By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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.
"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.
"Would you like to be a donor?" Stern suddenly asks in the course of her interview. "I know a couple that would like you." She stops, as if regretting what she has just said. "Your tape recorder isn't on, is it?"
Stern isn't the only one who's worried about what she should or shouldn't say.
"Gladys" opens the door to her home in her upper-middle-class neighborhood. "Pardon the mess," she says of the cracks evident along the dining-room wall. The gumbo foundation of her home, she explains, has been shifting these past few years.
It has been four months since she brought her infant boy and girl home from the hospital. That first week she had them, she never could distinguish their cries. When one woke at night, she would jump out of bed, uncertain which twin was calling out for food, for the comfort of a parent.
A parent. For 16 years, she longed to fill her home with the sound of her own child. Now, on this morning as she takes a seat in her living room, she hears the cries coming from the upstairs bedroom. And she doesn't wonder. She knows, just by the depth of the noise, which one wants her.
"That's the boy," says Gladys, a slim woman of 40 with large blue-green eyes and chin-length red, wavy hair. Soon, her daughter adds to the sound.
"Well, she's fussing more than him," says her husband, coming down the stairs with his 4-month-old girl whimpering in his arms. He hands her to his smiling wife, whose fair skin matches the child's.
"I'll show you pictures of me when I was this age," she tells a reporter with whom she has agreed to discuss how medical science--and an anonymous woman's eggs--helped her start a family. There are some conditions, though: She doesn't want her real name, or her family's, printed. About where she lives, she will only divulge that it's in the Dallas area.
As for how her twins came to be, the only other people who know are the couple's respective mothers. "It was basically my husband's decision," says Gladys, whose small, pinched nose with slightly flared nostrils gives her an intense look at times, especially when she's talking about her experience with infertility.
"Maybe they'll treat them differently," she says of the rest of her family, whom she has told a half-truth, that the children were born through in vitro fertilization, the "test-tube baby" technique of extracting eggs and fertilizing them outside the body. She just hasn't mentioned that it wasn't her eggs.
Sitting on a sofa, she feeds her baby with a bottle filled with formula that has sustained her children because her own breasts couldn't supply milk.
"We tried herbs and everything," she says of her failed attempt to produce the needed liquid. "Yeah, good stuff," she coos, holding the bottle and looking into her baby's eyes.
"You forget that they're egg donor [babies]," she says. "For so long I had prayed that I would hold my own child." She looks up. "Well, I am holding my own child."
She reaches for an envelope on the table near her. In it, there's a black-and-white photo that her aunt recently sent her, showing Gladys when she was a baby. The resemblance to her egg-donor daughter is uncanny: the same fair skin, the same high forehead, the same wide-set eyes.
Still, when she gave birth to twins through Cesarean section two months early, she wasn't prepared for the family and friends who soon gushed about how her new babies looked just like her.
"A part of you wants it really to be yours. It's a hard thing to give up your genetics," she says, lowering her voice and looking to the side. "Once in a while you wince and go, 'Oh, they won't have my grandmother's eyes, my dad's brother's sense of humor, my aunt's musical talent.'
"Who knows?" she adds. "They may have musical talent."
As far back as she can remember, she wanted to be a mother and, when she married at 24, she was certain that parenthood was imminent. There were those yearly visits to the doctors who always told her that she had plenty of time to have a baby, that if she just relaxed from her stressful work as an executive assistant at a law firm, nature would take its course. At first, she believed that time was on her side. She had only to look to her family background for assurance; one grandmother gave birth to her last child at 39, another to hers at 46. Hoping that the same fate awaited her, she quit a couple of high-pressured jobs. She charted her body temperature for so many years, she could wallpaper a room with the sheets. When, on vacation in Cozumel, a local told her she had come to the isle of fertility, she and her husband returned there nearly a dozen times. No luck.
The couple had accomplished all they had hoped for in their careers, and three years ago, they moved into a new home. But something was missing: parenthood. She knew her life had to change.
That year, doctors diagnosed the couple's problem, saying that her husband's sperm had low motility. A year later, they tried IVF. Some of her eggs fertilized and began dividing, but slowly, too slowly. The doctors soon told her that no amount of intervention could give them a shared, healthy biological child.
"I would have adopted, but my husband did not want to," she says. "His main reason is not knowing enough about the child's background.
