Welcome to fertility cafe, the home for every conversation exploring alternative family building through IVF, surrogacy, egg, sperm and embryo donation. Our host Eloise Drane, alternates episodes between educational shows covering specific topics and guest narratives for further insight. For a mastery understanding and confidence in all things alternative family, subscribe to fertility cafe.
Eloise Drane 00:28
Hey there, welcome to episode 83 of fertility cafe. In this episode, we’ll be talking about the prohibitive cost of surrogacy in how it inspired one Atlanta couple Zach and Alexandra French to do something about it. After going through the surrogacy process themselves, the French’s were shocked to see how prohibitively expensive the road of third party reproduction can be. Curious about what grants existed for the cost of surrogacy, they soon realized that none existed. Zach and Alexandra saw that there was a huge underserved population who would never have access to the same options that they were able to pursue. Gift a surrogacy Foundation is a charitable organization that is committed not only to sponsoring the cost of couples working with surrogates, but also to raising awareness about the lack of family building opportunities for people that cannot conceive using traditional methods. In this episode, we’ll talk to Zach about the cost prohibitive nature of surrogacy, his inspiration for starting gift to surrogacy, and what needs to change in the industry and in our society to make having a family possible for everyone. I’m really excited to welcome back to the show today. Zach, it’s so great to have you join me today. Thank you.
Zach French 01:51
I’m very excited to be here. Eloise, this has been a good relationship that I have built with you in a short amount of time and I’m excited to be on the podcast.
Eloise Drane 01:59
Awesome. So I’m gonna jump right in and ask. The first question is to share your story and share your surrogacy experience.
Zach French 02:09
Yeah, absolutely. So before I got to the surrogacy journey, I have always been kind of on this personal mission to give back. It’s been ingrained in me since I was a little boy, me and my parents used to go and volunteer a couple of times a year. Every year during I’m Jewish, and every year during Hanukkah, we will take one day at a Hanukkah and we go out and we go to serve homeless people food and it just from a young age, it was all about this word sadaqa, which is the Hebrew word for giving back. And so as I grew up, I started to get more involved with charities. I was a big brother for seven years, I was lucky to watch my little brother graduate down in southwest Atlanta when he turned 18, which is crazy made me feel very old. I participated in a few charities around the Jewish religion. I’ve participated in some charities around people that have been non violent criminal offenders. So when the story did come about for gift of surrogacy, it just made sense for me because it also kind of wrapped in like another thing that I’ve been doing for my entire life, which is building better connections for thriving ecosystems and surrogacy is quite the ecosystem, as I started to realize. So in 2019, was where the surrogacy journey kind of began. That’s when my wife was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. We were laying in bed one night, and she felt a lump in her breast. At the time. Obviously, we were very scared. I was also studying for the bar exam. And my wife being the tough person that she is, she turned over me, she goes, You’re not coming to a single appointment, until you go past the bar. And I’m going to take care of this, then I was like, Okay, and so she went through the first month of her journey with my parents and her parents. And then as soon as I was done with the bar exam, I was able to be there for her. She successfully went through chemo radiation and a double mastectomy. And when they were doing her double mastectomy, they found another type of cancer in her lymph nodes. And that was progesterone and estrogen positive, which basically sealed the deal on the fact that we would not be able to produce children the natural way. Luckily, her surgical oncologist had the foresight before she started any treatment to tell us that we needed to freeze or well retrieve eggs, but also freeze and genetically test our embryos. So we had done that ahead of time. So when she got done with treatment, we started our surrogacy journey. We contacted a local agency. We went into the local agency, and we learned about the three buckets as they call them that make up the surrogacy journey. And we also learned that it was very expensive. And there’s a lot of uncertainty.
Eloise Drane 04:48
Do you want to share what those three buckets were?
Zach French 04:51
Yeah, absolutely. So there is the bucket for the surrogate, the surrogate is compensated for their time, and rightfully so. And they’re also provided sort Certain stipend through an escrow account where that covers some of their extra expenses that occurred during the pregnancy. There is the payment for the legal fees and agency fees that are agency the legal fees and agency fees were lumped together, because lawyers were at the agency. And then there are the medical fees. So that is for the embryo transfer and for the medical screening, we went on that journey. We were very fortunate that we could afford it. We had family and friends that helped us out. But we quickly realized that a lot of people really can’t afford it. It was over $120,000 When all was said and done. And so after we had our baby girl, Addison, a year and a half ago, we started to think how we could give back after going through this journey. And that’s where we came up with gift of surrogacy foundation.
