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- PROPS & DISSES
- FEATURE: The Path to Ruins, Burgeoning author Andrew Munz hunts down Jess Walter
WWW.MOM: Googling the mother of your children
JACKSON HOLE, WYO –
Jessica Rutzick made a promise to herself: When she turned 40, she would start her family. Like many single women today, Rutzick forged headlong into college and career, figuring a husband and kids would come along one day – if they could keep up. While her friends had baby showers, Rutzick had an “I aced the LSATs” party. They passed babies, she passed the Bar.
Three years ago, Rutzick stopped pedaling long enough to come up for air. She had won numerous complex and contentious cases in litigation, made a name for herself in Wyoming courtrooms, and opened her own boutique law firm in Jackson Hole. By 2009, Rutzick had argued cases in front of the Wyoming Supreme Court but she couldn’t change a diaper.
It was time for Rutzick to start her family. There was only one problem. Well, two, actually. She would need the dad. She hadn’t found Mr. Right yet. And after a trip to the fertility clinic, Rutzick got more bad news: She wouldn’t be the mother, either.
“I always expected to have a traditional family, but I haven’t found anybody I wanted to get married to,” Rutzick says. “I had a plan that if I were 40 and still single, I would try to have a baby on my own.”
And the Jackson lawyer is in good company. More and more women are opting to enter their childrearing years later and later, often pushing the limits of their own fertility. Fatherless by choice also is less of a societal taboo. A recent AP poll showed 2 in 5 women would consider single motherhood.
What Rutzick went through to get her baby boy, Solomon, prompted her to launch her own egg-donor agency.
The sperm bank business is booming, especially during the recession. But Rutzick wanted more control over the DNA that would provide half her baby’s genome set. Most cryobanks supply only basic info about their inventory – racial origin, skin color, height, weight, etc. Rutzick convinced a friend to be her semen provider, someone who agreed to father her child without all the fishing trips and customary tie every June. “That was harder than I thought it would be,” she says.
Rutzick and expectant father headed for the fertility clinic with a dirty magazine. It was there she got a shock.
“They told me I was infertile,” Rutzick remembers. “We were going there for him not me. It was upsetting to learn. I wasn’t prepared for that.”
Rutzick dismissed adoption – the process can be long and arduous, especially for single women – and began researching egg donors online. What Rutzick planned to do – create her baby sans sexual intercourse, from a father and mother who would never meet – was not all that unheard of even three years ago. Ten years ago it was cutting edge. Thirty years ago it was heresy.
Knocked up and up
Artificial insemination in humans has been around since 1884. But what if his sperm is no good and neither are her eggs? In fact, what if there is no “him” or no “her?” No matter: Modern science to the rescue. On July 25, 1978, the first so-called “test tube” baby was born using in vitro fertilization (IVF). Conception took place in a petri dish. The doctor who developed the procedure, Robert Edwards, got a Nobel Prize. The Browns got a daughter.
IVF took off so fast that by the time the Browns gave Louise a little sister four years later via the same method, Natalie was the world’s 40th IVF baby. Now, 35 years later, approximately 14,000 babies are born from donor eggs each year, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. The European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology calculated the five millionth IVF baby, worldwide, was born last summer.
So little regulation currently exists in the United States regarding IVF procedures, it’s often referred to as the “Wild West” of reproductive technology. “Octomom” Nadia Suleman, whose womb was stocked with a dozen embryos (eight of which took), as well as surrogacy lawyer Theresa Erickson, who was convicted on charges of running a black market baby farm in the Ukraine, are just two examples of what can go horribly wrong in a profit-driven commercial industry that’s growing faster than lawmakers can rein it in.
Today, with the advances in IVF procedures, prospective parents can literally shop online for their next baby. With the father made unnecessary, and the mother picked catalogue-style from the Internet, intended parents can, and are, handcrafting their non-natal orders to exacting customizations. In the case of parents who choose to also use a surrogate to carry their purchase to term, the only link to “their” child is a credit card receipt.
Sonya* has at least six kids. It might be more like eight or ten. She’s not sure, no one ever tells her. The 24-year-old is putting herself through grad school. She works full time but still needs some extra cash. Sonya is an egg seller. Technically, she and her college-age ilk are referred to as “egg donors,” a discreet way of sidestepping the illegalities of selling organs or tissue.
Her online profile shows her to be 5 feet 8 inches, 120-pounds, with blue eyes and wavy blonde hair. She scored a 1449 on her SATs, speaks three languages, and looks like a runway model in heels. She’s one of Rutzick’s “go-to” girls.
Jessica Rutzick started her own egg donor agency after having her child, who is now three, via IVF. At the time, Rutzick didn’t like her limited options when choosing the future mother of her kid.
