By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"I just see it [the eggs] as material to help create a baby," she says, moving back in her seat as her baby kicks inside her. "I would hate for a child to come looking for me. Not that I wouldn't feel for the child, but I wouldn't be the mother."
Now that she has donated, she might also consider being a surrogate mother some day for women who have their own eggs but can't carry a child to term. "It would have to be someone else's egg," she says. "I wouldn't want to get attached to it."
When this illogic is pointed out to her--that in some ways the women who want her eggs are surrogates themselves--she pauses.
"I don't know if a couple can ever get attached to something that's not their own," she says, then quickly returns to her role in the process. "I felt really good. It made me feel like a good person."
Seated in her agency's office on Market Street, Merritt Turner says she is certain that years from now some children will knock on her door, wanting to know more about the other half of their being. "I am absolutely positive that's going to happen," she says, smiling. "But at the same time I will not be able to break confidentiality with the donors."
Why, then, does she still keep coded records of her clients and donors?
"Because you know what?" she says, sounding apologetic. "I'm really hoping that there would be a registry, even though it would cut down on the number of donors.
"If we were governed by a state agency," she says, "that would give us a clear list of rules. Now we just try to do everything as ethically as we can."
Currently, there's no national registry to track donors in case their medical files change, even though such information might one day be relevant to their biological children. Here in Texas, donors often are recruited by the two agencies, Turner's and Southwest Surrogacy Arrangements, her competitor in Houston. Of the 11 clinics and hospitals that do egg donation, if they don't have their own donor pool, they solicit the help of those agencies. Regardless of who recruits donors, one thing is clear: There's no federal law for screening candidates. The only guidelines come from private groups, most notably the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, which encourages both permanent record-keeping and limiting an egg donor to 10 births in a lifetime to prevent inbreeding. But without any federally mandated regulations, the ASRM's guidelines serve as mere suggestions. And in the midst of such subjective standards, there's another equally contentious issue, the donor's anonymity, one that doctors and agency heads have sworn to uphold. Does the child have a right to know his or her origins? Here in Texas, many in the industry answer simply that anonymity is the best way to recruit those willing to part with their reproductive cells. Any other system, they say, would make donors fearful that a child might one day hold them accountable, be it financially or emotionally, for his or her well-being.
"A lot of people look to California and other states for these great donor laws," says the 30-year-old Turner, whose mostly white clientele may choose from 80 to 100 donors at any time. "But we have them. It's final, irrevocable."
Like the 7-year-old Southwest Surrogacy Arrangements in Houston, Turner looks for healthy women between the ages of 21 and 30 who don't smoke and don't have a history of sexually transmitted diseases. And they look for a healthy genetic history, extending as far back as they can obtain information, usually to the great-grandparents. At Dallas' SPCT, clients can see donor photos. They also have the opportunity to request intelligence tests, to speak with the donors by phone, and to get a videotape of the donor answering questions a couple might want answered.
Whether she selects women based on their physical attractiveness, Turner won't say. "I have a wide range of donors," she says simply. And all are guaranteed their anonymity.
Her main competitor in Texas sees anonymity as the only way to recruit donors.
"I'm not ever going to disclose information unless a court ordered me to," says 43-year-old Kathy Stern, who, with her husband, founded Southwest Surrogacy Arrangements in Houston. For Stern, there's a litmus test for ensuring potential donors will always be comfortable with their anonymity. The biggest warning sign is their viewing the donation as giving away a baby "rather than donating something like blood and bone marrow," says Stern. As she speaks in her office, a small picture of her own biological daughter, born through the aid of a surrogate mother, rests on a nearby table.
Stern's view is not without contradictions. Both hers and Turner's agencies also recruit surrogate mothers for women who have healthy eggs but can't carry a child. In those cases, the mother is viewed as the one who gave the eggs. But for women who seek donor eggs and go through the expense of finding a donor, the same standard doesn't apply. Like it or not, personal preferences determine who the mother is.