Family Matters

Baby Contest: Couples Compete for Free IVF — Is This Exploitation or Generosity?

Last week, the Sher Fertility Institute selected three couples out of 45 who had submitted personal, emotionally wrenching videos in order to win a free IVF cycle. For one judge, choosing her favorites felt like "playing God"

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There are 2 million married couples struggling with infertility in the U.S. On June 14, three of them won a shot at a free baby.

One winner, Melissa Costa-Lac, had endured three failed adoptions, five miscarriages and the stillbirth of a full-term baby boy. When she found out that she and her husband had won, she was so overwhelmed that she pulled over to the side of the road on her drive home, put her head on the steering wheel and cried. The song playing on the radio during what she called “that amazing moment”: “Perfect,” by Pink.

(MORE: What’s the Best Way to Pay for Fertility Treatments?)

Another winner, Emily Heaton, experienced six failed IVF pregnancies in three years, her belly bruised from the dozens of injections required for infertility treatment. Heaton, 30, a hospital aide, and her husband Jimmy, who is stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California, considered surrogacy and adoption, but not giving up. So when Heaton learned about the Sher Fertility Institute’s contest for a free round of IVF, she and her husband decided to enter.

The Sher Fertility Institute is a network of clinics headed by Dr. Geoffrey Sher, a South African transplant to Las Vegas who calls the IVF giveaways a “real feel-good operation” that raises awareness about the plight of couples battling infertility. To enter the contest, couples must submit a video explaining why they deserve a chance to have a baby.

(MORE: My Sister, My Surrogate: After Battling Cancer, One Woman Receives the Ultimate Mother’s Day Gift)

Sher’s contest rules offered little direction on what makes a winning video. It could be “sad, hopeful, funny, happy, sentimental or any combination,” according to the guidelines. But there’s really not much that’s funny about failing to make a baby. All the contest’s finalist videos were tearjerkers to varying degrees — tragedy is compelling. One couple who’d been trying to have a baby since 2004 had burned through their savings. Another had three premature babies who didn’t survive. “Never in a million years would I have wanted to be in the position of judging this contest,” says Heaton. “It must have been excruciating to pick who’s more deserving.”

Indeed, the panel of judges probably shed a lot of tears watching the 45 competing videos. Their job was to submit their favorites to the institute, which then shifted the contest to Facebook: in the end, the chance to make a baby for free came down to a social-media popularity contest. For the three winners, it was fabulous. For the others, it must have felt like yet another loss. And for the rest of us — watching these tales of woe on our computer screens — it felt undeniably voyeuristic. Or perhaps it’s just a sign of the times, when everybody shares everything and voting on Facebook is the ultimate democracy.

The contest is Sher’s second; the first was an essay competition in December, whose winner is now pregnant with twins. You could look at the contest as an act of charity. For a procedure that can approach $20,000, giving away a free IVF cycle is by no means giving chump change. Many would-be parents can’t afford the pricey treatment, in which a woman’s eggs are fertilized outside the body before the hardiest embryos are transferred into the uterus.

But the contest is also a gambit, an unapologetic marketing ploy. Physicians like Geoffrey Sher recognize that their services are elective, much like those of plastic surgeons, who have also been known to host giveaways; in an increasingly crowded field, they have to promote themselves if they want to pack their waiting rooms.

“It’s a publicity maneuver,” says Samantha Pfeifer, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania and chair of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s (ASRM) practice committee. “What makes it weird is that you’re creating a life, and that puts it into a different category. But if you think of it as a medical procedure you have to pay cash for, you could think of it as giving away a free car. We need a car, but we can’t afford it — let’s go for it.”

ASRM doesn’t regulate these kinds of contests because it’s too busy being outraged that most states don’t consider IVF a covered medical treatment, meaning that insurance companies don’t pay for it. “We have no problem with it,” says ASRM spokesman Sean Tipton.

(MORE: Is It Selfish to Pursue Fertility Treatments Instead of Adoption?)

