Seraphina Harrell, a little girl who received national attention because the surrogate who gave birth to her had refused to have an abortion, has died.
Seraphina passed away July 15, a few weeks after her eighth birthday. In 2012, when Crystal Kelley, Seraphina’s surrogate mother, was halfway through her pregnancy, an ultrasound showed she had multiple severe birth defects. The couple who hired Kelley to carry their baby offered her $10,000 to have an abortion.
Kelley refused and moved from Connecticut to Michigan, where according to that state’s law she would be the baby’s legal parent and not the couple who hired her. Soon after Seraphina was born, the Harrell family in Massachusetts adopted her with Kelley’s blessing.
The conflict between Kelley and the couple that hired her drew national attention and marked a turning point for surrogacy.
Eight years ago, agencies and lawyers who arranged gestational surrogacies sometimes failed to make sure surrogates and hopeful parents were on the same page about important issues, such as whether or not to terminate a pregnancy if the fetus was found to have abnormalities.
Seraphina’s case helped change that, said Melissa Brisman, an attorney who specializes in surrogacy.
“People heard about this case, and they got scared about skipping steps. That’s good for the industry,” Brisman said.
In recent years, the use of surrogates has risen steadily. The use of gestational carriers almost tripled from 2007 to 2016, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On the whole, surrogacy agencies and lawyers have become more careful about making sure surrogates and couples agree ahead of time on crucial questions, according to Brisman.
“What happened in this case is less likely to happen today. It could still happen, but it’s less likely,” Brisman said.
During her eight years Seraphina taught those who knew her about living a happy and full life despite physical disabilities.
“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,” said her mother, Rene Harrell.
Seraphina was born with heterotaxy syndrome. Many of her internal organs, such as her stomach and liver, were in the wrong place. She had multiple heart defects and two spleens, neither of which worked properly.
She also had a brain malformation called holoprosencephaly, where the brain fails to completely divide into distinct hemispheres.
During her short life, Seraphina had three heart surgeries and countless other more minor surgical procedures. She died in the hospital “following a combination of complications from a needed surgery and infection,” according to her obituary.
“What drove the conflict when Crystal was pregnant with her, was whether or not she’d have a meaningful life. And I think without hesitation, the answer to that question is yes, she did. Seraphina had a very, very meaningful and happy life,” Harrell said.
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.’”
At Halloween, Seraphina’s seven older brothers and sisters dressed up as the seven dwarves and invented a new dwarf name for Seraphina: Bossy Dwarf.
“She had the most confident, self-assured personality, and she told everyone what to do,” Harrell said.
Serpahina had favorite things to do with each of her brothers and sisters, some of whom also have disabilities.
“Nora and Nathan read to her. Laney painted her nails. Derecc played Darth Vader wars. She fought with the nine-year-old twins. Clare was her true playmate, because even though she is 18, in practice she and Seraphina were both around three, so they liked the same things,” Harrell said.
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.
“They all miss her terribly. She was the centering part of our family. She was our heart and soul,” Harrell said.
“For the eight years she lived, she had a full life,” said her father, Thomas Harrell. “She had a lot of joy in her life and gave a lot of other people joy in ways that sometimes weren’t expected.”