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The Mother of Policy Changes

USC Marshall team member took a stand for surrogate mothers…and changed University policy

June 04, 2018

Sara Jensen had more than one reason to celebrate this past Mother’s Day.

With her nearly one-year-old son, Hugh, and Ben, her husband of 16 years, she celebrated her first Mother’s Day as a mother herself. 

Then there was the second reason.

“USC just announced it had overhauled its parental leave policy to include adoptions and surrogates,” said Jensen, who spearheaded the year-long process. As a USC employee and USC Marshall MBA alunma, she said she could not be more thrilled.  

Signed into policy Friday, May 11, 2018, the University announced its new policy on National Infertility Advocacy day, May 23—which happened to be Hugh’s first birthday. Jensen was in DC that day, speaking on Capitol Hill—with baby Hugh and husband in tow.

“I am a new mother, regardless of how it happened. Why wouldn’t I receive equal benefits?" --Sara Jensen, USC Marshall Director of Development

For Jensen, who works with major gift donors on behalf of the USC Marshall School of Business and the USC Leventhal School of Accounting, the policy change represents just the beginning. “With this change in policy, USC is leading by example,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do. Nobody was talking about this before.”

It all started last year when she had her son—via a surrogate—and did not qualify for her employer’s maternity leave.

A Shocking Surprise

Jensen, 39, and her husband Ben met at college and married young. Both came from families of six children, and they looked forward to starting a family of their own.

But when children didn’t arrive after a few years, the couple started looking into fertility treatments.  It was the start of a long, painful journey.

“You start with Clomid and IUI. The more invasive treatments, like IVF, are down the road. It’s painful. It’s stressful. IVF costs tens of thousands of dollars and isn’t covered under insurance,” she said. And all the while, well-meaning friends and family were asking when the babies were coming.

The Jensens tried for 12 years to get pregnant, employing every medical and alternative treatment available, including acupuncture, therapy and six rounds of IVF treatments.

Nothing worked.

Then, on a family trip to the Grand Canyon, her husband’s step-sister (her mother-in-law had recently remarried a man with three grown children), asked her if they were planning on having kids.

Jensen had never spoken about her fertility struggle with her husband’s family, but figured she would tell her new sister-in-law. “We’ve actually been trying for a very long time and are running out of options,” she admitted.

“You guys are family. I’ll be your surrogate,” the woman said, offering her womb as casually as offering to lend Jensen a jacket.

At the time Jensen didn’t take the offer seriously, and didn’t even mention it to her husband. Who offers to be a surrogate on a whim?

A week later her sister-in-law, Jenna, texted again. She had spoken with her husband, her two kids and had done extensive research, and she was serious in her offer to help.

Surrogacy World

There are two kinds of surrogacy. Gestational surrogacy, which is what Jensen used, is most common and uses the intended parents’ egg and sperm to create an embryo which is then implanted into the surrogate. Traditional surrogacy differs in that it uses the surrogate’s egg and typically the intended father’s sperm.

Surrogacy itself is a largely unregulated realm. In the U.S., surrogacy is expressly legal in only eight states. It’s also an expensive option, going well beyond the care and medical bills of your surrogate. Costs typically run over $100,000, and there are lots of hard questions—and many gray areas—that demand legally-binding answers.

For example: What happens if the surrogate gets sick and must end the pregnancy? What if the fetus is found to have complications—will the pregnancy be terminated? What happens if the intended parents get divorced or die during the pregnancy, who is responsible for raising the child?

Then there’s the biggest question of all: “What is a mother, anyway?” Is it the woman whose egg creates the baby? The woman who carries and gives birth to that baby? Or is it the deep love a woman has for the child she’s adopted?

It took a year of trying, two surgeries and three attempts for their surrogate to become pregnant. But for Jensen, the hard work—and the questions—were just beginning.

Pregnancy Looking In

With Jenna finally pregnant, both couples decided to keep their decision from the family until the second trimester.

“It was really hard letting another couple into our fertility decisions. The first two tries didn’t work, which was emotional for all of us. When Jenna was finally pregnant she was incredibly sick, and I felt guilty she was suffering because of me,” said Jensen.

It was also an exercise in control. “I’m very independent and a control freak,” Jensen says. “The fact that I had to rely on someone else completely to become a mother was difficult. I also had no control over what she was eating and how she was taking care of her body. Thankfully Jenna is family and I trusted her completely, but I spent many sleepless nights worried about her.”

At week 17 Jenna had a scare – “She started hemorrhaging, and it continued for two days. We thought we were losing our baby, and as time progressed we started worrying Jenna would lose her life as well. It was the worst 48 hours of my life. How could we live with ourselves if we left Jenna’s husband and two children without a mother?”

The scare abated and the pregnancy continued on schedule. But Jensen had to learn how to deal with judgement and oftentimes insensitive commentary when explaining her pregnancy. Imagine finally preparing for your first baby and wanting to share the excitement with the world…but you’re not physically pregnant yourself.

“People don’t know what to say,” she said.

Which is why when her son was born, the final indignity of being denied her employer’s maternity leave because she’d had him via surrogacy was just too much for her to bear.  

All Moms Matter

Hugh Jensen was born May 23, 2017. It was a joyous occasion. But for Sara Jensen, it was also the birth of a new cause.

According to records, Jensen was the first employee at USC to have a child via surrogacy. She was told she could take CFRA and PFL offered by the government, but not the additional 10 weeks of paid maternity leave USC’s policy offered because she wasn’t physically pregnant and didn’t qualify for disability.

“I am a new mother, regardless of how it happened,” she said. “Why wouldn’t I receive equal benefits?

“I brought up a topic nobody was talking about. Something needed to be done.”

She tapped into her professional skillset: Working her network and connecting people with opportunities.

A chance dinner party conversation had USC Trustee Bruce M. Ramer bring the issue up through the top ranks of the university. Jensen was connected with Todd R. Dickey, then-senior vice president for administration, and Janis Mc Eldowney, associate senior vice president for human resources.

A year after Jensen began advocating for the university to change its parental leave policy to include adoptions and surrogates, the university finally announced its new policy.

Next Baby Steps

Jensen isn’t stopping there. To address the dearth of information and resources for families like hers going through their own fertility struggles, she is creating a new company, AKIN Wellness, a fertility wellness company.

“Fertility can be confusing and overwhelming—especially if you don’t get pregnant right away," she says. "I’m partnering with the best experts in America to create a comprehensive wellness plan that addresses the mental, physical and social aspects of fertility. There is nothing out there like AKIN right now, but it is clear something like this is needed.”

And because she’s a networker, she already has several of the top fertility doctors across the country on her medical advisory board.

“Hugh is a gift I received that I can’t repay,” she said. “But what I can do is make the fertility process better and more accessible for others. I can make a difference in an area I know all too well.”

Consider it her Mother’s Day gift to herself – and every mother-to-be.

Sara Jensen and family

All in the Family

USC Marshall staff member Sara Jensen and her husband Ben, with son Hugh.