When Julie Schlomer got the news that she was finally pregnant at the age of 43, her thoughts went to the other mothers she had come to know. There were three of them in all, and they shared an extraordinary bond made possible by 21st century medicine and marketing.
All the mothers were carrying half-siblings.
Under a cost-saving program offered by Rockville, Md.-based Shady Grove Fertility, the women split 21 eggs harvested from a single donor who had blue eyes, was dark-haired, and had a master’s degree in teaching. Each of the women had the eggs fertilized with her partner’s sperm and then transferred to her womb. Schlomer gave birth to twins, a son and daughter, now 3. She hopes her children will one day connect with their genetic half-siblings. “I would love to see pictures of the other kids, to talk to them,” Schlomer said.
The multibillion-dollar fertility industry is booming, and their experiments with business models are changing the American family in new ways. Would-be parents seeking donor eggs and sperm can pick and choose from long checklists of physical and intellectual characteristics. Clinics now offer volume discounts, package deals and 100 percent guarantees for babymaking that are raising complicated ethical and legal questions.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 percent of American women 15 to 55 — 7.3 million — have used some sort of fertility service, and because of that the use of assisted reproductive fertility technologies has doubled in the past decade. In 2015, these procedures resulted in nearly 73,000 babies — 1.6 percent of all U.S. births.
Most couples use their own eggs and sperm, turning to doctors to facilitate pregnancy through techniques such as in vitro fertilization. But the use of donor gametes is on the rise. The donor-egg industry, in particular, has taken off in the past decade with the development of a safe and reliable egg-freezing process. The number of attempted pregnancies with donor eggs has soared from 1,800 in 1992 to almost 21,200 in 2015.
In the United States, the industry remains largely self-regulated, and because of that a group of donor-conceived adults documented numerous ethical lapses in the industry, including donors who lied to prospective parents about their health histories and other qualifications. They called on the Food and Drug Administration to provide more oversight of the “cryobanks” that gather, store and sell the precious sperm and eggs used.
The Food and Drug Administration said it is reviewing the matter, but cannot predict when it will have a response in the near future because of other FDA priorities. 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. New Hope Fertility in New York City held a lottery earlier this year that awarded 30 couples a $30,000 round of IVF. And the California IVF Fertility Center is pioneering what some refer to as the “Costco model” of babymaking, creating batches of embryos using donor eggs and sperm that can be shared among several different families. 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 such as 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.
A prescreened vial of sperm sells for as little as $400 and can be shipped via FedEx. A set of donor eggs (as many as 30, depending on the donor) can cost $10,000 or more to compensate for the risky and invasive medical procedure required to harvest eggs from the donor’s ovaries.
For Schlomer and her husband, before they decided to use donor eggs, they had been trying to have a baby for two years. Their insurance paid for early infertility treatments, but nothing worked. The couple, from Lexington Park, Md., about 60 miles east of Washington 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.
But as they studied the material from Shady Grove Fertility, the Schlomers discovered that the clinic offered a huge range of payment options. 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. After the Schlomers drained their savings account, borrowed $10,000 from their 401(k) retirement fund and sold a Toyota Prius, they set aside a quiet weekend to look for a donor. Schlomer had two main criteria: One, the donor had to have blue eyes. Second, the donor had to have a graduate degree. She found 12 matches and looked at their profiles. They went with the one whose personality spoke most to Julie.
The donor said she was a “homebody” who loves taking pictures and being with family on the beach. Her personal goals, she wrote, include being “the best possible mom I can be for my children. I want to be ‘present’ when I am with them and invest into their lives. I want my life to matter.”
Schlomer put in the order, and it wasn’t long before the clinic found two more women to join her group. Within a few weeks, the eggs were harvested from the donor, fertilized and implanted.
Alyssa and Logan were born in 2013. Both have very blue eyes and have been very healthy. Julie 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.
When the time is right, Schlomer thinks she will explain to her children 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.”