US doctors are seeing an increase in patients avoiding pregnancy or time off work by paying someone else to carry their baby with no medical need to do so
The Pacific Fertility Center on Los Angeles Wilshire Boulevard is the place where the people who have it all make their babies. With its crystal chandeliers and plush velvet and leather upholstery in shades of cream and mink, youd be forgiven for thinking the waiting room was the changing room of a high-end bridal shop. But the pictures on the flatscreen on the wall give it away: digital photos of newborns in scratch mittens, thank you notes, family Christmas cards, tiny heads cradled in grateful hands. The images float upwards and disappear like bubbles in champagne.
In the 25 years Dr Vicken Sahakian has been practising, he has made families for thousands of the most privileged people in the world. He has worked with Hollywood stars, although he says he is too discreet to tell me names. (You wont hear it from me, but of course you would have heard of them.) His clients are straight, gay, young and old, and they come to him from across the globe, particularly from China, or parts of Europe where surrogacy is either illegal or very tightly regulated. In the UK, surrogacy is legal, but surrogates can claim only expenses for carrying a child for another person. California law allows surrogates to earn a profit, and upholds the rights of intended parents over anyone else who is involved in the creation of their babies. Its given the state a reputation as the most surrogacy-friendly place in the world.
As diverse as they are, Sahakians clients have one thing in common: their ability to afford his services. If you are open to using other peoples eggs, sperm or uteruses and are prepared to pay, anything is possible. Money talks. If you have money, youre going to have a baby. Its sad, but it is the case, Sahakian tells me less than five minutes after I sit down in his monochrome office. He wears grey surgical scrubs embroidered with his name, his hair slicked back and greying at the temples. On his huge, black desk sits a glass paperweight containing a laser-engraved baby, next to a plastic uterus and fallopian tubes. But immediately after saying this, he checks himself. It isnt sad, actually its pretty happy. I believe in this type of science. I believe in family balancing, gender selection, selecting out abnormal embryos, using egg donors, sperm donors, this is what I do. I love what I do. The ultimate goal here is bringing happiness for someone.
And as the range of fertility options open to clients has diversified, so have their requests. Now, a growing number of women are coming to Sahakian for social surrogacy: they want to have babies that are biologically their own, but dont want to carry them. There is no medical reason for them to use a surrogate; they just choose not to be pregnant, so they conceive babies through IVF and then hire another woman to gestate and give birth to their baby. It is the ultimate in outsourced labour.
Does he have any ethical concerns about social surrogacy?I dont have issues with it, Sahakian says, smiling. If youre a 28-year-old model or an actor and you get pregnant, youre going to lose your job you will. If you want to use a surrogate, Ill help you.
Five years ago, Sahakian says he would preside over a handful of social surrogacy cases a year; now he sees at least 20. More and more every year. And if Im seeing that, there are so many reproductive endocrinologists in the area who are very competent fertility specialists Im sure they are seeing the same. It costs $150,000 to have a baby this way. If social surrogacy was more affordable, more women would be doing it, absolutely. Theres an advantage to being pregnant, the bonding, I understand that, and from experience I can say that most women love to be pregnant. But a lot of women dont want to be pregnant and lose a year of their careers.