Tara and Randy Tolman had their youngest son, Ashton, five years ago. A string of surgeries followed for the baby, who was born with a congenital heart disease. Then came a moment, when Ashton was about 18 months old and had just received a blood transfusion, that he finally started to perk up.
“I was just so grateful to have my baby feeling better,” said Tara Tolman.
Ashton is now “the boss of this family,” she says. But the experience — and the knowledge that a stranger’s blood helped keep her child alive — made Tolman want to do a life-changing favor for another parent.
The Pocatello couple felt their family was complete with two sons and a daughter, and Tolman’s tubes were tied. But she liked being pregnant and still could carry a healthy baby for someone else.
“I looked into surrogacy, and I actually applied with a company in Boston that was No. 1 in the country,” she said. That company paid surrogates a “fantastic” amount of money, but Tolman felt like a number in its system.
Then she found an Idaho company, Rocky Mountain Surrogacy LLC. It matched her with a California couple. They became friends, so when that pregnancy didn’t take, Tolman was devastated.
After awhile, she wanted to try again. The agency matched her with a Minnesota couple. In November 2009, Tolman gave birth to “a beautiful baby, a beautiful gift of God.”
As is the case with other “gestational carriers,” casually known as surrogates, the embryo Tolman carried came from in-vitro fertilization. There was no genetic link between Tolman and the baby. Echoing other surrogates, Tolman says she never thought of the baby as hers or felt a maternal bond, so there was no loss or sadness when she handed the baby over to his parents. Instead, she felt lucky and more complete for helping “a family grow.”
Research published in the scholarly journal Human Reproduction in 2003 suggests that is typical for a surrogate. Parents and surrogates in the British study reported no major problems.
THE LOCAL AGENCIES
With growing awareness of third-party options like surrogacy and egg donation, more people are using them to have children. It’s not a move people make because it’s easy or convenient. Hopeful parents generally have exhausted other fertility options, or they can’t conceive for medical reasons.
To meet these needs, a cluster of businesses has sprouted up in the Treasure Valley. There are at least six third-party reproduction agencies here. Most are run by former surrogates or donors. One is run by a parent who had two children through surrogacy — known as an “intended parent.”
The business owners are basically consultants who match people and walk them through a labyrinthine process. Most of the surrogate-agency owners hold other, full-time jobs. They characterize their companies as labors of love. None would disclose revenues.
A single project can take years, they said.
“We might be talking with a couple for a year before they finally decide to jump in and go the surrogate route,” said Michelle Kenney of Meridian, a former surrogate and co-owner of Three Sisters Surrogacy. About one-third of people who contact Three Sisters actually make that jump, she said. The agency doesn’t collect a fee until parents and a surrogate are matched and ready to sign a contract.
Agency fees in Idaho range from $3,950 to $7,500. That covers a mixed bag of services, such as background checks and psychological screening, nutrition counseling and legal contracts. (For full cost of surrogacy, see box below.)
In other states, agencies can charge $20,000 or more for the same work.
A GROWING RANGE OF OPTIONS
What might be called nontraditional reproduction has been around “since the Old Testament,” said SeanTipton, spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. “There are lots of ways to build families. From the Brady Bunch on, you see families that don’t fit one single model. Some people need help to build their families, and we think that help should be available to them.”
The Idaho Center for Reproductive Medicine in Boise is the state’s fertility clinic, the only nationally certified reproductive endocrinology and infertility center in Idaho. It has been around since 1998 and has an in-house anonymous egg-donor service.
More people are choosing surrogacy now than when the center opened, said Dr. Cristin C. Slater, medical director. That shows in the rising number of “gestational carrier cycles,” a monthlong process at the center to prepare women for a surrogate pregnancy. There’s also an uptick in donor-egg pregnancy.
The center transferred 99 embryos using donated eggs in 2008, compared with 56 in 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There was none recorded for 2001.
But “the bulk of our services are couples trying on their own” with more traditional fertility treatments, Slater said.