Eloise Drane 05:47
Awesome. So for your own journey, specifically, did you guys have insurance benefits that covered anything for third party reproduction?
Zach French 05:57
No, it did not?
Eloise Drane 05:58
Unfortunately, no, obviously, you’re in Atlanta. Unfortunately, Georgia is one of the worst states when it comes to insurance coverage for anything fertility related, let alone anything third party reproduction related, so
Zach French 06:11
And funnily enough, so I worked for a San Francisco based software company at the time. And we had kind of poked the bear, if you will, and I had asked them about it before we knew any of this was happening, because my wife was a carrier for Fragile X. And we wanted to see if there was any support for any type of infertility related issues. And while we interviewed a lot of different companies that do provide that my company at the time, which you know, based in San Francisco kind of forward thinking still did not have anything to help us cover those costs.
Eloise Drane 06:44
Well, and I think for a lot of companies, really, fertility care have not been the for in the forefront of their minds as an organization. You know, I think a lot of people still think of fertility care as something that’s behind closed doors don’t really get involved. And it’s really something that is a desire, not a medical necessity. And I think until corporations and companies start actually reconsidering that fertility care is just as much needed. As you know, if somebody was diabetic, or if somebody even needed a kidney, right, they would actually pay for the kidney donor, and the recipient. And I know that because I have that firsthand experience that they my cousin’s insurance covered my entire care when I gave him a kidney 24 years ago. So the fact that we’re still having this conversation that insurance benefits won’t cover anything, I mean, half of the insurance companies, and it’s not necessarily the companies, what people need to understand, too, is that it’s the organizations in the companies within themselves, they’re the ones who dictate to the insurance company, what we are willing to pay this, pay that or whatever, whatever. And I know, I’m sorry, I can go on a tangent about the whole insurance benefits or whatever. But it just, it’s frustrating, especially when you’re talking about somebody with cancer, and having to have to go this route to have children. And you still don’t think that that is a requirement that you should cover? I
Zach French 08:26
mean, there’s just I think there’s an incentive misalignment, right? A lot of these insurance companies and various organizations are incentivized to keep costs as low as possible. And unfortunately, I’ll only know what reason fertility is not considered something that is necessary to someone’s life. I thought you had the right to grow your family whenever you feel like it. But according to the trend, even I mean, it’s not like it’s getting better. It doesn’t seem like it’s getting any better. In fact, it seems like a lot of this stuff is getting worse that it’s all these startups and all these new companies like progeny and carrot that are having to be started to try and help with this stuff. It’s not the old companies adopting new ways.
Eloise Drane 09:04
Yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, yeah, for sure. So in our agency, in my own life, having been a surrogate three times, I always refer to it as a gift. So I really love your name, because obviously beyond the financial support, surrogacy is a gift on a much deeper level. So my question is, why did you start the gift of surrogacy and why the name like I
Zach French 09:27
kind of alluded to earlier, we were super fortunate. We had a family, our family, when Alex was going through her Alexandria was going through her journey, they actually formed like a committee to help us right to make sure that we did not have to worry about getting food together or any of this kind of stuff. And we had all this support. So when we got done, we were wondering, how do we give back because not everybody has that? Right? Breast cancer has a lot of support. Thank God, right. There’s a lot of organizations out there that support all facets of the The cancer journey. But when we started to look around after our surrogacy journey for grants, there was nobody, there was not a single organization that we could find that covered grants for the full cost of surrogacy. And so we found that to be our opportunity to make an impact. And the reason that we decided on the brand and the name that we came up with was because all we could think about was this, like one line kept running in our heads, which was medical issues take so much from people, why should it take away your ability to have a family and the gift of life, right? The gift of life is one of the most common things that just kept popping up in our heads and we’re like, you know what, maybe we can give the gift of surrogacy to somebody in that same light and be that first organization to offer the full grant for the cost of surrogacy. Now, that quickly blossomed as we got to learn more about the organization and how we were going to raise money and stuff like that. We attended a SEEDS conference in November of last year in Nashville. And we learned that financial support was a good start, but the entire ecosystem needed more support there. So we added an education arm to our program. And we also added a support arm where we’re going to have support groups, for people that are going through the process because even if you don’t need financial support, sometimes you just need someone to talk to.
