IVF (Gestational) Surrogacy: An Overview
IVF surrogacy involves the transfer of one or more embryos into the uterus of a surrogate, who provides a host womb and carries the baby to term, but does not contribute genetically to the baby. Typically, the intended mother provides the eggs and her partner (the intended father) provides the sperm. However, at times eggs and/or sperm may be derived from gamete donors. While ethical, moral, and medico‑legal issues still apply, IVF surrogacy appears to have gained social acceptance. We offer IVF surrogacy as an option at most SIRM programs.
Candidates for IVF surrogacy can be divided into two groups:
- Women who are not capable of carrying a pregnancy to full term due to: their uterus having been surgically removed (hysterectomy), disease, or developmental absence of the uterus (from birth)
- women who have been advised against undertaking a pregnancy because of systemic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, etc.
As in preparation for other assisted reproductive techniques, the biological/intended parents, the surrogate and/or donors undergo a thorough clinical, psychological, and laboratory assessment prior to embarking on the process. The purpose is to exclude sexually transmitted diseases that might damage eggs, sperm and embryos, or be carried to the surrogate with embryo transfer. They are also counseled on issues faced by all IVF participants such as the possibility of multiple gestation, miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy.
All legal issues pertaining to custody and the rights of the biological parents and the surrogate should be discussed in detail and the appropriate consent forms completed following full disclosure. We recommend that the surrogate and biological/intended parents get separate legal counsel to avoid any conflict of interest that could arise were one attorney to counsel both parties.
Selecting a Surrogate
Couples with the necessary financial resources will usually retain a surrogacy agency to find a suitable IVF surrogacy candidate. We direct our patients to reputable surrogacy agencies who have access to quality surrogates. Because the surrogate gives birth, it is rarely possible or even realistic for her to remain anonymous.
Since recruiting a gestational surrogate from an agency can be very expensive, many infertile couples who qualify for IVF surrogate parenting solicit the assistance of empathic friends or family members to act as surrogates.
Other couples independently seek surrogates by advertising in the media.
Screening the Surrogate
Once the surrogate has been selected, she will undergo thorough medical and psychological evaluations, including:
- Cervical cultures and/or blood tests to screen for infection with sexually transmitted bacteria such chlamydia, ureaplasma, gonococcus and syphilis or viruses such as cytomegalic virus, HIV, HTLV, and hepatitis.
- A variety of blood‑hormone tests, such as the measurement of plasma prolactin and thyroid‑stimulating hormone (TSH) and tests to ensure that the surrogate is immune to the development of rubella (German measles).
- Physical evaluation
- Psychological assessment
When friends or family members serve as IVF surrogates they should be be carefully assessed to ascertain whether they might have been coerced to paricipate. This is especially important when a young family member is being recruited.
The surrogate should also be counseled on issues such as risks and consequences of multiple pregnancies. Such discussions should include agreement on the number of embryos to be transferred and the delicate issue of selective pregnancy reduction , in the event of a high order multiple pregnancy (triplets or greater).
The surrogate should visit with her designated IVF physician who should take her medical history and perform a thorough physical examination. Thereupon she should have a full consultation with the nurse coordinator charged with oversight of her treatment. The coordinator will outline the exact IVF-surrogacy process step by step, will make certain that the surrogate understands that she has full right of access to the clinic staff and that her concerns will be addressed promptly at all times. The surrogate should also be informed that if pregnancy occurs, she will be referred to a qualified obstetrician or perinatologist for prenatal care and delivery.
Once a viable pregnancy is confirmed by ultrasound recognition of a fetal heartbeat (at the 6th-7th week), there is a better than 85% chance that the pregnancy will proceed normally to term. Once the pregnancy has progressed beyond the 12th week, the chance of a healthy baby being born is upward of 95%.
At SIRM, depending on the age of the egg provider (under 39 years) and her having normal ovarian reserve, we would anticipate approximately a 40%-50% birthrate every time good quality advanced embryos (expanded blastocysts) are transferred. The birthrate falls with further advancement in the age of the egg provider and with diminishing ovarian reserve. It is important to note that there is no convincing evidence to suggest an increase in the incidence of spontaneous miscarriage or birth defects as a direct result of IVF surrogacy.