"You can say the same thing with egg donation, but at least 50 percent of known genetics is going into the child. And most of the donors are in college or graduated, so you're really getting a more intelligent person."
Whether the twins will ever learn of the other set of genes that helped create them is uncertain. In her initial talks for this story, Gladys said she might have to tell them, if only because they share the donor's blood type, not hers. Weeks later, though, she says she's finally decided: There's no reason to tell her twins that their parents once went to a Dallas agency and selected an anonymous 21-year-old, the daughter of a Baptist minister, to help start their family.
Initially, she had shown this reporter a photo of the donor, along with the application listing her genetic history. Even though Gladys says the picture doesn't do the donor justice, it's still enough to show that she has beautiful features: high cheekbones, arched eyebrows, long auburn hair, green eyes. "The people at the agency say that she's absolutely gorgeous," says Gladys, a plain-looking woman. But she's quick to point out that the donor--and every other member of her family--has medium or dark skin. Gladys' own girl is fair, just like Gladys. "With God, anything is possible," she says. "He's powerful.
"Does it really matter?" she asks of the egg. "I'm the one who carried them for seven and a half months and gave birth to them. The egg was only a small part of the process. Why would they really want to meet her? She's not their mother."
For 26-year-old Carrie Nicholas, the shots begin tonight. Lupron, as the drug is called, will suppress her menstrual cycle for two weeks. Then, she'll add another drug to the daily dose to shift her ovaries into high gear, stimulating them to ripen many eggs, not the standard, monthly one. Only then will she be ready for the egg retrieval, her sixth anonymous donation on behalf of SSA, the Houston agency.
Walking into her middle-class home in Richardson, the petite brunette grabs some cards on the mantel next to the photos of her 6-year-old daughter, dark like her, and her little boy, blond and blue-eyed like her husband, a stockbroker.
To the people whom she has helped, she is known only as their donor, their friend, their angel. She's privy to that gratitude through the doctors and the agency that has forwarded her the couples' gifts of jewelry, flowers, and cards.
"Thank you for being our special angel," reads one card. She goes to the kitchen to get another note, one on which her 2-year-old son accidentally scribbled. Still, some words are legible. "Thank you for bringing us our child," it says of that "special delivery," a boy born last June.
There's also a small crystal that a couple gave her, etched with the image of an angel.
"I get to feel something very few people get to feel," she says.
As for why she decided to donate, she says that seeing her sister-in-law experience infertility made her sympathetic to those who long for a child.
It seems that many couples long for Nicholas' eggs. SSA limits donors to five egg-retrieval sessions, but because of demand for Nicholas' gametes, she's been allowed to donate a sixth time.
"To be honest, it would be a waste of time to get someone not attractive," Nicholas says. "They're not going to say, 'I'll take that ugly one over that pretty one.'"
As for the legal agreement she signed to maintain her anonymity, "It's fine. I'm sure [the parents] would worry otherwise. I would be fine meeting the child, but I'm fine not meeting also," says Nicholas, a sociology major who takes night classes at Richland Community College and bartends once a week at a Mexican restaurant. "I don't see it as anything more than helping someone have a baby."
The photos on the wall outside Dr. Brian Barnett's office show his handiwork--some of the dozens of babies he has helped bring into the world with the help of egg donors. Some shots capture newborns with siblings, others in the arms of parents.
This is a "super busy" time for Dr. Barnett, a member of Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas' IVF unit, one of 350 such programs nationwide and the largest in the Southwest. In 1999, he and the team's other doctors had a 65 percent pregnancy rate from donor eggs. (The Centers for Disease Control's latest figures--from 1997--show a national rate of 40 percent.)
A book on his desk is opened to a diagram of a woman's uterus, with scrawls of ink evident from the hundreds of times he has referred to that page when speaking with patients. Like the national average, most of the women whom he meets to discuss egg donation are pushing 40. And all, according to the hospital program's ethics guidelines, are married and under the age of 47. Of Dr. Barnett's patients who choose this option, some have lost their eggs. Others can't get pregnant with the few they do have. Still others don't want to risk birth defects from having their own biological child. Then there are the few who come to him not because of their age but because of some illness--a benign ovarian tumor, endometriosis--which made them infertile.
"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."
"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."
What if one day a biological child tracked her down? "At the point I'm at now, that may be OK with me," she says. "But 20 years from now I don't know how I'll feel about decisions I made in the past."
Within minutes, the nurses wheel her out, readying her for the anesthesia.
