By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"We get them pregnant and send them on out," says Barnett, a short, amiable man with thinning auburn hair. Once his work is done, he doesn't usually hear from them again. The same goes for the donors; most are recruited from agencies, whose eggs he retrieves to begin the process.
"Unfortunately, a couple can still get a child who develops an illness later in life," says Barnett. "What if you would like to know more about the history on both sides of the family [but] you're unable to trace and contact the egg donor?"
It's a question for which the medical community has yet to reach a solution.
"People need to be able to access relevant biological information," says Sean Tipton, spokesman for the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, this country's most influential medical group for infertility issues. But the ASRM has yet to push for a national registry--be it private or governmental--to keep track of donors. "We don't want to see mandatory registration," says Tipton from his office in Washington, D.C. "With it, donation will decrease, and that has been documented in other countries."
Here in Dallas, there's overwhelming consensus with the ASRM's position. "A registry would make an already expensive treatment more costly," says Dr. Sam Chantilis, a leading infertility specialist at Presbyterian who helped 31 couples become pregnant last year. "It would discourage people from donating."
For Dr. Barnett, most of his patients skirt the issue of tracking donors altogether. Some 80 percent, he says, tell him they won't inform their children about the egg donor's role. "Some of my patients are paranoid," he says. "They don't even want to be called at work."
But that's none of his business, he says. "I'm not here to judge, but to provide a service."
As she rests upright on a gurney at Presbyterian Hospital at Plano, "Melissa" isn't nervous. She has undergone an egg retrieval three times before.
"When was the last time you emptied your bladder?" asks Dr. Barnett, looking at the tall, young woman dressed in a white hospital gown in the makeshift room before him.
"Five minutes ago."
Melissa (not her real name), a college senior, was driven to the hospital today by her brother. Besides him, just her mother and a few friends know she's a donor. "My father will not know. Not ever," says this tall, attractive English major with straight, thick blond hair pulled back in a long ponytail. "He's Catholic," she says. "He would not agree with this." She just senses that he would misconstrue the procedure as genetic engineering.
About two years ago, she was a sophomore at a Dallas-area college when she saw a campus newspaper ad placed by the Surrogate Parenting Center of Texas. With no job, just financial aid and a full load of credits, she had to figure out her "next step." She contacted the agency, and they sent her an application, where she listed her family history. Six months later, they called her. They liked what they'd read: no family history of major illness. Some physical tests followed to check for STDs. There was also a psychological exam to gauge her mental stability and honesty. She passed both exams and was put on the donor list. Along with her profile, the agency included her photo for interested couples to see, showing her clear, fair complexion, her full lips, her blue eyes.
"It's a way of helping someone while getting paid for something I can easily provide," says the woman, whose latest retrieval will bring her total earnings to $10,500. However many eggs the doctors gather from this surgery will cost her recipient couple $5,450.
"There's a lot of responsibility that goes along with this," says Melissa. "You have to go to the doctor a zillion times and get a lot of shots."
She's not the only person who has primed herself for this day. There's the woman who has prepped her body with progesterone--an essential steroid needed for an embryo to stick to the uterine lining--so she can receive Melissa's egg five days after it's fertilized.
Sometimes, nine months after she has donated, Melissa wonders whether there's a child out there whom she helped create. Does the child look like her? The thought may cross her mind. Just out of "total curiosity," she might want to see a picture of the baby, but nothing more.
"It's just a cell," she says of her role with a laugh, as a female nurse adjusts the tape fastening to her hand the IV needle filled with saline.
"Well, it's nice of you to do," says the other woman. "I'm sure you'll make some people very happy."
Whatever child results from that egg won't be hers, not in her eyes and not in the eyes of the law. "I plan to have children of my own some day," she says. As for a child resulting from her donation, "there wouldn't be a mother-child bond there," she says evenly. "If someone else is carrying a child in her womb, I think that's much more of an important bond.
"I know it's my genes, but it's really not a part of me."