Little girl, whose surrogate Mom refused to abort her, dies at 8. “Seraphina’s larger than life personality only grew throughout her life”

By Dave Andrusko

Seraphina at 8 months old
CNN video still

Some stories come in and pass through your mind quickly. Others you never forget. 

One of those—way back in 2012—was the unforgettable story of Seraphina Harrell and Crystal Kelley. Kelley, Seraphina’s surrogate mother, refused to abort her even though offered $10,000 by the couple that hired Kelley to carry the baby.

Why do we revisit her story today? Seraphina died July 15, just shortly after her eighth birthday—many years after the experts in 2012 said she would pass. She lived a remarkable life, reared by a remarkable family.

As we wrote at the time, the story was not about the ethics of surrogacy. It was about Kelley’s refusal to abort “Baby S.” when a prenatal screening showed “severe medical problems” and how she came under tremendous pressure from the biological parents.

The ultrasound taken when Kelley was five months pregnant showed the baby had “a cleft lip and palate, a cyst in the brain, and a complex heart abnormality,” as CNN Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen wrote. While Seraphina’s conditions turned out to be even more challenging at birth, this did not prevent her —according to Rene Harrell, her Mom–from leading a full and rich life.

“What I heard over and over from so many of her doctors was they could never imagine that someone with Seraphina’s level of need could do as well as she did or be as joyful as she was,” Harrell told The Mirror. More about that below.

Following the ultrasound, as Cohen wrote back in 2012,

“The doctors explained the baby would need several heart surgeries after she was born. She would likely survive the pregnancy, but had only about a 25% chance of having a “normal life,” Kelley remembers the doctors saying.

“In a letter to Kelley’s midwife, Dr. Elisa Gianferrari, a maternal fetal medicine specialist at Hartford Hospital, and Leslie Ciarleglio, a genetic counselor, described what happened next.

“’Given the ultrasound findings, (the parents) feel that the interventions required to manage (the baby’s medical problems) are overwhelming for an infant, and that it is a more humane option to consider pregnancy termination,’ they wrote.

“Kelley disagreed.

“’Ms. Kelley feels that all efforts should be made to ‘give the baby a chance’ and seems adamantly opposed to termination,” they wrote.”

From that juncture on, Kelley and the parents came to be at complete loggerheads. From that point forward, an already inherently ethically, morally, and spiritually complicated situation became mind-bogglingly complex.

According to medical records, the biological mother inquired about abortion techniques. The way the second option (dilation and evacuation) was explained to her was that “the pregnancy would be vacuumed out of the womb.” (Of course the baby was somewhere in the 21-23 week range, and would be dismembered, not “vacuumed out.”) Evidently after being told the baby would not suffer pain, the mother chose that option over option one–inducing birth after which the baby would die.

A lengthy series of events transpired, all intended to ratchet up the pressure on Kelley to abort. For example, she was told through an intermediary, that if she didn’t abort, the couple would not agree to be the baby’s legal parents. When that failed, the parents offered $10,000 to Kelley to abort the baby.

And then this real-life tragedy really became stranger than fiction.

Everything from the parents hiring a lawyer to compel her to abort under the terms of the surrogacy contract (when she hired a lawyer, he told Kelley they could not compel her to abort); to being told the parents had changed their minds and would “exercise their legal right to take custody of their child — and then immediately after birth surrender her to the state of Connecticut. She would become a ward of the state”; to Kelley fleeing the state (Connecticut) to go to Michigan where she corresponded with parents of children with special needs; to concluding it was best for Baby S. to be adopted by a family which had already adopted several children; to giving birth June 25, 2012 to Seraphina.

To be clear, Seraphina had massive medical problems. During her life, she “had three heart surgeries and countless other more minor surgical procedures.”

But the beauty of this story—and others written in the wake of Seraphina’s death—is that they are all tributes to this extraordinary  little girl and her life-affirming family. Cohn wrote

In a heartwarming obituary, her loved ones wrote: “Seraphina’s larger than life personality only grew throughout her life, and you never had to guess what she was thinking or feeling. 

“At least once a day, someone would snuggle up to her and repeat the Seraphina family motto: ‘For a girl who can’t talk, you sure are never quiet!’

“She couldn’t walk by herself, but she persisted in turning everyone in the house into her personal mobility assistants.

“She couldn’t eat, but that never stopped her from insisting on her own plate of food to be part of the gang.”

Cohn concluded her powerful story with a final tribute to Seraphina from her Mom:

Seraphina could only speak a few words, but learned American Sign Language. She couldn’t walk, but mastered her wheelchair. 

“She could get herself around in a power wheelchair like nobody’s business,” Harrell said. 

Seraphina’s favorite sign was “I love you.” 

“She’d sign it and always add a little kissing sound,” her mother remembers. 

“She was so loving. If you looked sad, she would comfort you. If you got even the slightest little poke, she would sign ‘sorry’ and then kiss your boo-boo,” Harrell said. “When her baby cousin cried, she would sign ‘Baby, cry, Mama, milk.'”  …

She often ordered Nathan, her 10-year-old brother, to read the Little Critters books to her. Nathan told her he was the big brother character in the book and she was the little sister. After she died, Nathan asked to have one of the Little Critters books placed in Seraphina’s casket.