Discounts, Guarantees and the Search for ‘Good’ Genes: The Booming Fertility Business

Ariana Eunjung Cha, Washington Post, October 21, 2017

When Julie Schlomer got the news that she was finally pregnant at the age of 43, her thoughts turned to the other mothers. There were three of them in all, complete strangers, but they shared an extraordinary bond made possible by 21st-century medicine and marketing.

They were all carrying half-siblings.

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Would-be parents seeking donor eggs and sperm can pick and choose from long checklists of physical and intellectual characteristics.

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In the meantime, the business of assisted reproduction remains a mostly unregulated frontier. Shady Grove Fertility, the nation’s largest clinic, offers refunds if couples don’t go home with a baby.

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That model has served to highlight a preference among many would-be parents for tall, thin, highly-educated donors.

“It’s a little unsettling to be marketing characteristics as potentially positive in a future child,” said Rebecca Dresser, a bioethicist at Washington University in St. Louis and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics under George W. Bush. “But it’s hard to think on what basis to prohibit that.”

And so, Dresser said, “what we have now is prospective parents making judgments about what they think ‘good’ genes are” — decisions that are literally changing the face of the next generation.

Choosing baby’s traits

When little Louise Joy Brown, the world’s first test-tube baby, came screaming into the world at 5 pounds 12 ounces in 1978, her birth was greeted with as much fear as hope. IVF success rates were low, and some doctors expressed concern about possible harm to the baby and mother. The Roman Catholic Church worried that IVF would lead to the creation of “baby factories.”

Nearly 40 years and 6.5 million assisted births later, the procedures are considered mainstream medicine.

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Prospective parents can filter and sort potential donors by race and ethnic background, hair and eye color, and education level. They also can get much more personal information: audio of the donor’s voice, photos of the donor as a child and as an adult, and written responses to questions that read like college-application essays.

Want your sperm donor to have a B.A. in political science? Want your egg donor to love animals? Want the genes of a Division I athlete? All of these are possible. Prospective parents overwhelmed by all the choices can leave it to the heavens and pick a donor by astrological sign.

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Fertility companies freely admit that specimens from attractive donors go fast, but it’s intelligence that drives the pricing: Many companies charge more for donors with a graduate degree.

Talent sells, too. One cryobank, Family Creations, which has offices in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Austin and other large cities, notes that a 23-year-old egg donor “excels in calligraphy, singing, modeling, metal art sculpting, painting, drawing, shading and clay sculpting.” A 29-year-old donor “excels in softball, tennis, writing and dancing.”

The Seattle Sperm Bank categorizes its donors into three popular categories: “top athletes,” “physicians, dentists and medical residents,” and “musicians.”

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Some companies offer a face-matching service that finds donors who look most like the prospective mom or dad. Or, if they prefer, like Jennifer Lawrence. Or Taye Diggs. Or any other famous person they want their offspring to resemble.

A money-back guarantee

Before they decided to use donor eggs, Schlomer and her husband, Ryan, had been trying to have a baby for two agonizing years. Their insurance paid for those early infertility treatments, but nothing worked.

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The couple, from Lexington Park, Md., about 60 miles east of the District on the Chesapeake Bay, was psychologically ready to take the next step. But a set of eggs and up to six attempts at embryo transfers cost $55,000 — none of it covered by insurance.

“I thought it was crazy high. There is no way I could pay for that,” Schlomer recalled.

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But as they studied the material from Shady Grove Fertility, they discovered that the clinic offered a huge range of payment options, neatly outlined in a nine-by-six grid, 54 possibilities in all. If Schlomer split the eggs with one other mother, the cost would go down to $39,000. If she split the eggs with two other mothers, the cost would be $30,500.

Schlomer’s husband noticed that they could cut the cost even more, to $24,500, if they agreed to use only one set of eggs and forgo the right to ask for more.

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What sealed the deal was the money-back guarantee. If Schlomer didn’t get pregnant or they opted to stop, they would get a refund.

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ßSchlomer had two main criteria: One, the donor had to have blue eyes. While her eyes are green, she was charmed by the idea of a child with blue eyes.

Second, the donor had to have a graduate degree. While neither she nor her husband studied beyond the undergraduate level, she explained, “Who doesn’t want smart children?”

She found 12 matches and looked at their profiles. A few of them, she noticed, used horrible grammar in their written responses to some standard profile questions. Those were the first to go. She also crossed off donors with hereditary health issues.

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Alyssa and Logan were born in 2013. Both have very blue eyes — “beautiful, big, giant blue eyes,” Schlomer said — and have been very healthy. “They don’t even get colds,” she said. She is grateful that there’s no chance they inherited lupus, a serious autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks its own organs and tissue, that she inherited from her mom.

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“I’m thrilled with the results, as it turns out,” she added.

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When the time is right, Schlomer thinks she will explain that they are “high-tech babies” and impress on them the importance of memorizing their donor number, in case they happen to “run into another donor-egg kid.”

“I know it’s a really slim chance,” she said. “But I want them to be aware, just in case.”

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