VANCOUVER, Wash. - Becoming a mother was one of the best things that ever happened to Cari Byers of Vancouver. That love of family lead her to choose to help other women who couldn't carry a child on their own; twice Byers has agreed to be a surrogate mom for a local family.
"The first two surrogacies were pretty awesome experiences looking back," she said.
So when Byers was contacted to help a couple in China start a family following several miscarriages, she agreed.
"It was just pitched that they wanted a genetic child of their own. They tried and they had miscarriages," Byers explained.
She learned that many Chinese couples turn to American surrogates to carry a baby on their behalf.
It is expensive for the Chinese parents. The babies born here that return to China are called "million dollar babies" because the surrogate process, through delivery, really does cost the equivalent of one million U.S. dollars.
The surrogacy process
Byers was flown to Chicago and the U.S. headquarters of Yulane, the international surrogacy agency managing the match. In Chicago she met the intended parents.
It was during a subsequent visit to Chicago when Byers was inseminated with the embryo that she got worried.
She was supposed to be taken to cash an expense check, but said the man who picked her up was clearly drunk and had been out partying with a friend. The bank then wouldn't cash her check from Yulane because the signature was invalid.
She said the situation wasn't resolved until a day later when the company sent her a money order.
"So right then I'm like 'well, now I'm pregnant so what can I do now? I'm like stuck in this situation,'" Byers said. "I knew right then this was going to be a crazy nine months."
Five months into the pregnancy a test showed the baby boy had a 90 percent curvature of the spine and his organs were growing outside his body. As instructed by the intended parents, Byers decided to not carry the baby to full term.
"There were a lot of tears, a lot of tears," she said. "You don't get into it wanting to go through the death of a baby. You want to create a family."
It was around that time that Byers discovered something disturbing in an email forwarded to her by the surrogacy agency. Tucked into the messages was a reference to someone named Shannon and Chinese characters. Using Google Translate, Byers learned Yulane was reassuring the intended mother in China.
"Shannon has an appointment for genetic testing during pregnancy and to know the problem as soon as possible, identify problems," the email said.
"I was like, who's Shannon?" Byers remembered.
Further detective work revealed that Shannon had been simultaneously contracted as a surrogate for the intended parents in China. Shannon was pregnant with twins in Tennessee.
Byers was floored by the news.
"Of course they're not super upset. They have two babies coming," she said. "Of course they washed their hands of everything with this baby because they had two more."
We reached out to Yulane for comment on this story but they never responded.
Sandy Hodgson with the Northwest Surrogacy Center, who is not involved in any way with Byers' transaction, said it would be very rare for the two mothers to not know about each other. She said having simultaneous surrogates isn't unheard of, but it's uncommon.
Hodgson said if it does happen, all parties ought to be made aware.
"Our agency would certainly never, or as an attorney we would certainly never count on having double surrogacy going on without everybody knowing about it," Hodgson said.
Yulane's website does reference several times the idea of having two surrogate mothers as part of its "no risk" package, which basically guarantees a child or your money back. The company also profiles its surrogates, telling clients about their age, education and other views.
At one point in a video on the site, a man says in Mandarin "you are my forever angel mother."
Byers does not mince words: After what she went through, she doesn't feel much like an angel mother in the eyes of the company.
"My biggest regret was that I didn't research it, that I jumped into it," she said.
In the end, the Chinese couple did get the twins from Shannon in Tennessee. We learned that Shannon also did not realize there was a simultaneous surrogacy in Washington.
We're told despite that, she had nothing but positive things to say about her experience with Yulane.
It's not clear what would have happened if Byers had a healthy baby. Presumably the Chinese couple would have taken all three children.
Surrogacy is illegal in China, but babies born here are considered U.S. citizens, which helps the kids eventually get into American colleges later in life.