similarly, with the surrogates and the egg donors, it's so rewarding.
John, thank you so much for joining us today. I love your story. I love hearing you tell it I loved speaking with you today and I'm so excited to have you be our very first podcast guest. It was wonderful to talk to you today.
My pleasure Christian, always happy to be of service and share a little piece of what brought me to this field that has brought me such joy in helping other people build their families, including you.
We are forever grateful. And thank you all for listening as we chatted with John Weltman, Dad through surrogacy lawyer and the founder of circle surrogacy and egg donation. Until next time
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