“The clinic mentioned egg donor as an option but their program was completely anonymous. I would have no idea who the donor would be. She would be chosen by a committee and matched to me based on their criteria,” Rutzick says. “That didn’t sound like a good idea to me. I wanted to know more and have more control over who the egg donor would be a so that’s why I ended up using a private agency.”
Rutzick found an agency online that allowed her to screen her future baby momma. She paid several fees and had her baby. Ever thankful to her donor, Rutzick was less than impressed with the process.
“I thought I could do a better job than what they did,” Rutzick says. “The logistics are complicated, and I didn’t get any support on that. They also didn’t screen my donor so it turned out she had donated six times already. A lot of doctors follow ASRM guidelines, saying they don’t want girls to donate more than six cycles. Then I got worried about my donor. Is she really in graduate school? Does she really do Ironman Triathlons? It all made me feel very insecure about my agency and my donor.”
So Rutzick started her own agency called Premium Egg Donation, Inc. (PEDI) a few years ago. She calls it a niche outlet, “like Match.com,” specializing in girls who demonstrate intellect by way of verified academic credentials. Her girls are smart and the hope is they will make smart babies. Smarter than the murky gene pool available at other agencies, anyway.
“With my agency we have everything verified,” Rutzick says. “I am a lawyer so I know I have to have good contracts with everyone, and I make sure that the parents are confident about who they are getting for a donor. And we provide the logistical services as well.
“If you go to other sites – The Donor Source is a big one – a lot of those girls haven’t gone past high school. A lot of agencies claim they have a thousand donors but they are not screened, so they are anyone off the street. You don’t know what you are gonna get. And I’m not suggesting the other agencies don’t screen. I don’t know what they do. But our girls are screened. We don’t have as many donors in our database right now because of our rigorous screening process. They have to follow through. They have to sign a contract, they have to send me verified transcripts from school, and send me their test scores and their medical history. So it’s a lot more involved than just putting up a Facebook page.”
Rutzick has a pool of 76 girls, ranging in age from 21 to 31. Her business model indicates 100 egg donors would be the optimum number to choose from. Most of the girls are in graduate school or on the way. Many cite “paying for school” as the main reason they are getting involved in the business. However, Rutzick, who communicates frequently with all her donors, says donors are not usually motivated by money.
“The pecuniary aspect of it isn’t the only motivating factor at all,” Rutzick says. “People that are interested in only making money will make money in other ways. This is an extremely generous thing to do: to help someone have a family.”
Stork plays the Golden Goose
PEDI pays their girls $10,000 for every time their eggs are harvested. The payment is for “time and trouble,” according to Rutzick. Proven donors get more – a $500 bonus each time they produce a winning hatch – a six-time donator, for instance, will command $13,000 for her seventh brood. These highly sought, fertile women are proven producers, often pumping out two-dozen “Grade A” eggs where other gals may be lucky to provide an embryologist with 10 decent specimens.
“One of our favorite donors has been producing between 28 and 34 eggs per cycle, and they are all good,” Rutzick says. “We pay a little higher than the average agency. But some donors get $50,000. The bonus for proven donors is tied to the value of an assurance or guarantee it will work. It’s typical in the industry. Whether you want to attribute that to the product or the additional time and trouble the donor is going through is sort of rhetorical.”
Embryologists take the best quality eggs and inseminate them with the most virile sperm to create embryos – sometimes up to eight or more depending on oocyte and embryo quality, all based on the morphological scoring system. Octomom excluded, women are generally implanted with two or three of the “best-looking” embryos (the success rate ranges from about 40 to 60 percent depending on the age of the egg supplier). In the United Kingdom, women older than 40 may have up to three embryos transferred but no more. In the United States, no limit is currently imposed.
Rutzick had three embryos placed in her uterus. She was going for twins. One failed to take and another miscarried during the first trimester, leaving her with a son, Solly, who was born prematurely but healthy.
Here comes the science
When egg donors are chosen by intended parents they generally undergo a series of HCG injections to stimulate the ovaries. The donor’s menstruation cycle is matched with the recipient’s and when the time is right, the donor reports to a specialized clinic where her ova are retrieved via a minimally invasive ultrasound procedure while under sedation.
ASRM guidelines suggest donors undergo no more than six egg harvesting procedures. They also urge agencies to pay donors no more than $10,000 per retrieval. The caps are designed to deter donors from using the procedure purely for monetary gain over altruistic motivations. There also is some evidence that repeated donations can increase the risk of ovarian cancer and cause other health concerns.
In her book, “Confessions of a Serial Egg Donor,” Julia Derek accused her agency of pushing her to donate 12 times. She now claims she has developed a serious hormonal imbalance.
“A lot of women go through the egg retrieval process for their own eggs many, many times without a problem,” Rutzick says. She has a girl on her roster that has donated six times already, but said she will use her a seventh time and beyond if the intended parents can find a doctor willing to do the procedure. “It’s not a health concern that the guideline is based upon. I believe the guideline is because they don’t want people to go through this numerous times for money. Ironically, there is not a limit as far as I know on sperm donors. I think it’s somewhat of a double-standard between men and women in terms of donating.”