Yet some of the judges — I was asked to participate but declined — were uneasy with the process. “It felt like playing God,” says Erika Tabke, who runs IVF Connections, a website for people going through infertility. “Who’s more worthy? Whose loss is more tragic? Who are any of us to judge each other?”

Tabke found herself favoring couples who had weathered the greatest losses — a full-term neonatal death, the sorrow of three heartbeats stilled at 20 weeks of pregnancy — but felt guilty about it. “As I selected them, I thought, This is unfair,” says Tabke, who applauds Sher for his generosity but doubts she’ll serve as a judge again. “What about people who can’t even get pregnant?”

Watching the videos, I also found it impossible to ignore my subconscious biases. I gravitated toward those couples who were attractive and seemed truly, madly, deeply in love. I had a gut reaction against women who were significantly overweight; I’ve written about research showing that obese women are more likely to have children with autism. They’re also at increased risk of developing preeclampsia and having miscarriages or stillborn babies.

Was I saying that chunky mothers are bad mothers and that good-looking couples make better parents? It seemed that way, and it felt awful. To an outsider — admittedly a very fortunate, grateful outsider who got pregnant easily — the contest seems like a cross between unwitting discrimination, outright exploitation and a wonderful opportunity to get a shot at parenthood for free.

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Sher has been performing IVF since the 1980s. In the latter part of that decade, he began giving away free cycles in his San Francisco clinic. It was a morale booster, “making us feel we were doing the right thing.” Women who won a free cycle and got pregnant were then asked to sit on a hardship committee to determine which financially insecure women should be eligible for future complimentary cycles. “We talked about how to do this in a fair and honorable way,” he says.

Going from a hardship committee to a video contest on Facebook was the brainchild of Lisa Stark, Sher’s director of communications. “Lisa thought this would create connectivity between people who are feeling alone and suffering from infertility,” says Sher. “When you see their videos, you understand their desperation. There are people out there who say this is purely a ruse to bring people into the clinic. But if you don’t cry when watching them, then there’s something wrong with you.”

Perhaps, suggests contest judge Carolyn Savage, it might have been more compassionate to structure the giveaway as a lottery. “I have mixed emotions,” says Savage, who made headlines in 2009 when she decided to carry to term someone else’s baby after her IVF clinic mistakenly transferred the wrong embryo. “I know their intentions are to bring awareness to the issue of infertility by putting 45 very compelling videos online. But I found myself taking notes about things I shouldn’t have been taking notes on, like how professional their video was. Then I thought, If they can pay to get it professionally done, why can’t they pay for IVF?”

(MORE: Mind-Body Programs Boost Pregnancy Rates for IVF Patients)

Other clinics have held information sessions, attracting participants by raffling off a free cycle. And at least one other IVF clinic conducts random giveaways. In May, Dr. Joseph Hill, CEO of Fertility Centers of New England, began holding a drawing for a free IVF procedure. Any patient who signs up for an initial consultation is eligible for the twice-annual drawing. (Sher opens his contest to anyone; you don’t have to be a patient.) Hill thinks a lottery is more equitable. “Someone makes them jump through more hoops?” he says. “The situation is already stressful enough. To me, that seems almost cruel.”

If anyone were to think it’s cruel, it might be Christy Nellis. She and her husband Paul were finalists. Their story is gut wrenching, their video charming — in it, they talk about how they met and fell in love, they push each other on swings, they weep in the bedroom that they had turned into a nursery in hopes of adopting a child. Three years later, they’re still waiting. Both schoolteachers, the Nellises can barely afford IVF, which is why they never attempted it in the five years they spent trying to have a baby.

But Christy says her spirits have only been bolstered by her participation in the contest. Her nephew and a friend stayed up until 3 a.m. splicing the footage together. She’s gotten hundreds of e-mail messages of support. Even though she didn’t win the free cycle, she says she’s won other things — namely the knowledge that so many people were rooting for them. “Infertility is such a lonely, isolating journey, and to have this experience of a community coming together around us has steeled me so much,” she says, choking up.