The Art Of Fertility
The following is part of a new and ongoing collaboration between The Arts Paper and the New Haven Pride Center (NHPC). Each month, we'll bring you a story about how Connecticut's institutions, lawmakers, and festivals are changing LGBTQIA life in the state and beyond. This month (and just on the heels of the city's PRIDE weekend), we start with a look at CT Fertility, a center in Trumbull that is helping LGBT+ couples conceive statewide, nationally, and internationally. This piece was also published in this year's PRIDE Guide, available across town.
Juan Tecles doesn't remember when he started thinking about fatherhood. Maybe it was walking the streets of his native Spain, watching jello-legged toddlers reach for their parents. Or talking to his own parents, whose stories of his youth would leave the whole family laughing. Or seeing couples around him fall newly in love with life when their children were born.
But Tecles had a problem: He was a single gay man living in Spain, where same-sex adoption has been legal since 2005, but is often stymied by logistical hurdles. Waiting lists in Spain are long, and several foreign countries still don’t allow members of the LGBT+ community to apply for adoption. The practice of surrogacy — having someone else carry the baby — is illegal in Spain, and Tecles had ethical concerns about surrogacy in other countries.
“As a gay man, I didn’t have many options,” he recalled in an interview last month.
At least, not many options in his home country. His research ultimately led him the U.S., where fewer legal barriers exist around alternative methods of reproduction. He learned that at some clinics, prospective parents can screen and meet with egg donors, use In vitro fertilization (IVF) with their own sperm, and hand-pick a healthy, informed and consenting surrogate to carry out the pregnancy.
But not all of them are welcoming to the LGBT+ community. That’s what led Tecles to CT Fertility, a lab and fertility center based in Trumbull, Conn. with representatives in over 30 countries. Founded in 1991 by Dr. Michael Doyle, the clinic is primarily dedicated to helping same-sex couples, trans couples, and a growing number of single gay men build their families through third-party reproduction.
Also called donor-assisted reproduction, third-party reproduction comprises primarily egg donation and surrogacy. (The latter is still seen as controversial by some states). At the mothership in Trumbull, that mission falls daily to two obstetrician-gynecologists, Drs. Melvin Thornton II and Joao De Pinho.
What separates them from their peers, the two said in an interview last month, is CT Fertility’s deliberately open-armed approach. Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) isn’t itself uncommon. According a 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, 464 clinics reported data to the CDC on their facilities, recording rising success rates and a whopping 60,778 live births (that’s 72,913 babies, because several births involve multiples).
But those clinics primarily help heterosexual couples conceive through a mix of IVF and artificial insemination, whereby sperm is physically injected into a woman’s vagina. Surrogacy doesn’t often enter into the equation, unless a female partner can’t carry the pregnancy to term.
Questions surrounding egg donation and surrogacy are much more common for prospective parents who walk through the door at CT Fertility, due in part to the number of gay men the clinic serves each year. The first step is a consultation, where clients get a better sense of what they’ll need to do before having a baby. Because Thornton and De Pinho have discovered that first-timers “are pretty clueless” about the process, they start at square one: egg and sperm donation, and surrogacy — all of which are time-intensive and costly practices.
Some couples balk at that step. On average, donor sperm runs $700-$900 per vial, and women need one vial per month for an average of six months before conceiving. One artificial insemination costs around $400-$500 on top of that. Reciprocal IVF treatments are $10,000-$12,000 with an additional $3,000-$4,000 for medications. Add in an egg donor and surrogate, and “now you’re talking about $150,000 for the entire journey,” Thornton said.
The doctors have found that it’s a lot for couples to take in. Prospective egg donors and surrogates are both screened extensively for mental, physical and genetic health, and sometimes the process can be long and arduous.
“The average American is clueless about their reproduction … even women who are trying to get pregnant don’t know when they ovulate,” said Thornton. “So you can imagine when two guys come in, they’re like ‘Okay, so how does this process work?’ A lot of times, they get overwhelmed. You may meet a couple for a consultation, and it may take them six months, or even a couple years, and then they come back and say ‘Okay, now we’re ready.’”
