By Morgane Richardson
Angela Ferrell-Zabala, 39, and Fernanda Ferrell-Zabala, 32, have been on the journey to expanding their family through surrogacy and in vitro fertilization (IVF) since 2008. Their experience has been difficult due to health complications as well as legal and financial setbacks, but with the support of friends, family, and substantial community resources, they have managed to maintain agency over their choices.
Angela had what could be viewed as the typical American family. She lived in a beautiful home in the D.C. suburbs, had a successful career, and was married with twins. Then, in 2004, Angela made the decision to come out as a lesbian to her family and friends.
(This article originally appeared in ELIXHER Magazine’s Spring/Summer 2014 Issue. Support independent Black queer media and purchase here.)
“I am responsible for these children,” Angela says. “To ensure that they have the best life possible, I have to be the most honest person that I can be. And that means living my life out loud and living as who I feel and am supposed to be.”
After Angela’s separation from her husband, she went on Yahoo personal and dating ads and met Fernanda, who had just moved to the District. “It seemed like perfect timing for both of us,” Angela says.
Angela and Fernanda officially became a couple in late 2005 and were legally married in 2011. They knew almost immediately that they wanted to expand their family. “We are nurturing people. We always knew that we would bring at least another child into our family but we didn’t know what that would look like,” Angela says.
In 2008, the couple looked into cryobanks and interviewed close male friends to see if they would donate sperm to help the couple conceive. They found that many of their friends were afraid of the “commitment” that came with being a donor.
In August 2012, Angela and Fernanda attended a workshop at the Jewish Community Center for queer couples wanting to extend their families. The workshop provided an overview of the different ways to become parents and the legal support to achieve it.
“We came out of that event so energized,” says Angela. “We were pretty excited that we had a lot of options in the District.”
Washington, D.C., is one of the most supportive U.S. states when it comes to reproductive health technologies and options for queer families. But even so, major complications remain—for male-identifying same-sex couples, the process can seem impossible. Angela and Fernanda realized this when they tried to work together with close friends, a male couple, to achieve the family dreams of both pairs. Angela had offered to be a compassionate gestational carrier for the male couple while she carried the child she planned to bear with Fernanda. It wasn’t until they started the process that they discovered surrogacy was illegal in the District, and so the door closed on that option.
Angela and Fernanda then decided to conceive a child together through IVF. Angela would be the gestational carrier, as she had already had a successful pregnancy, and Fernanda would provide the eggs. They chose an anonymous African American sperm donor who was willing to reveal his identity once the child reached the age of 18. Then, in September 2013, Angela and Fernanda found out that there were health issues that would make the pregnancy high-risk. Fernanda was going through early menopause; Angela found out she had fibroids that would drastically increase her chance for miscarriage (Black women are at greater risk of developing uterine fibroids).
“It wasn’t an easy process,” says Angela. “I’m talking about painful shots, long needles, surgery. It doesn’t feel good when you are altering your body at the rate that we were.”
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) lists the average cost of one basic IVF cycle in the U.S. as $12,400, and Fernanda and Angela’s costs were doubled due to health complications. Fifteen U.S. states currently have laws that require insurance companies to cover the cost of treatments, but only if you are “infertile.” Faced with paying for the entire treatment up front, Angela and Fernanda saved money and took out loans—but it still wasn’t enough.
“It was frustrating,” Angela says. “It’s out of reach for many people. It’s not an inexpensive process if you decide to have medical interventions and if you want to do it right legally. We had to save up and plan and so we did that.”
Last July, they hosted an online fundraiser to harness the financial support of family and friends. With outside contributions, Angela and Fernanda have been able to continue the process of conceiving.
The journey to parenthood for the couple has been both liberating and lonely.
“I feel like I have agency as far as making my plans and in making choices based on good information that I have. I never felt pushed back into a corner. But it’s also a fine lesson in recognizing that you can’t control everything. My body also has agency over me because it decides if there are medical things that I can’t control. But I have choices to make around the things that pop up,” says Angela.
Support and community resources have provided the couple with the ability to make informed decisions for themselves, their family, and their community. Yet they have also had to carry the burden of educating others by sharing personal information about their bodies. “I don’t know how many couples out there, straight, queer, or anywhere in between, have to actually disclose so much information—very intimate, medical information—about their body,” adds Angela. “It can be a very lonely place.”
Angela and Fernanda’s story doesn’t end here. The couple currently has four of Fernanda’s embryos waiting to be transferred to Angela’s womb. Angela will visit her doctor to learn if her body is able to continue with IVF. If given the “go-ahead,” as the couple says, all four embryos will be thawed and the best of the one’s that survive will be implanted. This will be the couple’s last shot at conceiving together as Fernanda no longer has eggs to fertilize.
“No matter how much you try to anticipate what will happen, it’s out of your hands. Science, faith, love, and support take center stage. Be patient with your caregivers, your partner, and most of all yourself,” the couple shares. “Whatever outcome you land, it doesn’t determine your worth as a person. There is actually an amazing amount of growth and self awareness that happens in the process.”
Morgane Veronique Richardson is a fourth wave antiracist feminist—approaching her generation’s inherited economic, environmental, and social issues with a progressive mindset, practical implementation, and innovative flair. In 2008, she founded Refuse the Silence: Women of Color in Academia Speak Out (www.refusethesilence.com) to reconcile the existing hegemony within elite academia with the desire for diverse campuses. Morgane is currently working as a full-time doula in NYC and lives with her wife, Alexandra, and their dog Joplin.