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The second floor of Crystal Travis-McRae's townhome in Laurel, Md. is about as full of playtime paraphernalia as a room can get.
Crayons, light sabers, Dora the Explorer dolls... it's all here. And it needs to be. McRae has a 4-year-old son, Mark, along with 2-year old twins: Alec, and his sister, Elle.
"I love being a mom, I always wanted to be a mother," she says. "It's a lot more work than what I thought, but I enjoy it. I'm glad the kids are here, and it's made a huge difference in this journey, this part of our lives."
But arriving at parenthood wasn't an easy journey for Crystal and her husband Colin. She is 50 and he is 52, and they only started trying after Crystal turned 40. A couple of miscarriages led them to the process of in vitro fertilization, or IVF.
"I had been pregnant twice, before, and then I started an IVF protocol, and I didn't like the chemical," she says. "I decided that I didn't want to do that since we have to use an egg donor anyway."
The couple next explored adoption, and even began taking their county's 27-week adoption class. But they soon discovered that Howard County had few infant children available. Then Crystal remembered an article a friend had sent her about surrogacy in India.
"So I Googled one doctor, sent her an email, and she replied," recalls Crystal. "And I said OK, we'll catch a plane, and we'll see you in two weeks, just to see if this is legit. So that's where we started."
There is little reliable data about international surrogacy and exactly how many couples are using surrogate mothers in other countries to carry their children. But the Council for Responsible Genetics says the market for surrogacy is exploding here in the U.S, with more than 5,000 babies born this way between 2004 and 2008.
If surrogacy is a new area of growth in our country, it's a well-oiled, moneymaking machine in India, where many estimates say surrogacy generates $2.3 billion a year for the Indian economy.
Crystal explains how the process worked for her. "An embryologist creates the embryos. So we had an egg donor, Colin's sperm, a surrogate," she says. "You can pick the egg donor that you want. Some people in the U.S. will bring an egg donor with them or have eggs shipped, or use an Indian egg donor. We used an Indian egg donor and my husband's sperm."
The process gave the McRaes what Crystal calls a tri-racial family. Crystal is black, Colin is white, and her children are half-Indian and half-white.
Choosing this international route actually ended up being a bargain.
"It is a lot more expensive here," she says. "In this area, for a surrogate, a singleton birth, it would be about $125,000. In India, for a singleton birth, you're going to pay about $30,000 to 35,000 for a singleton birth."
But the concept of international surrogacy isn't without controversy. Critics point out that the industry's growth in India has much to do with lax regulation and the absence of legal protection for surrogate mothers.
Many also say the future of the industry points to large-scale baby farms in poor countries where women can be easily be lured into surrogacy by their $7,000 cut of the fees.
Crystal and her husband, Colin, see it differently.
"I feel like it's a win-win situation for the surrogate and the intended parents," says Crystal. "The surrogates, the amount money they make, most will never make that amount of money again in their lifetime. If they make $7000, that's like hitting the lottery for them."
"When you give somebody a chance to buy a house that never had a chance to buy a house, it's not a high price to pay," Colin says.
After Mark was born, Crystal and Colin decided he should have a playmate or two. They decided to use the same surrogate once more. They ended up with twins, Alec and Elle.
Crystal has become something of an expert on surrogacy in India. After advising dozens of families on how to do what she did, she decided she'd like to get paid for her services. She now has a business, and travels back and forth quite a bit.
Colin says surrogacy should be higher up on the list of options for many families. "I think the misunderstanding about it is that it is the bottom of the barrel — that you've got to go through every other option before you get to that. I think that's just wrong, and it should be one of the main options that people think about."
Though Crystal is often busy answering questions for other prospective parents nowadays, she still has questions about her own path to motherhood. She herself grew up as a foster child, never knowing her biological parents.
"Sometimes even in the back of my mind now, I wonder if I put [having children] off because I was afraid that I would have children who would turn out like my biological family, who I didn't know, but knew weren't in a good place," she says.
As for her own children — Mark has already been back to India, and understands that he was born there. Crystal says it will be the same for the twins.
"And as a person who was adopted, I feel like you need to tell the children early on, even though our children were not adopted, they do need to know how they got here," she says.
And what a story they'll always have to tell.
[Music: "Around the World" by The Mantovani Orchestra]
Jonathan's story was informed by WAMU's Public Insight Network. It's a way for people to share their stories with us and for us to reach out for input on upcoming stories. For more information, click this link.
Photos: International Surrogacy