In 2001, Tabitha Koh was mid-interview for an office manager and bookkeeper position at Northwest Surrogacy Center (NWSC) when the agency's co-founders, John Chally and Sandra Hodgson, took a moment to get serious with her.
"They informed me that the agency works with a lot of diverse families, including a lot of gay ones," Tabitha recalled. So it would be extremely important, John and Sandra stressed, that Tabitha display a high level of comfort with and acceptance of LGBTQ families."I assured them it wouldn't be an issue," Tabitha laughed, who lives with her wife and two kids in Portland, and now works as the agency's Director of Legal Services.
It's a funny anecdote the trio now fondly laughs about today — but it also underscores how carefully NWSC has sought to earn its reputation as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly surrogacy agencies in the country.
"From the beginning, we've believed that it doesn't matter who you are, gay, straight or whatever, you should be able to build the family that you want," John said.
As one of the longest-running surrogacy agency businesses in the country, NWSC has also proven that this focus on inclusivity is more than just a good moral guidepost — it's good business, too. Over the last quarter-century, the agency — which maintains offices in California, Oregon and Washington — has developed into one of the largest and most successful surrogacy agencies in the country. They are a top choice for queer parents, too — well over 50 percent of their clientele identify as LGBTQ.
So how (and why?) did John and Sandra, two straight lawyers with over 60 years combined experience in family law, create an agency that's become a leading choice of the LGBTQ community?
Interestingly, the answers for both John and Sandra have roots in a completely different path to parenthood common for many LGBTQ people:adoption. Through each of their individual legal practices, John and Sandra, together and separately, came to develop a set of ethical standards that guided their adoption work — and which would later form the basis of their surrogacy agency as well.
John, who was been practicing adoption law since 1975, said he first became interested in the area of adoption thanks to his mother's work as a nurse. "She was engaged in issues around pregnancy, abortion and adoption, so I already understood and had an appreciation for these issues."
In 1985, after a decade of helping connect birth mothers with adoptive families as part of his private practice, John co-foundedOpen Adoption & Family Services (OA&FS). In the early days of its existence, OA&FS made waves for agreeing to happily work with LGBTQ parents — something many other agencies, even progressive, non-religious ones, refused to do at the time.
John vividly remembers the day when the first same-sex couple walked through the doors of OA&FS hoping to use their services to become parents. It was in the late 1980s, not long after the agency's founding, but many years before adoption by LGBTQ couples was commonplace and legal in every state across the United States.
"I'd honestly never considered the possibility of working with gay couples until that moment," he recalled. But once presented with the opportunity, he didn't think twice. "Well why wouldn't I?" John said simply. He recalled two gay friend she had had in college to help illustrate why he was so uncharacteristically accepting of LGBTQ parenthood at the time. "I watched them fall in love, saw it up close," he said. "I couldn't think of a single reason not to help people like my friends."
OA&FS's commitment to inclusivity was not universally accepted, however. As its base of parents became increasingly LGBTQ, "we lost a lot of clients when that information got out there," John admitted. But what the agency lost in narrow-minded clients, they gained in LGBTQ ones. Today, OA&FS's client base — which is roughly 40 percent LGBTQ — benefit from more domestic adoption placements than any other agency in the Pacific Northwest.
Sandra joined John's law practice in 1988 and started practicing adoption at that time. She had friends in high school and college who were gay and lesbian and felt that it was both natural and important to help members of the LGBTQ community become parents. In the early 1990's she started representing parties in surrogacy matters and understood that the legal, social, and family formation issues in surrogacy weren't that dissimilar from those involved in adoption.
"There wasn't much law governing surrogacy in 1994, and you still had to establish the rights of the parents," she said, explaining that a surrogate, just like a birth mother, still needed to consent to relinquishing her rights, and intended parents still needed to undergo a home study and adoption process. Fortunately, the legal process has changed and most intended parents now obtain parentage judgments before birth.
Sandra's practice grew to include more and more surrogacy work, and she found herself doing both legal work and case management work. Sandra was familiar with surrogacy and adoption and not only was John an adoption attorney at the law firm, Bouneff Chally and Koh, but he also knew how to start an agency. It made sense to form Northwest Surrogacy Center, a surrogacy program focused on locating, screening, matching intended parents with surrogates, and facilitating their surrogacy process. The legal process and John and Sandra's experience of building families was well within their normal comfort zones.
And thus, in 1994, Northwest Surrogacy Center was born.
Inclusivity wasn't the only principle John and Sandra borrowed from their adoption experience when they first ventured into the surrogacy realm. Both stressed the importance of open adoptions in their practices, meaning there is some level of contact between the birth and adoptive parents.
Open adoptions were far more unusual in the 1980s, when many questioned the wisdom of maintaining contact between birth and adoptive families. But overtime, they've become standard practice, thanks in large part to recent research showing the beneficial outcomes between all parties.
It simply made sense, John and Sandra said, to apply the same level of openness and community building within their surrogacy business. "We're really focused on creating space for our clients to connect with one another and other surrogates," John said. One of the ways they do so is through events for current and prospective intended parents. Last year, John and Sandra attended a conference in Paris, France attended by 163 mostly gay past and current clients. "To look at the energy in the room, and the care and concern of these parents, was just a wonderful experience," John said.
NWSC stresses the importance of the relationship between intended parents and surrogates."I think it's because of our adoption experience that we really try to create a healthy relationship between intended parents and a surrogate and her family," John said.
To achieve that goal, the agency conducts a rigorous matching process that is rare among agencies. Some agencies ask intended parents to first choose a potential surrogate from among many listed on an online database prior to completing the full vetting process. While on the surface this provides intended parents with more choice, it also increases the likelihood that a match will fall through. NWSC, in contrast, invests considerable time and resources matching individual surrogates with intended parents in an effort to establish the best possible fit.
According to independent reviews of surrogacy agencies on Men Having Babies, a non-profit dedicated to helping gay men pursue surrogacy, the thoroughness of NWSC's matching-process is among its most valued features. One reviewer referred to Sandra as a "gifted matcher." Another intended parent credited the agency for matching them with "one of the finest people we've ever met."
Since Tabitha has joined the organization, she has worked with John and Sandra to continue growing the organization and its support for LGBTQ people. Perhaps the biggest change, she said, has been in their work with international LGBTQ clients. "There are lots of places where surrogacy isn't really available to anyone," she said. "And even if it is, it's often not available to gay couples and individuals."
As a result, NWSC has steadily increased the services they provide to overseas couples. While a majority of their domestic clients are LGBTQ, nearly all of their new international clients are gay men or couples. "It's been an interesting process working with people from around the world," Tabitha said. With surrogacy law still in its infancy in most other countries, "it's a bit of a window into how far we've come in this country in terms of the law."
Since 1994, NWSC has seen a lot change — with respect to the law, medicine and societal acceptance — that has made it easier than ever for LGBTQ people to become parents via surrogacy. The agency has often been at the vanguard of these efforts. But for the professionals at NWSC, change hasn't come quickly enough — and it still hasn't reached enough corners of the world.
"It would be great to see a day when none of this is special," John said. He noted a recent instance, while working with a gay couple from France who said the best part of the experience was traveling to NWSC's Portland office and being treated like just any other family. "That's our clients' overwhelming experience when they come to our offices," John said. "And that's great, but I want to see the day when gay intended parents can experience that same feeling everywhere."
At least while we wait (and fight) for that version of the world to take hold, NWSC will still be there — its work guided by deeply-rooted principles of inclusivity, openness and community building, etched into the fabric of the business over its 25-year history.