Since they were married five years ago, Bob and Carolyn Amer of Toronto have been trying to have a baby. He's now 54 and she's 43. When their last attempt ended in miscarriage, they turned to egg donation. But finding a donor wasn't easy.
They turned to a Beverly Hills firm called Egg Donation, Inc, which had the donors, but didn't have a good way to show them to couples like the Amers. One day, the firm's director, Karen Synesiou, had a flash of inspiration. "One day I came out of the shower and I suddenly thought, 'I can use the Internet'," she recalls. "And the Internet is fast, it's efficient, and couples can do it in the privacy of their own home."
To find a donor, you simply log onto Egg Donation Inc.'s Web page, enter the ethnic origin and religion you want your donor to have and the state you want her to live in, specify her hair color, eye color and height, and click. Instantly, the donors who match your requirements pop onto the screen.
"It's completely odd," says Carolyn. "The whole process is odd. And if someone had said that this was something that I would have been doing, even a year ago, I would have laughed."
Using the site, the Amers found a donor they liked almost immediately: 26 year-old Kristi Johanson, a Federal Express driver who lives in Columbus, Ohio. They ordered her eggs with the click of a mouse. Kristi doesn't think there's anything strange about this: "I think it's good. I think it's the next logical step."
Egg Donation, Inc. is a genetic cybermall. It matches more than 400 recipients and egg donors a year. Says Synesiou: "I didn't want just four or five or ten donors, I really wanted to give couples the ability to choose between a lot of donors to find the real genetic background, a person who could play the piano like they could, or something that they had in common."
There are certain restrictions. The donors must be at least 21. Most are married with children.
Another big player in Internet egg matching is a Los Angeles company called Options. Its operators field more than 200 calls a day from potential egg donors, most of them single college students.
Kimberly, 28, has been an egg donor twice. Both times, she was chosen within a day of listing. "I think that they had someone looking at the Web that night obviously and said, 'Wow, this is what we've been looking for'," she says.
She ascribes her success to her good people skills: "I can interact with people. That's something that I can do very well. I don't think that it's going to come through in the eggs, but you never know."
Options places ads seeking would-be moms and dads in college newspapers across the country. The ads demand very specific traits. The director of Options, Teri Royal, says her Web site is looded with inquiries. The site gets between 3,500 and 4,000 hits a week, she says.
Some requests are very specific, she says: "We had a client once who came to us who wanted a blonde-haired and blue-eyed donor who had three generations of blonde-haired, blue-eyed people in their family. I think she was trying to sway the odds in her favor of having a blonde-haired, blue-eyed child, which was ludicrous considering the fact that her husband was Asian."
What this is really about, says Royal, is trying to make science do what Mother Nature did not. At an infertility convention in New York, couples were lining up to log on to the company's site.
With the Internet, the picking and choosing has gone global. A third of Egg Donation Inc.'s clients are from overseas. Synesiou has gone to Italy, where she spread the word about her Web site at an infertility conference in Venice.
It is very competitive. Sometimes Synesiou will tell donors that she thinks they may not get chosen.
"She has the right to hear that from me," she says. "I'm not going to say to someone, 'You're ugly. You're not going to be chosen.' That's cruel. But I can find something else in her profile that I'm going to say, 'I'm not going to add you to the database at this time. Thank you so much for offering. But I don't believe a couple's going to choose you'."
It is also expensive. Egg donation costs couples like the Amers about $16,000. This includes doctors' fees, legal costs, plus medical and psychological screening of the donor. Kimberly, whose first two egg donations resulted in pregnancies, now receives $5,000 each time she donates. But she thinks of her egg donations as charitable contributions.
Kristi, who is married and the mother of two, is getting $2,500. At first, Kristi says it was all about money. Now, she says it's not. "This is a way that I could give a little bit of something to somebody else," she says. "I can be a little part of that. And hopefully, hopefully, if this works out somebody's going to have a little life. And I got to have a hand in that."
Carolyn Amer sees no problem with the donor being paid. They deserve it, she says.
Couples like the Amers may soon have to pay more. The reason: an ad placed by a lawyer for his client which ran in several Ivy League newspapers seeks an intelligent, athletic donor who must be at least 5'10", have scored 1,400 plus on the college boards, and have no major family medical issues. The offer: $50,000. The ad got huge media attention
"I almost wish I was 5'10"," says Kristi.
Teri, though, is not happy about this development: "It changes the perception of egg donation from that of a gift from one woman to another to that of outright bribery."
Egg donation is completely unregulated. Bob and Carolyn Amer needed a guide to navigate this cyberworld, so they hired a lawyer to draw up a contract with Kristi, who was still just a face on a screen. ndrew Vorzimer, whose law firm the Amers used, has drafted more than 1,000 agreements for infertile Internet couples. "They are on a new frontier," he says, "embarking upon a path that no one has gone down before, so every time they go forward with an arrangement they are taking a risk."
In drawing up the contracts, Vorzimer deals with all sorts of strange, vexing questions. Can somebody come back and take their child from them? Who owns the eggs? Will they go to jail if they work with an egg donor that they compensate? Can an ex-husband come back and seek custody of the child? The technology is evolving, and there are new questions all the time.
One key question: who is the mother? Kimberly says the woman who actually give birth is the mom. Carolyn Amer and Kristi agree. "I'm giving a little DNA gift," Kristi says.
Still, many people do not understand. "A lot of the peopleÂ… walk away shaking their heads," she says. "But those are probably people that have a lovely family of their own."
Finding an egg donor on the Internet brings hope to a process born out of desperation, but there's something undeniably impersonal about it. For the Amers, the face on the screen just wasn't enough.
Bob and Carolyn actually met Kristi in the flesh. "I just want to see what this person was like," he says. "How she laughed, how she reacted to things, how she carried herself, and I just want to shake her hand and say thank you."
So the virtual has become real. And if luck holds, the egg will become a child.
Produced by David Kohn;