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The Danger of Giving Infertility the Hollywood Treatment

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The headline "23 Hollywood Moms With Same Sperm Donor and One Crazy Vacation" is splashed across the page, giving the impression that this will be just one more piece turning the otherwise complicated aspects of fertility treatments and sperm donation into a punch line. But this particular article by Hollywood Reporter's Kalee Thompson digs deeper than that; it delves into little-known facts about the fertility industry and explores how Hollywood has perhaps capitalized on this mostly unregulated medical business, opening doors for the rich and famous that aren’t necessarily accessible to all.

What you will find behind California’s gilded gates is an à la carte menu for reproduction being utilized liberally by society’s elite: genetic testing to rule out chromosomal abnormalities (and even to select for traits such as eye and hair color), gestational carriers to take on the responsibility of pregnancy, donor eggs for those who delayed pregnancy too long, donor sperm for those opting to go it alone and treatments meant to give women and couples the leg up they otherwise may have missed out on while pursuing their careers—more options than most people likely even realize exist.

So long as you are willing to pay.

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Of the 450 fertility clinics in the United States, 75 exist in California. Silicon Valley has recently become the poster child for egg freezing in the name of deferring a woman’s childbearing years—a use of the technology that even the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society of Reproductive Medicine have distanced themselves from, acknowledging a lack of data surrounding the safety and effectiveness of these procedures. It should be noted that the experimental label on egg freezing was only lifted for medical reasons in 2012. And still, California pushes forward, trendsetting in ways that are perhaps less than healthy for all involved.

Egg freezing isn’t cheap either, running between $5,000 to $10,000 per cycle. But Mark Surrey, a Beverly Hills reproductive endocrinologist to the stars, told Thompson that the cost was equivalent to what most of these A-listers are spending on purses. Apparently, egg freezing has become all the rage in Hollywood—all the celebrities are doing it. Not far behind? Ovary freezing, a technique that has been used, up to now, experimentally for cancer patients, and it seems to draw even better results than egg freezing. The ovary is removed, flash-frozen and reimplanted when the woman is ready to start seriously thinking about having children.

Whenever that may be.

More and more stars seem to be opening up about their struggles to conceive, perhaps creating an even more dangerous mythology: that success is attainable by anyone willing to truly try.

To the rich and famous of Hollywood, these treatments and options are just one more luxury available to them as a result of their lavish lifestyles. From Angelina Jolie to Nicole Kidman, seeking assistance in family-building seems to have become the norm among the Hollywood elite. Perhaps specifically because of the pressure many of these women face to focus on their careers during their younger, childbearing years.

Yes, there is a misconception that time never runs out when watching these elite procreate well into their forties, and Thompson addresses just that:

"Even so, media coverage of glowing, older celebu-moms—from Halle Berry, who just had her second child at age 47, to Laura Linney, who gave birth to her first child in 2014 at 49—can mislead. 'My concern is when celebrities in their mid- to late-forties announce they're pregnant,' says Guy Ringler of California Fertility Partners, one of Southern California's most in-demand clinics. 'It gives many people false hope that you can get pregnant at any age. It's not realistic.'"

But more and more stars seem to be opening up about their struggles to conceive, perhaps creating an even more dangerous mythology: that success is attainable by anyone willing to truly try. Because these stars aren’t talking about their struggles while they are in the midst of trying—they wait until they have that healthy baby in their arms before opening up about what it took to get there.

Nobody puts him or herself through something as physically, emotionally and financially grueling as fertility treatments without thinking it will all work out in the end.

Fertility treatments remain an out-of-reach expenditure for many couples struggling to conceive nationwide. The sobering reality is that in vitro fertilization can cost between $15,000 and $20,000 per cycle, and most insurance companies still fail to fund those treatments, perhaps because the success rate for a woman in her forties using IVF is less than 5 percent per cycle. But for those who can afford the treatments, or who beg, borrow and steal to somehow make it all work, there is often a bit of fairy tale thinking surrounding those choices. Even when the odds of success (and by contrast, failure) are thoroughly explained, fertility clinics are still marketing to that desperation, which drives these couples forward. And they buy into it, full of hope that they will be the exception. That they will walk away with that happy, healthy baby in their arms.

Because nobody puts him or herself through something as physically, emotionally and financially grueling as fertility treatments without thinking it will all work out in the end.

But among the upper class, at least the financial aspects are less devastating.

Thompson did an amazing job of shedding light on the use of fertility treatments in Hollywood. She even dove into the complications of utilizing egg donors and surrogates in particular, as well as the choices surrounding unused embryos. Of course, she did so purely from the perspective of recipients, noting that the industry is unregulated and doesn’t do much to vet donors, and that most recipients choose to hide the fact that they have used a donor at all.

There was more that could have been said there, such as exploring the disparity of income that often exists between donors, surrogates and their recipients, as well as how money is often used to entice young girls into trading on their own fertility for those in the upper echelon, who can afford to dig even deeper into their pockets for the extra assistance. Then there are the long-term health consequences of these treatments that have still yet to be studied, and the fact that more and more donors are coming forward with fertility issues themselves after the fact. But this story, like so many others, focused on the plight of recipients—not the donors who are painted essentially as hired help.

Reproductive technology has become a big business, with big price tags attached. But for the Hollywood elite, those treatments can be viewed as just one more accessory available to the rich and famous.

Apparently in Hollywood, it is also possible to hire a gestational carrier without that person ever knowing who you are. One clinic in particular offers just this service for celebrities who don’t want their gestational carriers to know the A-lister they are helping to procreate. The clinic’s owner notes that this is hard for the gestational carriers, as part of what they get out of the deal is the bond and the emotional satisfaction of knowing the family they are helping to grow. One could easily assume that in Hollywood, however, these anonymous agreements also come with a larger paycheck for their services.

But is there a line that should be drawn in terms of how ethical it is to put an ever-increasing number on the exchange of human genetic material and women essentially being treated as incubators?

Obviously, there are layers to this story that could be unearthed and explored for years to come. Though the fact remains, Hollywood seems to be at the forefront of pushing this industry forward, perhaps even making it into the industry it has now become.

There is no glitz and glamour that accompanies a failure to conceive. But infertility has certainly been given the Hollywood treatment, painting pretty pictures that often fail to represent the entire scene. One thing is for sure: Reproductive technology has become a big business, with big price tags attached. But for the Hollywood elite, those treatments can be viewed as just one more accessory available to the rich and famous.

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What about those outside Hollywood, though? Are they forever doomed to the realities of reproductive medical care being treated as elective (and expensive) as boob jobs or botox? Or is there hope that this Hollywood-ization may soon subside, as people come to realize that infertility is a true medical condition, not always just a side effect of age and bad timing?

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