By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Amid the restaurants that line the cobblestone road on downtown Dallas' Market Street stands a plain brick building. To this place come seekers of the right ingredient that neither nature nor prayer has given them: a healthy human egg.
Up the elevator to the fifth floor, a door with two small stickers on the glass front greets visitors. "Visa. MasterCard," it reads.
Finding the perfect egg donor for one's dream child doesn't come cheap: $5,450, to be exact, which covers one egg-harvesting session from a donor. And that's not counting doctor's visits--infertility treatments are seldom covered by standard health insurance policies--that can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
What infertility has robbed them of, couples hope to compensate for here, at this for-profit agency, one of two in the state. Perhaps through the right anonymous woman--genetically loaded with good looks, intelligence, a healthy line of kin--they'll find the next best thing to the child they can't create together. If the donor has the wife's coloring, that's even better, especially if these future parents decide not to tell their child about how he or she was conceived.
But apart from DNA, they want nothing more from the person who's willing to sell her eggs.
It's been two years since the Surrogate Parenting Center of Texas opened shop on this block, and its co-founder and director, Merritt Turner, can't remember the last time any parents expressed an interest in maintaining ties to that crucial third party, that nameless young woman. "Not ever that I can remember," says Turner. And about half of her clients have no intention of telling their children about their biological roots. They're comforted by the thought that at least they'll be bound to their child by half a set of genes--the father's. As for the other half--the donor's half--it matters only in terms of what it can give the parents: the baby they want.
There's nothing new about such secrecy. More than half a century ago, a generation of children came to be through doctors who solicited young, nameless medical students to give their sperm to equally anonymous couples. Donor insemination, or DI as the practice was called, helped usher in the latest generation of children born of donated gametes, the 6,000 and more donor-egg babies of this past decade. There are a few programs, as in California, that try to leave the door open in case donors later consent to meeting their offspring.
But such cases are rare.
Simply put, once a donor in Texas consents to giving her eggs to a couple, she gives up all rights to them. The birth certificate won't mention her. Out of sight. And for many of these children, out of mind.
"I don't view it as my child at all," says "Kay," a 26-year-old office manager and accountant at an interior-design company. On this afternoon, the petite woman--now pregnant with her own child--has agreed to meet at a Starbucks in North Dallas to speak of how she sold her eggs through Surrogate Parenting Center of Texas.
Back in 1998, some ads in her campus paper got her attention. "Egg Donors Needed," read one; "$2,000 paid." Kay's eyes scanned the page. She saw another ad for a holiday in Cancun. With spring break coming up, she joked with her boyfriend that she could donate her eggs, then afford to go on vacation. She called Turner's agency, and within months the pretty woman with the big green eyes and long chestnut hair was on their donor list. Some four couples soon wanted her eggs.
"I would be lying if I said the money wasn't appealing," says this University of North Texas graduate, who has a marketing degree. "But I wouldn't have done it if I was morally opposed to it."
Before undergoing the surgery to retrieve her eggs, she had some fears that the hormones she had taken to stimulate her ovaries might affect her own fertility. The doctors assured her they wouldn't. She suffered a few hot flashes and mood swings, but nothing else.
Soon, Kay will be a mother--for the first time, she says. Sitting in the coffee shop, she rests her small hand on her round stomach. She and her boyfriend of four years are expecting a baby in a few weeks.
"It's a boy," she says, smiling.
Besides her boyfriend and a few friends, Kay (not her real name) hasn't told most of her immediate family that she sold her eggs. "My mother has a different mentality," she says. "She would probably think that I might have another baby out there." (Because of her agency's donor anonymity policy, Turner declines to say whether any babies have resulted from Kay's eggs.) Her father, whom she only met when she was 22, knows, though. He supports her decision. In many ways, she's like him, she says. The same "low tolerance for stupidity." The same "straightforward" manner.
"There's always an argument about nurture vs. nature," she says. "I think it's a little bit of both."
She feels like a "better person" for having sold her eggs. As for the money, she never did use it for a trip to Cancun. She opted to spend it on corrective eye surgery instead.