Eloise Drane 11:27
You need someone to talk to that can absolutely understand the the emotional ups and downs of surrogacy, because I think, you know, you get to a point where, okay, it’s like, oh, wow, okay, I finally, okay, now I know I need to have you in work with the surrogate, and now I have my surrogate and now I need to start this process. And all of those emotional roller coasters doesn’t go away, you know, it doesn’t go away until that baby’s home. And it’s, it can be, it can be a challenge
Zach French 12:00
it can I figured that out firsthand when we were going through our journey. I mean, you go into it, and you’re like, Okay, we have to do this because we want to grow our family. And then you start to realize the kinds of things that you have to discuss with your surrogate with your agency. And it’s very personal, the kinds of stuff that goes into a contract, who makes decisions on different severity of health issues with the baby with a mom. I mean, this, this is not light hearted stuff. This is this is actually trying to give life to somebody and it’s through someone else. So there’s all kinds of screening processes that you have to go through to make sure that you’re ready and that the surrogate is ready. I have to say, like I was kind of like, pleasantly ignorant when I started the process. And afterwards is when I realized that this is this is heavy. There’s a lot of stuff to take in.
Eloise Drane 12:49
So let’s talk about the grant. Specifically, what’s the process for families looking for a grant and what does it all entail?
Zach French 13:00
Absolutely. So I think earlier, I referred back to those three buckets that we saw is kind of like the basic costs of surrogacy. So that was kind of our goal. We wanted to raise enough money to cover those costs, the cost of the surrogate, the cost of the agency and legal costs, and then the medical costs. So what we did is we were like, Okay, how can we raise over $100,000 to get to that point? Well, Alexandra and I, before we had kids were really good at throwing parties. And we were like, Why don’t we just throw a really fun party. And you know what? Charity, gala suck. Frankly, they’re very stuffy. That everybody’s trying to see who’s sitting at the table closest to the stage because they paid the most and better. Let’s make this a fun party. Let’s make it an empty gala Gala. And so it was, you know, general admission. Yes, we had sponsorships, but we had no private tables. We had a band, we had a DJ, we had a huge silent auction. We’re like, you know what, if people have a good time, then they’re going to want to give to our cause. There wasn’t just posted all over the room, even gift of surrogacy, we just wanted people to come into the room and just feel like they were having going to another party. And then when we told our story, then they could decide if they wanted to support our cause. We came out of that in February 4 2023, this year raising $160,000. And we’re able, yeah. But it was updated in real time to the software we were using. And I showed Alexandra when it happened. And I was just like, hey, look, and it was such a good feeling. And so we raised the money. And then came the fun part of the process, if you will, which is like now we need to give this to somebody. So the first thing that we did, we started to look through applications from other foundations that gave for infertility. There was one other organization then having babies that offer surrogacy grants as well, trying to figure out what good criteria would be for the grant. And then also we had to figure out who was going to review it because Alexandra and I we are very new Frank claim to this, we figured that out at seeds. There’s people like yourself Eloise, that have been fighting this fight for 20 plus years, right, trying to make surrogacy go mainstream, if you will. And so we had a lot to learn. And so we tapped local Atlanta resources we have for reproductive endocrinologist on our review committee. We have one local lawyer on the review committee, we have a local psychologist on the review committee who specializes in surrogacy, and now we are assembling a few financial individuals for the review committee. And when this episode airs, the application will be live, which will be pretty fantastic. We’re going to keep the application opened for 90 days, there’s a few eligibility criteria along with being a US citizen, our intended parents this year are going to be limited to state of Georgia residents, we’re going to require that you have three euploid genetically tested embryos already frozen, before you apply. And then once you’re filling out the application, there’s really three main components. There’s a personal statement. So tell us your story. Tell us why you want the grant, then there’s a financial aspect. And yes, we’re going to ask a lot of questions, we have to make sure that this is the right person for this, there are certain costs that may come up that we don’t cover so that you may have to absorb some of those, we hope that does not happen. But that is possible. And then there’s the medical side, you know, how old were you when the eggs were frozen, or when the embryos were frozen, and all that. So there’s a lot of considerations there that we’re going to pass to the medical committee. Now, after they have a chance to review those, were actually going to select three to five finalists, because we want to have the opportunity to interview those individuals and ask any follow up questions that we feel like weren’t covered in the application. So after about four to six week review period, we’re going to call those three to five individuals, there’s going to be a criminal background check that’s gonna be required at that stage. And then we’ll ask those follow up questions before we select our final grantee,
Eloise Drane 16:54
how does it work with finding the surrogate? Do they get to choose like, how was that whole thing that process going to look like?
