Pursuing a Baby to the Ends of the Earth
I FIRST HEARD ABOUT THE CHARISMATIC PAUL LE ROUX AFTER MY THIRD IN VITRO FERTILIZATION ATTEMPT FAILED. My eggs, it seemed, were shot. Yet, at 39, I just couldn't seem to walk away from my intense desire to give birth.
With my husband Marty's acquiescence, I began looking into the world of donor eggs, which pairs the ova of another woman -- selected for her youth, health and often her education and looks -- with your partner's sperm in a petri dish. The resulting embryos are transferred to the uterus of the woman trying to get pregnant. The intended mom (me) loses her genetic connection to the child, but the man (Marty) doesn't, and you still get to experience pregnancy.
As far I was concerned, donor eggs were a mighty appealing option, except for the cost: $30,000 per attempt, with about a 50 percent success rate. Undoable for us, especially as we'd already spent more than $70,000 over the past five years on everything from IVF to acupuncture to expensive dietary supplements -- none of it covered by health insurance. We were, after all, just a couple of Washington area reporters with unimpressive salaries. We'd already plowed through some inheritance, accepted a family loan, plundered our savings and racked up credit-card debt. Yowza. We couldn't do much more unless we found a more affordable way.
Enter le Roux, a South African fertility specialist with a devoted following in the United States. I discovered his name on an online bulletin board for women with faulty eggs, where anonymous infertiles were chatting excitedly about escaping the high prices in the United States by jetting overseas. In what has been dubbed reproductive tourism, these women were flying all over the place: Argentina, Ukraine, Mexico, Greece, Spain and, most appealing to me, South Africa, where le Roux had helped a number of them get pregnant. His patients raved about how kind he was, how involved, compared with American reproductive endocrinologists, who more often than not are in a big hurry and are unwilling to do the hand-holding craved by those stuck in the grief-filled pit of infertility. Not so with le Roux, apparently. From what the women online said, he was the man.
The cost of his services? About $5,000. In the United States, that same $5,000 would pay only the donor's fee. And that doesn't include any medical services. Of course, we'd have to fly 8,700 miles across two hemispheres and six time zones to get to Cape Town and spend two weeks in a hotel there, which would run us $4,000 to $6,000. And, if we wanted to be able to see pictures of our egg donor as an adult and possibly even meet her, we'd have to use the one donor-egg agency that operates in Cape Town and is run by a Californian charging U.S. prices ($4,500). Or we could go with le Roux's donor pool (baby pictures of the donor only, no chance of a meeting).
Total out of pocket? About $14,500 if we used the Cape Town egg-donor agency, $9,500 if we didn't. Certainly not chump change, but still far less than what we'd pay in the United States. And we'd get a two-week trip to an exotic place we'd never been. We signed up.
MARTY AND I COULDN'T IMAGINE CREATING A CHILD WITH THE GENES OF SOMEONE WE COULDN'T LAY EYES ON. We both wanted to pay the extra money to use the Cape Town egg-donor agency. I obtained the password for Renew Fertility's online donor database and began poring over pictures and background information on dozens of young women. Most of them, I learned, were donating eggs for altruistic reasons, as the South African government limits donors' compensation to 5,000 rand, or about $700. That's not much money, considering what's involved for the donors. They inject fertility drugs to produce multiple eggs, then undergo a surgical procedure to have the eggs removed from their ovaries.
One day our donor's picture -- a new recruit with unproven eggs -- popped up on the Web site. She looked nothing like me. A blonde, while I am a brunette. Thin, angular features; I have full lips and bulgy eyes. But still, there was something about her that appealed to me. A kindness in her eyes? An intelligence? She was getting her master's degree in an outdoorsy field that could land her on Animal Planet one day. She also had curly hair -- something I had become very sad about not being able to pass on. And she was 22 and oh-so-healthy. I was smitten. Marty liked her, too. We wrote her the letter that was required by the donor agency. We told her our story and waited for her answer, knowing that this would be our last high-priced attempt at pregnancy -- the end of a long odyssey, no matter the outcome.
A few days later, we heard back from the agency. She'd said yes to becoming our donor. Yes, also, to meeting us while we were in Cape Town. We were on our way.
That's when the phone rang and our long quest for a baby took an unexpected turn. It was Marty's cousin, an obstetrician in South Carolina who'd been following our conception difficulties.
"I might have a baby for you," she announced. "Are you interested?"
"Um . . . what?" I sputtered.