Early results indicate very little difference between babies conceived in laboratories and those conceived on honeymoons in Niagara Falls. Conventionally conceived offspring of test tube babies, however, tend to be underweight and premature. Doctors do not know why. The only major complication with IVF to date seems to be multiple-birth syndrome. This is almost exclusively due to doctors’ implanting more embryos than intended births in order to ensure success.
What parent wouldn’t want their unborn baby screened for genetic conditions and undesirable traits? Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis of Embryos (PGD) is a technique conducted by clinicians who are looking for certain genetic or chromosomal markers that can identify a wide range of disorders and diseases from Down syndrome to cystic fibrosis.
The next logical step is screening for cosmetically undesirable traits, like freckles or weak chin. Clinicians can also select to pass on only X or Y chromosomes for parents that want to choose the gender of their newborn. The procedure is very expensive but already commonly done.
While scientists continue to perfect the genetic screening process, some intended parents move ever closer to “designer babies” by selectively banking on known donors and their physical characteristics. Rutzick’s agency caters to the choosy mom who wants a brainiac in the bloodline.
“I get requests for rocket scientists,” Rutzick admits. “Someone who’s graduated from Harvard. We don’t have any Harvard graduates right now. I don’t think those girls need the money, really. A lot of people are looking for someone who looks like them and a lot of them aren’t. A lot of them want a tall blonde.”
Some particularly vain women, even perfectly fertile ones, are choosing an egg donor who is smarter and better looking than they are. While Rutzick wouldn’t know if that was the case with her clients, because she does not screen the intended parents, she has run across some demanding clientele.
“I had one socialite from New York City who directed me to a photo of her at some event,” Rutzick says. “She pointed out herself in the photo, but then pointed to someone next to her who looked like Gwyneth Paltrow and said, ‘That’s what I wish I looked like and what I want the donor to look like.’”
Rutzick adds, “I tell everyone, ‘Look, you don’t know what you are getting with your own eggs much less a donor’s. You have an idea but you can’t guarantee blue eyes and blonde hair. Ever. Because there is sperm involved and you just never know.”
Still, Rutzick keeps on her roster a redhead who has a proven track record (three times) of throwing carrot-topped newborns.
“I have had parents looking for really specific traits that I think aren’t realistic,” Rutzick says. “One woman I dealt with is Jewish. Orthodox. She wanted a Jewish donor and the donor had to have had a Jewish mother. She didn’t want redheads. She didn’t want this, and she didn’t want that. She wanted someone so specific. She was probably looking for her own little ‘mini-me.’”
Other sticky issues
When manufacturing a baby, how far should doctors be willing to go? Culling undesirable physical characteristics is one thing, but what about the deaf British couple, Tom and Paula Lichy, who petitioned to have a deaf baby intentionally engineered via IVF? And what of embryo banking? Many parents choose to freeze spare embryos (they can keep for a decade) for future genetically identical offspring. Also, frozen embryos are often kept on ice as so-called “savior siblings” – a younger brother or sister whose healthy cells can be harvested to treat an older sibling with a serious illness.
The egg donor has no say in what becomes of her “gift.” Extra embryos are often sold to other fertility clinics and sometimes implanted in numerous women, or peddled to medical labs where they are used in human cloning research. Some are simply thrown away. For the religious rank-and-file who believe life begins at conception, discarded embryos are an objectionable reality.
Next to weightier bioethical issues, same-sex couples opting for IVF to have a baby seems like yesterday’s news. Rutzick says her agency – which has an astounding success rate of 100 percent first-time pregnancies with their donor eggs – has catered to a few gay men but no lesbian couples so far.
Two pink lines
Even with unlikely bedfellows – feminists, evangelicals, and traditionalists – seemingly united against the egg donor industry, it bears pointing out that demonizing a procedure that has helped numerous women achieve pregnancy when no other hope was available to them is not what’s at the core of the resistance. The dizzying pace at which lab coats are modifying life as we know it is alarming when viewed from the armchair perspective of anyone who grew up in the black-and-white era of “Father Knows Best.”
Most women are truly euphoric to be able to give birth to a baby after being told they could not get pregnant, even if the miracle of birth is being revealed every passing day to be less wondrous and more AP Biology class.
“It’s a joyful experience to help people grow their families. I just love it. We have a lot of happy customers,” Rutzick says. “And the people who end up using an egg donor … are not doing genetic engineering. They just want a baby. That’s why it’s cool. It’s a miracle.”
Rutzick added: “We would love to recruit qualified local donors. Our valley has so many beautiful young women that would make great candidates.”
About Jake NicholsJake is a work in progress.
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