Struggling to make ends meet as a university English major, Elizabeth could not help but notice the online classified ad, offering healthy young women the potential to earn $5,000. She jumped at the opportunity, even after discovering the work involved donating eggs for use in fertility treatment. The 22-year-old was told the money was to reimburse her for expenses and lost time at work or school, as stipulated by criminal law that bans paying egg or sperm donors commercial fees.
As it turns out, Elizabeth said she had no expenses to speak of and took off no time from school, yet the money came like clockwork — the first $1,000 after she underwent various tests, the last $4,000 when the eggs were “retrieved.” “I was a broke student and the $5,000 price tag was very desirable,” said the Vancouver Island resident, who asked that her last name be withheld. “[But] I felt like one part on the production line to eventually create this child, which this family is paying thousands of dollars to essentially produce by artificial means.”
The ad was placed by one of a handful of unusual brokers that recruit surrogate mothers and egg donors for the growing ranks of people longing to be parents, but unable themselves to give birth.
A rare RCMP investigation of the Ontario agency Ms. Sager worked with — Canadian Fertility Consultants — have put the spotlight on the surrogate-consultant market, commercial enterprises at the heart of a process that, officially at least, is not supposed to treat the ingredients of human reproduction as commodities. The work can mean bringing together clients and wombs-for-loan located continents apart; the demand for surrogates is so strong, agencies offer gift certificates and cash incentives to those who recruit new mothers. Some reportedly handle as many as 50 pregnant surrogates at a time.
Brokers charge thousands for the service, yet Canadian law prohibits payment – beyond reimbursing expenses – for the “carriers” and donors themselves, part of the legal grey zone that envelops the industry. In fact, the Assisted Human Reproduction Act also says it is also illegal to “accept consideration for arranging for the services of a surrogate mother” or to offer or advertise to make such an arrangement.
And yet that is exactly the kind of service that some consultants’ web sites seem to openly promote, said Juliet Guichon, a bio-ethicist at the University of Calgary who complains that the eight-year-old Act has gone all but unenforced.
“The premise of the surrogacy industry is you have willing sellers and willing buyers and the law of commerce should apply,” said Prof. Guichon. When children are involved, however, society should and does apply different rules, which is why, after years of debate, Parliament banned “commodification” of assisted-reproduction, she said.
Yet what remains of that legislation – most of which was struck down by the Supreme Court last year – is anything but crystal clear, leading to constant debate over what kind of expense payments are legal, among other issues, said Cindy Wasser, a Toronto fertility lawyer. “The law is confusing and vague,” she said Friday. “Everyone in the business – the medical clinics, the fertility consultants, lawyers, the surrogates, donors and intended parents – is unclear about where the lines are actually drawn.”
Consultants, surrogates and parents, meanwhile, suggest the brokers play a crucial and humanitarian role, helping connect couples desperate for children with women willing to get pregnant on their behalf, often for surprisingly altruistic motives. And the agencies probably make less money than others in the business, including fertility physicians, lawyers and pharmaceutical companies, supporters argue. “I remember how desperate I was when doctors in Vancouver refused to help me. I was heartbroken. I could not see moms pushing strollers on the street – I would start crying,” said Kate, a computer scientist who contracted CFC to find a surrogate for her after repeated miscarriages. The agency “is helping people to complete their family.”
Now, though, it has been all but closed down after Mounties raided the agency’s premises in Brighton, Ont., last month. Supporters have started a legal defence fund for Leia Picard, CFC’s owner, based at the web site friendsofcfc.com, saying Ms. Picard is “the last person you’d expect to be the subject of an RCMP investigation.” Police have not laid charges and will not say why she was targeted.
Another consultant, though, cautions against any move to outlaw such businesses, which she said act as responsible intermediaries in arrangements that would otherwise just take place on the black market. “I think you will see more disasters and tragedies in surrogacy if you don’t have people who do some preliminary screening, people who are educating and providing support,” said Sally Rhoads-Heinrich of Surrogacy in Canada.
The service is certainly in high demand, with the number of interested couples – many from Europe – increasing by 20% in each of the last five years, she said. Kate, 39, said she first contacted CFC two years ago after learning she could not give birth herself.
Another Ontario agency said it would take 18 months to find a surrogate, so she turned to Ms. Picard. Within three months, Kate was matched with an Ontario gestational carrier – a surrogate implanted with an embryo using someone else’s eggs. CFC charged $3,000 for its services, and was “very scrupulous” throughout, said the Vancouver woman. Other consultants levy fees ranging from $2,200 to as much as $8,500. When the price of in-vitro fertilization treatments, expenses for surrogates and donors and other costs are added in, the final bill for the “intended parents” can reach $100,000, sources say.
The linkages sometimes span the globe, with an agency in Canada connecting, for instance, intended parents in Australia and a surrogate in the United States, said Ms. Wasser.
With demand from prospective parents – be they infertile heterosexual couples, same-sex partners or single men and women – far outstripping the world supply, agencies are constantly on the lookout for new surrogates. Ms. Rhoads-Heinrich said she does no direct recruitment, but Ms. Picard would offer Toys-R-Us gift certificates to anyone who tried enrolling at least three women, said one gestational carrier working with CFC, who asked not to be named.
Amanda, another surrogate, said her agency pays $200 for a successful recruitment. Ms. Sager said she was even mildly pitched by the psychological counsellor who talked to her about the egg-donation process. “He said if you’re interested in surrogacy, it pays quite well … about $50,000.”
Surrogate expenses – the only money they are supposed to receive – typically total about $15,000, industry sources say. Agencies also advertise quietly for egg donors. Another donor for CFC, now on her third egg extraction, said she found a notice on the Kijiji classified site. Like Ms. Sager, she said she was paid $5,000 each time. She said she did incur travel and child care expenses, and noted the process involves several clinic appointments and hormone shots, but there was lots of money left over. “We had had a really bad financial year the year before,” said the married 32-year-old from Brantford, Ont., who asked not to be named. “We thought this would kind of get us caught up, get some money in the bank. It’s helped out a lot.”
Fees are paid, as well, for referring clients from one business to another. Amanda said she recalls being at a Toronto fertility clinic when a nurse handed her broker an envelope containing “wads and wads” of cash. Once the surrogacy process begins, though, the agencies can be a godsend to the pregnant women, arranging doctor’s appointments, transportation and communication with the intended parents, said Amanda. She believes the consultants – often former surrogates themselves – rarely get rich off the business, while some fare very well. Even the parents’ lawyer in her first arrangement made more in fees than she did in expenses for undergoing in-vitro – and actually carrying the baby for nine months, said Amanda. She said she loves the process, however, and does it to help would-be parents, even though she has six children of her own.
Elizabeth said she liked some aspects of the egg-donor work she did, too, such as encountering the intended parents, and even agreed to meet the child when he or she reaches 18. But she is left with nagging doubts about the whole experience, which she said was “really hard” on her body. “The reason [the industry] is so successful is because they’re providing children for people who otherwise would not be able to,” said Elizabeth. “And the means of achieving children are probably young women like me, who are low income and educated, but maybe not educated enough to really understand the implications of donating eggs.”