Zach French 17:03
So since we are a nonprofit, we, one of the things that we have to consider is letting our dollars go as far as possible, we’re going to be trying to work with local agencies in the state of Georgia that can provide us with you know, specialized pricing for something like this. So we’re going to kind of defer to the agencies that help us in order to select that now the clinics can get a Little Bit more complicated. I know there’s some restrictions around embryo transfers and stuff like that. So if they have already frozen their embryos, and they are already at a clinic, then you know, we may have to kind of work with that clinic. But when it comes to the agency, we’re going to kind of work with them through the agency to make sure that this surrogate goes through all the proper screening and make sure that it’s a good fit.
Eloise Drane 17:45
Okay, perfect. So they do have a say as to who’s going to carry for them? Absolutely. Absolutely. with organizations like yours, paving the way What are your hopes for making family building a more equitable playing field?
Zach French 17:59
Yeah, it’s a that’s an interesting question. I know you kind of touched on the behind closed doors aspect of fertility. And I would say that if fertility is behind a closed door, then surrogacy is behind 10 closed doors inside a vault inside a vault. Now, five to seven years ago, I think fertility was in that vault as well. So at least we’re kind of making our way out. So our hopes with this is that we can make surrogacy go mainstream, because I think a lot of people have a lot of legitimate medical reasons that they cannot have children. And frankly, a lot of the experiences that I’ve heard in other instances around like foster care and adoption is really hard to navigate. So we want this to be considered a legitimate option for almost anyone. And that’s going to take paving the road a long way. The financial grants are great, but from our standpoint, why do we have to start an organization? Why is there not government help for something like this? Why is there not insurance help for something like this? Right? We love that. We’re doing it, but at the same time, it’s going to take a lot of lobbying, going to resolve Advocacy Day, which we’re training for right now, to try and get the word out about how important it is and how prevalent infertility is. Such that surrogacy should be something that’s being considered in terms of financial support for the side. I mean, the latest data actually just came out like a few weeks ago, one in six adults now suffer from infertility according to the World Health Organization. Yeah.
Eloise Drane 19:31
Yeah, it is scary. And what’s more scary is that infertility is growing at such a rapid rate because just a couple years ago, we used to say it was one in 10 and then it went from one and eight and now it’s you know, one in six and it’s just like when are people are going to start paying attention to what is actually causing is like, yeah, we can keep putting the bandaid on the you know, wound as it comes, but Why not work to try to figure out well, how was it even getting created? Like, let’s look at those issues. And I mean, an environment clearly is significant. I mean, the things that we’re dealing with now that even 10 years ago when we weren’t dealing with is just, it’s wild. So it’s just yeah, like, I can’t agree with you more. One thing
Zach French 20:21
came to mind when you were talking there. Were treating the symptoms, not the cause. Yeah. Right. Nobody knows what the cause is. I mean, there’s a lot of studies that are being published, I think someone was telling me yesterday that polyester boxer briefs may cause a reduction in sperm count. So you know, how true is that? We don’t know. But that just shows you how spread out the data is right now, we need to be funding real studies with the NIH with legitimate organization so that we can figure out the cause of this and start treating it there. But we’re
Eloise Drane 20:52
not going to be able to do that until quite frankly, society starts looking at this as a real significant problem. And it’s not just people dealing with infertility. I mean, it’s look at the amount of people that are having cancer, and that can’t have a pregnancy, because you’re you can’t bring a child into an environment that’s already toxic, and is getting toxic chemicals in the body to kill these diseases. So you don’t want to introduce a child into that environment. So you have to like or will the LGBTQ community where they can’t, I mean, I don’t have an option, I don’t have a uterus to carry your pregnancy. So therefore, I need the help. It’s more than just infertility. And that’s where insurance companies need to step up, and actually stop worrying more about their bottom line and actually start worrying more about patient care, and the needs of what we’re going through as a society. So okay, I’m gonna get off my tangent.
Zach French 21:56
No, but that’s, I mean, it’s a really good point. I mean, if if, if I was to summarize that, I’d say that we, the insurance companies need to meet us where we are, right? It isn’t about how things have gone in the past. That’s how they are right now. That’s right now, a lot of people cannot grow families, and our population is declining, which we need, like, okay, let’s, let’s get basic care. We need more bodies on this earth for the Earth to keep growing. Right. And we can’t keep doing that. If the infertility rates go up. I got to hear a story the other day, that really disturbed me, which was we have friends who are thinking about having a third child, and they’re no longer having that third child, because these kids so many of their friends, kids were suffering from so many different diseases and issues and going to the hospital. So yes, that’s not even infertility. Right? You know, in quotes, it is people suffering because of something in the environment around us that is causing us to not have any babies or not healthy babies.
