Playing God or playing mom?
In vitro fertilization, which accounts for 10,000 babies each year, brings pregnancy to infertile couples, but raises ethical questions.
By Meghan Gilmore / Staff Writer
If you play the violin, that's good. If you have a tennis swing rivaling that of Maria Sharapova, even better. If you have a pretty face, that's great. And if you got a perfect score on the SAT, well, you may have just hit the jackpot.
But before claiming your payout you must satisfy a few more qualifications.
You should also be a woman between the ages of 21 and 32, of a specific height and weight ratio, who doesn't smoke, is in good health, and doesn't have a family history of genetic diseases.
Then you qualify and can answer the question that fertility clinics in South Florida want to know:
Test Tube Babies: This advertisement is on Dixie Highway outside Oceanview Hall.
That's the advertising line from the Palm Beach Fertility Center, spearheaded by Dr. Mark Denker. These words are etched on the backboard of the bus stop on Dixie Highway right behind the Oceanview dorm and parking garage of Palm Beach Atlantic University. An egg caricature there grins out every day at the perfect target walking by: female college students.
"Seeing a huge egg with a smiley face on it initially caught my eye. Then seeing the words 'get paid,' on the ad really got my attention," said PBA pharmacy student Jessica Smith.
"I looked up the website on my phone, but I stopped my browsing there," said Smith. "I'm not that desperate for money."
If chosen by the fertility clinic, a young woman providing her eggs gets paid $5,000.
To Smith, the idea of giving eggs may seem desperate. But to Denker, it's a brilliant solution to a problem that affects thousands of infertile couples every year.
That solution raises thorny questions for many observers, including Dr. Paul Copan, a PBA professor of philosophy and ethics. Copan teaches classes just around the corner from the "Got eggs?" sign on Dixie Highway. He worries that shopping for eggs might turn children into products, instead of gifts from God. But to many couples that cannot conceive, the process is more than a solution: It's a blessing and an answer to prayer.
Meet Jon and Myra Rice, who got married in 2002. She was 30 and he was 29. After about two years of trying to conceive, they turned to a fertility clinic. The doctor told them that Myra's eggs were limited and not as many were "available" for each ovulation cycle. Hearing Myra's biological clock ticking, the couple decided to move forward with in vitro fertilization, the process of manually combining an egg and sperm in a laboratory dish.
The resulting "test tube babies," as some have dubbed them, have been controversial since the first one was born in 1978. While Copan sympathizes with infertile couples, he believes that children are a trust given to us by God. With in vitro as an answer to infertility, to Copan it raises the question, "Is it every couple's right to have children?"
To Denker, if science has provided the answer, then it would be a waste of knowledge to not utilize the service.
"We've been doing in vitro fertilization for 30 years," said Denker. "So there's nothing new about it. There are 10,000 babies born every year from IVF just in the United States."
These days, more women are deciding to have children later in life. Without recent advances in science, it was naturally impossible for some women to conceive.
"As you increase in age, the intensity of infertility goes up," said Denker. "So when a woman is in her late twenties, about 10 percent have a fertility issue. When you get into her thirties it goes up to about 25 or 30 percent and a woman in her late thirties and early forties, it goes up to about 35 or 40 percent with an issue."
Copan also sees dangers lurking in the market-driven approach that is coupled with the process.
"Can you put a price tag on a child?" asked Copan.
Denker explains that it's not the child that has the price tag, like a doll sitting on a shelf at Wal-Mart. Instead, he said, the infertile couple is paying for time, the time of the donor, who undergoes the surgery and the time of the doctor who performs the surgery.
"It's a flat rate (the pay to the donor)," said Denker. "Because of the ethical issues involved, you have to remember a donor is being compensated for their time and inconvenience to go through the process; that's really what the compensation is for, because you really can't buy or sell human tissue; it's illegal, like you can't buy a kiddie."
"You can't buy an egg either, but you can compensate the donor for going through the process," he said. "So we compensate all of our donors a flat fee of $5,000 dollars because everyone's time is valuable."
To that $5,000, the couple must add a long list of related medical costs, pushing the total to the $30,000 range.
For Jon and Myra Rice, who are both teachers, the total price could be more than a year's salary. They could never have afforded it, were it not for Rice's grandmother, who gave the couple $25,000. The total cost for the couple to get pregnant ended up being about $32,000.
"We feel truly blessed that we had help, and without it, we probably would not have a child today," said Myra.
Another problem that arises in Copan's mind is that science seems to be taking the role of God.
"There seems to be a neglect for God being the one who gives life," said Copan. "He is the one and only one who opens and closes the womb."