"She's just the typical college kid," says Barnett, as he walks to the changing room to put scrubs over his clothes. Once dressed for the task, he enters the room set for the surgery. Low-hanging dim lights loom over the donor, who is flanked by nurses. As the tube in Melissa's nose sustains her sleep, her bare legs rest on stirrups.
The sound of beeping from a nearby machine fills the room, and Barnett takes a small seat before her. Guided by an ultrasound image on the monitor to his side, he inserts a few inches of a long needle into her vagina. Soon, the screen shows it puncturing one of the dozens of follicles containing her eggs. Normally, a woman has a handful of follicles vying each month to be the one to release the dominant egg. Those that don't succeed merely die. But with the hormones that Melissa has taken, all of the eggs mature. And each and every one is ready to be harvested. Slowly, Barnett guides the needle, which sucks out the egg and its surrounding liquid, to be placed in a vial. The remaining follicle becomes vacuous, like an airless balloon.
"Got any, Keith?" asks Barnett, calling out to the embryologist in the adjoining lab now checking the vial for eggs under a microscope.
"One...two," he replies.
"She's a wonderful girl and an excellent donor," Barnett says, his voice slightly muffled from the mask he's wearing. "We know she makes beautiful eggs."
One by one, he fills the flasks with the blood-tinged liquid that surrounds those prized eggs, not visible to the naked eye.
"How we doing?" he asks.
"We're done," says Barnett. "What's the final count?"
Standing in the small living room of his Fort Worth home, "Lester" glances at the adjoining bedroom where his guitar rests. "I can't wait to be a dad," says this nearly 50-year-old tall, heavyset man with short, brown hair in a ponytail. "I'll teach my kid lullabies," he says, flittering his fingers.
Whether he'll ever realize that dream, he can't say for sure. And neither can his wife, "Brenda," an accountant in her early 40s. For the past three years, they've tried to have a child. "A snapshot in time," that's how Brenda sees both herself and her husband in their home; she knows that they're both just as fleeting as those other families who have come and gone, occupying this small house since it was built in the 1920s. She wants that link to the future. She wants a child.
For Lester, having a baby, wanting a baby, is simply part of that "animal drive," as he bluntly puts it. "I think it's almost biological," he says, sitting on the sofa next to his wife. "I think it's natural for human beings to want to procreate and see their genes being passed down."
This past December, a doctor at a fertility clinic in Bedford, the Center for Assisted Reproduction, told them that because Brenda hasn't responded well to hormones to stimulate her ovaries, the closest they'll come to having a shared child is through an anonymous egg donor.
"It kind of hit me hard," says Brenda of the diagnosis. But she saw "hope in the next step."
With only a list of characteristics to go by, they've selected a donor, one who shares Brenda's blond hair and blue eyes. If the implantation works, neither Lester nor Brenda (not their real names) will tell anyone--including the child--of their use of a third party.
If anything, they wouldn't want anyone, especially family, seeing the child as "half a stranger," as Lester puts it. "I would hate to think that any relative would say the first time the child gets a 'D,' 'Must be the donor's side of the family.'"
"I would want the child to be fully accepted," adds Brenda. "I don't know." She falls silent.
"It just seems that there are a lot of people out there in the world who want to make people feel like they're less than them," says her husband. "I'm more worried about the bigots of the world than anything else."
"I guess for me, the biggest fear is of the unknown," says Brenda, who has two failed marriages behind her and, like Lester, no children. "Like if the child has some disease or medical problem in their lifetime, I'll be asking, 'Is this normal?'"
"But then again," Lester says, "what family doesn't have something?"
The small, wooden clock above the mantel clangs.
In another week, the donor whom they've chosen will have her eggs retrieved at the clinic. She's already been screened, having met the clinic's requirements: among them, being between the ages of 19 and 30, disease-free, and having a healthy genetic history. And like the other women, she has undergone--and passed--a psychological test. Hours after this donor's scheduled surgery, doctors will mix several of her eggs with Lester's sperm.
"You just tell yourself that it's something you have to do," says Lester about his part of the procedure: masturbating into a cup. "It's certainly not enjoyable."
Doctors will watch how well the fertilized eggs divide. After five days, no more than two of the best will be put into Brenda's uterus.
"I don't know if I would feel differently if it were her egg and someone else's sperm," says Lester, as their two cats roam the room. "I don't know. I don't think I would. I just think that half is better than none."