Eloise Drane 22:53
Yeah, are not healthy babies. Yeah. Because I mean, the amount of children now that having problems and I mean, literally coming out of the womb with cancer, or, I mean, just let’s just look at autism for a second in the enormous amount of children that are now dealing with autism. It’s like, what, how this is, you know, in the last again, and I keep saying 10 years, but you know, it’s probably much more long. It’s longer than that, but how it’s become such a humongous problem. And, and then when you see that, you know, insurance? Well, we’re not going to cover that. No, no, no, we don’t cover that either. yet. No, no, that’s not a that’s not an issue that we would cover is just like, well, what’s the point? What purpose? Are you serving except taking my money every single month for a premium? And then telling me you’re not going to cover my services that I need?
Zach French 23:56
Exactly. I mean, that’s even on basic medical needs, you’re starting to see more and more. No. So there’s got to be some sort of incentive alignment change, whether it’s government subsidies or what, or a change in the in the models of these insurance companies so that they are incentivized to do their own discovery around what are the problems that people are facing right now? Because this is a major one, right? Oh, yeah. Those are the ones that they should be protecting against. Now, look, I get they have to run their actuarial models and likelihoods and all of that, but do it right. Like that doesn’t mean that you should just exempt it from coverage. Right. Someone that goes through surrogacy may incur an additional cost of what $30,000 to go get insurance to cover surrogacy that is in sane. Yep.
Eloise Drane 24:41
Why? Because majority of surrogates actually have their own medical insurance, but the insurance companies have added exclusions onto their policy so they won’t cover their care. That’s why it’s not because these women don’t have insurance is that her insurance won’t cover it. So I mean, quite Honestly, the way I think of it is between the entire government body in this country, and in all insurance companies, they just need to all go away. We need to start over from scratch. Like, let’s just just let’s just start over from scratch from the Constitution on down.
Zach French 25:19
Go. By the way, you didn’t know this, folks. But as you’re listening to the show, Eloise and I are rewriting the Constitution. Yeah, that’s right.
Eloise Drane 25:26
That’s right. Dang it. Yeah, so it’s yeah, it’s unfortunately I know, we, as individuals, we can sit here and we can talk about all of these things. But until we come together as a collective, and we really start making our voices heard, and one of the reasons why, you know, wanted to do this podcast, and start making our voices heard and getting it louder and louder, that’s when action is finally going to start happening. So
Zach French 25:57
yeah, they’ll be able to take tidbits of this podcast ideally, and use it as evidence to pass new congressional legislative God willing rules. Yeah, I mean, hopefully,
Eloise Drane 26:08
from your mouth to God’s ears.
Zach French 26:11
So I’m learning all about the advocacy right now.
Eloise Drane 26:15
Right. So for anyone listening who wants to do something, how can they get involved?
Zach French 26:20
Yeah, absolutely. So if you want to reach us, a gift to surrogacy Foundation, whether you are unable to afford surrogacy, whether you’re about to go through a surrogacy process are you’ve been diagnosed with a medical illness that may lead to a necessity for surrogacy, we are here to support you. You can visit our website at gift of surrogacy foundation.org. We have some information there, you can input your email, contact us, we’d love to talk to you. We talked to people all the time, we realized that this is a really tough journey for people. And so we’re here to kind of cover that educational that support and that financial side of the surrogacy industry. And the other thing is, is you know, I alluded to this earlier, surrogacy is just one part of the little ecosystem. We’re here to help make that more prominent, but there’s other parts of this ecosystem. So if you aren’t sure who to reach out to, and you just happen to come to our website, call us because we’re starting to meet wonderful people like Eloise people like Richard Westby, who has been a huge help to us than this whole entire journey, Lynn Goldman here in Atlanta, that are able to direct you to the right people. So we just want to be a resource to everybody that needs it.
Eloise Drane 27:28
Yep. Absolutely. Well, thank you, Zach, for being on the show with me today. And we’ll be adding information in the link for gift to surrogacy in our show notes so people can easily get access. But thank you for your time. And I am excited to see who the first family is going to be that’s going to get this grant and what that’s going to look like because that’s going to be truly amazing.
Zach French 27:52
Thanks for having me.
Eloise Drane 27:55
Thank you so much for listening. If you found this episode helpful, please rate fertility Cafe on your favorite listening platform and share this episode with anyone you think could benefit from hearing it. Tune in next week for another amazing episode on fertility cafe. Until then, remember, love has no limits. Neither should parenthood