Denker feels that the procedure simply assists the natural process. He is not playing God but rather just makes sure things occur when they should. Since nature failed to do so, he sees his role as getting the timing right.
"It's like cooking a stir-fry, sautéing the meat, and then cooking the vegetables and doing the rice and everything has to be ready at the exactly the right time," said Denker. "Yes, it's pressure, but that's the fun part. I love it. That's what I love. That's what I do best."
To Copan, the problem does not lie just with the idea of science trying to take the place of God but it also presents a problem of a lack of history.
"These sperm and egg banks are depersonalized," said Copan. "There is something special about knowing your story and where you belong. But with this process, there is a loss of place in a child's history."
Fortunately for Jon and Myra, in their procedure, they only had to deal with the pain of medication and not the pain of wondering where their daughter came from.
For about two weeks before the potential egg extraction, Jon had to give Myra a daily shot in the stomach. Then, for about three days before the egg extraction, Jon had to give Myra a shot in the bottom that was very painful.
But the pain quickly subsided as the couple learned that they were able to use Myra's eggs and Jon's sperm, meaning they did not have to go to an outside source for either.
The couple was relieved that it would now be easier to explain the process to their daughter, since she would be born from their own sperm and egg.
In fact, Jon is excited about the moment that the couple decides to explain the process to their daughter, Alora, who at three years old is too young now to understand.
The couple has decided to tell her at an age when their daughter will already have some concept of how a child is made. The fact that the couple had someone help them "make" her and that she is part of both of them only, will not be too difficult to understand, the parents believe.
Unlike Jon and Myra Rice, many infertile couples have to turn to another woman's eggs or another man's sperm for the couple to be able to produce a baby.
Jane Jones (not her real name) is a South Florida woman who now has two children thanks to donors at a fertility clinic. She asked that her identify be shielded, because she doesn't plan to ever tell her children how she got pregnant.
"Don't judge me if you haven't been where I've been," said Jones. "You don't know what it's like to wait month after month and have all those tests done and then finally be told that you'll never be able to have a baby."
Jones said that she and her husband took the anonymous donor route only after tears, prayers and counseling with two pastors. "We weren't trying to get a designer baby," she said. "I just wanted to be a mom." She gave birth to a healthy baby girl, and then to a second daughter about two years later, using the same fertility clinic.
"We love our children just as much as anybody does," said Jones. "You can't tell me they're not a gift from God."
Though Jones said she didn't seek a "designer baby," there's no denying
Though Jones said she didn't seek a "designer baby," there's no denying that some couples come to the process with specific traits in mind.
"Some people are looking for intelligence; some people are looking for beauty, some people are looking for a family history of musical talent or that some couples come to the process with specific traits in mind. "Some people are looking for intelligence, some people are looking for beauty, some people are looking for a family history of musical talent or an artistic ability and everybody wants something different," said Denker.
To fulfill every couple's wishes, Denker plays the genie through his profile forms. All donors are required to fill out their form with all of their personal information.
"Every egg donor fills out a profile form and then the egg recipients look at these forms and pick the donor that's right for them," Denker said. "They look at pictures. Some recipient couples are attracted to someone that has beautiful writing and an artistic ability. Some couples are looking for someone that is very tall. Some couples are looking for someone that is very smart. It just depends on what that couple is looking for in a donor."
Copan feels that this is where the danger lies in the ability to choose the exact type of child that you wish to produce.
"It is like an attempt to create this super race, almost like a Nazi Germany utopian idea," he said. "It is the creation of the term 'designer babies.'
"The issue here is not correcting something that is damaged but creating a human in response to a supposed problem, when there are other solutions to the problem," said Copan.
Copan feels there are ways for a "barren woman" to fulfill the need to have children without taking the step to create her "designer baby."
Copan mentions possibilities such as adoption, or even more creative ways such as becoming a volunteer who works with kids, or even becoming a mother at large in a church or community.
For Jon and Myra, none of the setbacks or failures was enough to stop them from deciding to utilize the in vitro method of having a baby knowing that today without the procedure they would not have the best thing in their lives.
"It has transformed who we are and has made our family complete," said Jon. "We have since tried to have a child naturally, but we realize that will likely not happen."
For Jon and Myra Rice, they only have one regret about the procedure.
The doctor who did the procedure passed away within a year of Alora's birth.
"I wish she could have met him one day," said Jon Rice.
The couple concludes that Alora will not get that opportunity on Earth but will have to wait for nature to take its course, and then some day she will be able to meet her maker God and her "maker on earth" in heaven.