If prospective parents move ahead after that first meeting, that’s where different fertility practices come in. Wading through intricate medical webbing, Thornton and De Pinho work with their clients as they select and meet with egg donors and surrogates. When all parties are on board, they start the process. If a pregnancy takes, they monitor the surrogate closely for the first 12 weeks, and then turn her over to her own gynecologist.
“We are serving not only a cause, but a community,” said De Pinho, who moved to the U.S. and joined the practice after watching two friends struggle to have children in his native Portugal. “I think we serve very well that community.”
They’ve found that the greatest need for their services comes from an international audience, with prospective parents like Tecles waiting eagerly on the other end of the equation. Like him, there are also single women who want to conceive abroad, and aren’t legally allowed to use donor sperm because they’re not coupled. “I don’t think we always realize how many reproductive freedoms there are here,” Thornton said.
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, he added. Not only is egg donation and surrogacy a costly endeavor, but third-party reproduction hasn’t caught up with gay marriage, trans rights, and a rise in single gay men who want to become fathers. To get insurance to cover fertility treatment, a client has to score a diagnosis of infertility — which they can only get if they’ve been trying to conceive for a year or more with a partner of the opposite sex.
“It makes me mad,” Thornton said of insurance pitfalls. But it has also made him double down on his commitment to the clientele, he said.
For that reason, sexual orientation “doesn’t cross our minds when we see someone on our schedule,” he said. “Even if a transgender couple comes in, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a matter of — what’s your goal to build your family? I always tell people, I’m a bridge. And my job is to get you from one side of the bridge to the other.”
Tecles hopped on that bridge three years ago. After hearing about CT Fertility in his research, he went in for a consultation, and “I really connected with them.” His journey toward parenthood started moving: he chose an egg donor after seeing a profile and connecting with her immediately.
“It’s a little like love at first sight,” he said. Within weeks, he was meeting the donor over lunch, chatting about her current professional goals and her own partner. Then he began selecting a surrogate, a process that can take months. In the midst of it all, he met someone in Montenegro, who signed on to be with him, and to ultimately co-parent.
With help from CT Fertility, Telces interviewed a woman in Florida. Again, it was love at first sight (or, first Skype, in this case): Tecles “could tell she was a super mom” to her own two kids, and ended up chatting with her husband, from Puerto Rico, in Spanish by the end of the call.
It wasn’t long before all of them had made their way to Connecticut, first syncing egg and sperm donation (they must be done within a week of each other) and then transferring two embryos to the surrogate. On the day of the transfer, Tecles recalled standing in a tiny exam room with his heart in his throat, watching the embryos through a monitor. What shocked him most were not his nerves, though — but how natural and welcoming it felt.
“That’s one thing that’s amazing about U.S. surrogacy,” he said. “Everything feels so normal. I’s no big deal.
Tecles went back to Spain, and kept in close contact with the surrogate. About nine days after the transfer, she called to tell him that she had gotten a positive pregnancy test. And then she had taken five more just to make sure. There was another surprise at her seven-week ultrasound, for which Tecles flew back to the U.S.: she was carrying twins.
Tecles flew home ready to nest. He downloaded an app on his phone to learn what was happening, week by week, to the twins in utero. He made arrangements to head back to the U.S. with his mom around week 35 of the surrogate’s pregnancy. No sooner had they gotten to the hotel room when the call came that the surrogate was delivering. His children, Joel and Elia, were entering the world, and nothing was ever going to be the same again.
Without CT Fertility, he wouldn’t have them in his life, he said. Which he counts as a sort of waking dream, in which he must pinch himself every so often.
"When your children are born, you are so focused on looking after them, making sure that they have everything, that you don’t ave time to reflect on the fact that you’re a father,” he said.
I had to keep saying it to myself. I couldn’t believe that it was real. … It took me a good few months to actually acknowledge that I was a parent.”
“Even now, 20 months later, I look at them and say: Oh my god. It’s something so amazing you look around you and you still can’t believe it.”