If the surrogate’s blood pregnancy tests are negative, treatment with estrogen, progesterone and corticosteroids is discontinued, and she can expect to menstruate within four to 10 days. In the event that the pregnancy test is positive, estrogen, progesterone and steroid therapy are continued till the 10th week of pregnancy.
After the evaluation and counseling of both the couple and the surrogate has been completed, the three parties should meet. And, once all the evaluations have been completed, the intended parents will select a date to begin treatment.
Synchronizing the Cycles of Surrogate and Aspiring Mother
Both the surrogate and the egg provider are placed on monophasic birth control pills (BCP) for 10-25 days. The objective ist to insure that they both start menstruating around the same date so as to launch their cycle of treatment together. Thus the duration that each would remain on the BCP will depend on the desired timing of the start of the IVF treatment cycle. At some point while taking the BCP, both parties will overlapped the BCP with a GnRH agonist (GnRHa) such as Lupron for a period of approximately 2-3 days, whereupon the BCP will be stopped and the Lupron continued. Menstruation will follow (in both) within a few days.
At this point the egg provider begins controlled ovarian hyperstimulation (COH) with gonadotropins while the IVF surrogate commences corticosteroid (dexamethasone or prednisone) therapy and either, twice weekly injections of estradiol valerate (Delestrogen) or daily estradiol skin patches. Blood estradiol measurements are are taken twice weekly and the dosage of administered estradiol is adjusted so as to attain a blood estradiol level of between 500 and 1,000pg/ml. Then, as soon as the egg provider (based on hormonal testing and ultrasound follicle assessment) receives the hCG “trigger shot” the surrogate starts receiving daily intramuscular progesterone injections ( while continuing estradiol therapy). In the case of day 3 embryo transfers, this continues for 4 days prior to the embryo transfer and in the case of blastocyst transfers, for 6 days.
CGH Embryo Selectionthe Ideal Approach for Gestational Surrogacy
Genetic testing of embryos via Comparative Genomic Hybridization (CGH) requires that the woman’s IVF cycle be broken into two parts – the first involving stimulation, egg retrieval, fertilization, and removal of a cell from the embryo for testing. Because CGH testing requires 4-5 weeks to obtain results, the embryos are frozen while the testing is performed on the removed cell. The woman then returns at a later date for her embryo transfer. We call this process “Staggered IVF“. The same approach to ET can be used with gestational surrogacy and the same 60+% birth rate can be anticipated when CGH-normal embryos are transferred. In fact, Staggered IVF lends itself to Gestational Surrogacy because it is possible in this way to completely segregate the ovarian stimulation process from the ET. This allows couples seeking gestational surrogacy to delay identifying and recruiting a surrogate until they are assured of having “competent” embryos available for transfer.
Management and Follow‑up after the Embryo Transfer
Following embryo transfer, the surrogate will be given daily progesterone injections and bi-weekly estradiol valerate injections and/or suppositories in order to sustain an optimal environment for implantation. Approximately 10 days after the embryo transfer, she will undergo a pregnancy test. A positive test indicates that implantation is taking place. In such an event, the hormone injections will be continued for an additional four to six weeks. In the interim, an ultrasound examination will be performed to definitively diagnose a clinical pregnancy. If the test is negative, all hormonal treatment is discontinued, and menstruation will ensue within three to 10 days. If the surrogate does not conceive, the aspiring mother may have her remaining embryos frozen, to be thawed and transferred to the uterus of the surrogate at a later date. If, in spite of both the initial attempt and subsequent transfer of thawed embryos the surrogate does not conceive, the infertile couple may schedule a new cycle of treatment.
Toward the Bioethics of IVF Surrogacy
The determination of ethical guidelines has not kept pace with the exploding growth and development in IVF. However, some leaders in the field are working together, sharing experiences and advice, in an attempt to formulate a code of ethics.
The genetic combination of the male and the female provide two of the essential elements which, along with gestation, are necessary to produce a human being. The two‑out‑of‑three rule basically looks at these three elements: the egg, the sperm, and the gestational component. If at all possible, I recommend that at least two of these three components be contributed by the intended parents. If they can only contribute one, it is important to make every effort not to have the other two contributed by the same person (i.e., the egg provider should not also be the surrogate) as this can cause a variety of problems.