That other set of genes, the donor's half, is just "raw material," he says. And Brenda? "It's like what the psychologist at the clinic called it," she says. "A piece of tissue."
"To me that's just a small little portion," says Lester, cupping his hands. As for telling his family, he doesn't see the point. "The egg's a detail we can leave out."
Dan Dunn and his wife always knew they would tell others how their family came to be, if only because they want people to become more accepting of babies like their little boy, who owes his life to the young woman who gave her eggs.
The sign leading into the Dunns' hometown of Granbury greets visitors with a simple sign: "Population 6,050."
Make that 6,051. These days, the place has a new resident, Devin Dunn. His arrival 10 weeks ago was nothing unusual, except for the technology that helped bring him into the world. More than a year ago, his parents used an anonymous egg donor at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas to help conceive him.
On this morning, as a Linda Ronstadt CD of lullabies plays in the background, Devin lies on a small blanket in the living room of his parents' home. "And then you came down a catheter," coos his 46-year-old mother, Diane Dunn, in her soft-spoken, girlish voice, referring to the day when she lay in stirrups, watching on an ultrasound monitor as her doctor implanted two days-old embryos in her uterus, one of which survived.
She has wanted to get pregnant since she married three years ago. She had always loved children, marveling at their curiosity and love of learning--the same qualities that had drawn her to a 20-year career as a schoolteacher. When her attempts to conceive proved unsuccessful, she thought of adopting. Her husband was opposed. "Not knowing where the kid comes from" was the issue, he says.
The doctors had told her that she was too old to have her own biological child. Two years ago, she finally settled on egg donation. When it came to choosing a donor, they had no photo to go by, just a list of physical characteristics and the assurance of a nurse who told them that "yes, she is" intelligent. Ultimately, they got someone tall with blue eyes, just like Diane. One day she and her husband drove to Dallas for the implantation. They didn't receive good news, though; the doctor told them there was only one viable embryo that he could implant. She and her husband had to tell an already harried physician--who had another couple waiting for him and a hockey game in New York he had to fly to later that day--to implant the embryos. He consented. Ten days later, Diane experienced the unimaginable. After all those times of looking for pink lines on home pregnancy tests and finding none, her life turned a corner. She was pregnant.
(Was that her first time being pregnant? She hedges her answer. There was another time, she concedes, when she was much younger. "It was at a different time in my life," she explains delicately. "That's something I don't really care to talk about right now.")
"I was just looking at a picture of my husband the other day," says Dunn, a tall, striking woman. "He looks just like him.
"We always knew that we were going to be open with him," she says. With her son in her arms, she takes a seat at the kitchen table. Just then, her husband comes in the house, taking a break from his work in the area as a home builder. Construction is booming in this pricey, upper-middle-class neighborhood.
"We're going to tell him that he's a donor baby," says Dan Dunn as he watches his wife feed the baby with a bottle full of her breast milk. "He was helped along, that's all," adds Dunn, a lanky, graying man of 50 who often jokes that he became a father and an AARP member the same year. "I mean, we had a natural egg and a natural sperm. They [the doctors] just kind of played with it," he says, flicking his hands for effect.
"This kind of technology has been around for years in prizewinning animals," he continues, as the sound of his baby gulping down the milk fills the room. "It's something anybody can afford by getting financing with it. You can buy a car for $10,000, and in four years it's worth nothing.
"At least we have something left...a tax deduction."
His wife chuckles.
"I looked at him the other day," she says of the baby, "and I was curious what features of his biological mother he possesses. I think of him as having two mothers," she adds, "the biological and the one who raised him.
"I just always saw myself as a mother," she says, her eyes filling with tears. There's a moment of silence.
"She gets real emotional when she talks about it," her husband says dryly.
Before he's even old enough to talk, little Devin Dunn will hear the story of his birth. Along the way, he may have more questions. With no siblings and no living grandparents, there may come a time when he'll want to know more about his full roots and that other woman, that faceless, nameless person who helped give him life.
"I just try to play out in my mind what would happen," Diane says.
In the meantime, they've thought of making a little children's book for him. "The story of the ugly duckling would probably be really appropriate," says her husband, "of how the swan egg got in with all the duck eggs." He gets up, walks the few steps to the kitchen counter, and picks up a black-and-white photo of himself when he was Devin's age. Looking at the photo, he says with a smile: "He looks a lot like me, doesn't he?"