Couples hoping for a baby can also use sperm donation or embryo adoption.
The clinic sees about 40 new patients a month. The goal is for them to get pregnant within nine months.
Patients who opt for third-party pregnancies have medical or genetic reasons, Slater said.
Failed ovaries, low sperm count, cancer treatment, trouble with past pregnancies and bad eggs can all lead people to a donor or surrogate.
One local company has been in the donor-egg business for 10 years. Meridian-based Nation Wide Egg Donation works with fertility clinics in almost every state. It has about 200 donors and 20 or 30 intended parents at a time, some in Europe and Asia. Most clients and donors aren’t in Idaho.
More younger women are seeking donors than when owner Tiffany Valentine started the business, she said. Clients tend to be in their late 30s or early 40s, but she’s seen a recent influx of women younger than that.
“Some of them I have to take my hat off to — they’re being very responsible,” she said. “They know something runs in their family, (like) cancer ... and they don’t want to pass on that gene.”
Valentine launched the company after donating eggs to four couples. She has three children of her own and two stepchildren.
Parents pay donor compensation of $5,000 to $10,000 and an agency fee of $3,950 for nonmedical prescreening, case management and legal contracts.
Valentine said the agency pays out more than $1 million per year in donor compensation.
As with the other third-party services, demand has slowed during the economic slump. But people who yearn for a child are still finding ways to afford it.
MONTHS OF STRESS, YEARS OF MOTHERHOOD
Sarah Edmunds of Boise had been working with a fertility doctor for a year and a half when she first started considering third-party options. She struggled with the idea of not carrying her own child and spent “a lot of time thinking” about it. Then she decided the choice was whether she wanted to be pregnant or be a mother. She chose to be a mother.
Edmunds didn’t use an agency, because her sister had volunteered to carry the baby for her.
But the clinic required a psychological evaluation for both women before helping them with the surrogacy. After a high-risk pregnancy with several weeks of bed rest, Edmunds’ sister gave her triplets. They recently turned 5.
“The hard part was the stress of getting through the pregnancy, because it was so high-risk,” Edmunds said. The surrogate’s role wasn’t a concern for Edmunds so much as the health of her babies and her sister.
“The thing to remember is the pregnancy is a short period of time compared to actual parenthood,” Edmunds said.
“It is a very important part, but the rewards of being a parent are so amazing once you have your child in your arms.”
TRUSTING ANOTHER PERSON WITH THE BABY
Carrie Eichberg, owner of Treasure Valley Center for Surrogacy, is a psychologist who had two sons through a surrogate. She and her husband were both anxious throughout the process.
“Not only are you worried about the surrogate’s role but also if the IVF will succeed or fail,” Eichberg said.
A legal contract can spell out specifics; that’s up to everyone taking part in the contract.
But the soon-to-be mother and surrogate must trust each other not to violate the agreement. A mother has to trust her surrogate to make good choices, Eichberg said, which means relinquishing some control. So a big part of the agency’s role is finding people whose personalities mesh and who feel comfortable trusting each other.
Despite such concerns, local assisted-reproduction lawyer Kathleen McRoberts said she doesn’t know of any surrogacy lawsuit ever filed in Idaho.
Creating a baby with a third, fourth or fifth person’s help is not cheap. Total costs can be $50,000 to $150,000, a University of Iowa doctor wrote in 2010. “Amazingly, approximately 1.4 percent of the 138,198 IVF cycles performed in 2006 included a (carrier), despite these exorbitant costs,” Dr. Ginny Ryan said in Proceedings in Obstetrics and Gynecology.
People save and borrow; Eichberg stresses it’s not celebrities and billionaires paying someone to be an incubator.
For the woman carrying a baby for nine months, though, the compensation is helpful. Tolman’s first surrogacy allowed her to go back to school. But that wasn’t the goal: “I would have done it for nothing the first time around,” she said. “For sure.”
Audrey Dutton: 377-6448