The murky world of reproductive medicine
Published Saturday, January 29, 2011 7:05PM EST
The birth of a new baby signifies hope, promise and family.
But for an estimated one in 10 Canadians it's a dream that is out of reach without the help of modern science and technology.
Egg donation, sperm donation and surrogacy are all options available to infertile couples. But sometimes the desire to have a baby is so strong that it has led Canadians to venture into an increasingly murky world of assisted human reproduction.
The Internet has opened up infertility treatments to a global marketplace. A world where searching for the perfect designer baby is available to those who can pay. That's the world where one woman, who agreed to talk to W5 on condition that we concealed her identity, went looking for her baby.
"Secaley" -- her online name -- went looking for her desired "blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl." Already the mother of six children; four boys and two girls, she desperately wanted another girl and was drawn in by all the Internet ads offering her most heart-felt wish. She went to a clinic in Syracuse, New York and paid $20,000 for eight donated eggs.
Unfortunately, fertilization was unsuccessful and none of the eggs produced an embryo. Secaly was left to look elsewhere and her quest for the perfect princess next took her to a clinic in Ottawa. This time, using her own eggs she tried in-vitro fertilization. It worked.
A few months later, Secaly was doubly-disappointed when she discovered the baby was a boy and he was diagnosed with Down's Syndrome. Fearing it was going to be too difficult on the family, Secaly decided she wasn't going to keep him.
"I was looking for a place where people might want to adopt him," she said.
Back online, she found someone to adopt her unborn son. Yet, when she held him in her arms, Secaly said, "he was not so bad, he was totally adorable." She cancelled the adoption and took the son into her ever-growing family. But Secaly wasn't about to give up her quest for that perfect girl.
Knowing that her own eggs were the problem, she returned to the American clinic and procured frozen embryos. Using some of the embryos, she was successful at getting pregnant and when W5 met Secaly she was pregnant with her seventh child -- another boy. Attempts to sell this unborn child online were unsuccessful.
The latest son was welcomed into the world in late 2010. But her quest for a girl goes on. She has leftover embryos in Syracuse and plans to use them in the near future.
Rachel Lammers' daughter, Violet, is just the kind of little girl that Secaly is so desperate to have -- blonde and beautiful -- but Lammers had to skirt the law in Canada to have her. Lammers is one of an increasing number of Canadians who have become "reproduction tourists," leaving Canada to get pregnant.
Six years ago, Lammers, a successful lawyer, was ready to start her family. Then she received the devastating news that she was unlikely to ever conceive. Rachel learned that she had a healthy uterus and would likely have a successful pregnancy, but that the quality of her eggs meant her only option was an egg donor. But as she soon learned from her doctor, finding an egg donor in Canada would be difficult.
Dr. Al Yuzpe, a veteran Vancouver fertility specialist and Rachel's doctor, told W5: "Probably only 10 to 15 per cent of women who need an egg donor have one they can find."
The rest are forced into a murky marketplace in search of egg donors who seek payment for their services and their eggs. Dr. Yuzpe said that women don't make anonymous donations because they're "a nice individual. They do it because (they) get paid for it. That is against the law in Canada."
Regulating reproductive medicine
Aimed at regulating the exploding fertility industry in 2004 the federal government passed The Assisted Human Reproduction Act. Among other things, it made payment for human eggs, sperm and surrogacy services illegal. And anyone who bought or offered to buy the basic ingredients of human life could be fined up to $500,000 or face 10 years in jail.
Critics of the Act claim that the government is not enforcing the law and in fact, the lack of clarity is just pushing the infertility industry underground and creating a black market in baby making.
Rachel Lammers agrees. "I don't want to break the law, but I don't want to live my life without children," she said.
So Lammers decided to travel to a country where the laws are friendlier to childless couples.
Countries like Thailand, Spain, India, Ukraine and Mexico all offer services to Canadian couples avoiding Canadian reproduction laws. She and her partner, Cory, picked a clinic the Czech Republic. There, for a flat fee of $5,000, Lammers was implanted with two anonymous Czech eggs. Fertilized with her partner's sperm, one of them grew. Nine months later they welcomed their miracle child, Violet, into the world.
Overjoyed with the outcome, and hoping for a sibling for her daughter, Lammers is planning a return trip to the Czech Republic in the next couple of months.
Who's minding the law?
Back in 2004 when The Assisted Human Reproduction Act was passed to control the fertility industry the legislation also set up an agency called Assisted Human Reproduction Canada to enforce the law.
After all these years there's little enforcement and even less regulation. Payment questions are at the heart of many people's confusion about the intent of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act.
For example, Rachel Lammers wanted guidance about what she could legally pay an egg donor in Canada.
"Why can't it be a regulated amount? The government regulates how much you pay for a dog licence or a marriage licence," she pointed out.
Francoise Baylis, a bio-ethicist, sat on the board and quit in frustration. She said the state of the reproduction industry in Canada is in turmoil.
"There is a bit of a perception that you can do anything because there won't be any consequences" said Baylis, in an interview with W5's Paula Todd.
Elinor Wilson is the President of Assisted Human Reproduction Canada (AHRC), the agency in charge of enforcing the regulations. In late 2010, Wilson testified before a Parliamentary Committee that her agency "continues with its mandate of promoting, monitoring and enforcing compliance with those provisions of the act which are in force."
After her appearance at the Committee hearing, Wilson gave W5 a brief hallway interview.
Wilson insists, if AHRC receives allegations of illegal activity they follow up. Questioned how often, in the four years since AHRC's creation, the agency had referred a case to the RCMP for criminal investigations, Wilson admitted that it was just twice -- and no one has ever been charged.
With no clear guidance or enforcement from the agency, patients and doctors complain that the current legislation has led to confusion in the field of reproductive medicine and interpretation of the law is left to individuals seeking to have a child.
In December 2010, the situation was thrown into further chaos when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in a long-standing jurisdictional challenge, led by the Province of Quebec.
The country's top court found that the power to regulate and license clinics and doctors lay with the provinces, while other elements of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, including the already confusing issue of payment for donations and reimbursement to donors, remains under the federal government jurisdiction.
Many of those helping infertile couples to have children -- and some of the families themselves -- worry that the decision will lead to a two-tiered system and eventually to inter-provincial reproductive tourism.
"Some of the provinces will pick it up," said Bayliss. "I mean, Quebec has already made it really clear. They'll take it up. They'll run with it."
Those unable to afford the travel or unwilling to navigate Canada's confusing laws surrounding reproductive medicine may be driven underground into the murky world of baby-making.