Surrogacy Terms: Gestational Carrier vs. Surrogate

Gestational carrier. Gestational surrogate. Surrogate. Surrogate mother.

These words are used, often interchangeably, to describe a woman who carries a child for intended parents. So why do these different surrogacy terms exist? And which one is the right one to use?

Let’s start by distinguishing the two types of surrogacy – traditional surrogacy and gestational surrogacy.

surrogacy-termsIn a traditional surrogacy, the woman who carries a pregnancy for intended parents also shares a genetic connection to the child or children she carries. Because only the intended father (or a sperm donor) contributes genetic material, the pregnancy can be achieved through artificial insemination (a procedure that allows sperm to be inserted directly into the fallopian tubes, cervix, or the uterus of the woman who will carry the child).

Until the development of in vitro fertilization (IVF) in 1978, traditional surrogacy was the only type of surrogacy possible. IVF is a technique that allows embryos to be created outside the womb. In the procedure, eggs from an intended mother or egg donor are retrieved through a surgical procedure. They are then fertilized with the sperm from an intended father or sperm donor.

The use of IVF led to the second type of surrogacy—gestational surrogacy. Since the 1990s, gestational surrogacy has grown to become the more popular type of surrogacy and it is now almost the only type of surrogacy arranged by surrogacy agencies. Some estimates suggest that 99 percent of today’s surrogacy arrangements involve a gestational surrogate.

With the introduction of new technology and the growing use of IVF, people needed a way to distinguish between women who were acting as traditional surrogates from those who became pregnant for intended parents through IVF and embryo transfer.

As Circle’s Legal Director, Dean Hutchison, explained in a letter in the Irish Times in March, “surrogates have been referred to as gestational carriers for the past 20 years. It is the legal term that was used by the first court to distinguish traditional surrogates, who relinquished their own genetic child, from women who were merely carrying the child of another.”

Gestational carrier, or GC for short, more clearly differentiates a woman who lacks a genetic connection to the child she carries for intended parents, as it doesn’t involve the use of the world “surrogate” – a term which, by itself, in the past, connoted a genetic relationship.

gestational carrier vs surrogateDespite the growth of surrogacy in recent years and the growing number of celebrities who have opened up about their surrogacy experiences, many people still aren’t aware that, with few exceptions, today’s surrogates aren’t genetically related to the children to whom they give birth.

In that way, “gestational carrier” has an advantage in clarity. It’s a term that has grown to be used frequently by courts and lawyers. The use of “surrogate mother” in Baby M (1989), “gestational surrogate” in Johnson v. Calvert (1993), and “gestational carrier” in Hodas v. Morin (2004) shows not only the shift in the technology of surrogacy, but also a shift in the language of surrogacy.

Some prefer the term gestational surrogate, or GS for short, because they feel “gestational carrier” doesn’t capture the complete experience of being a surrogate or feels less personal. Minette Breitenberg, a former surrogate, says the term surrogate “does offer an element of the ‘personal’ that ‘gestational carrier’ does not… for that time period, the carrier’s relationship with the baby (ies) and the Intended Parents is VERY personal.”

So which is the right surrogacy term to use? The answer is simple: whichever makes you comfortable. We use surrogate and gestational carrier interchangeably at Circle, except in situations (as in the legal context) where their slight differences are important. If you’re a surrogate or an intended parent, you can discuss with each other whether you have a preference for the words you use.

And this above all: Use whichever surrogacy terms feel right for you!

Which surrogacy term do you prefer? We want to hear. Tell us in the comments below!

Learn more about becoming a gestational surrogate