Flicking through the profiles, you’ll see hopeful smiles paired with assurances of high IQs, emotional maturity, Harvard degrees, excellent genes, and clear medical histories.
But this isn’t a dating app.
Just a Baby, an app launched in February in Australia, can connect you with “biological conception partners.” It’s a Tinder-like matching service where you can offer or seek sperm, eggs, or surrogates. In its first two months, it’s been downloaded 3,000 times ― and while members are mainly based in Australia, membership is growing in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. as word spreads.
Of course, sperm and egg donation aren’t new. Techniques to freeze sperm were invented in the 1950s, giving way to sperm banks. The first baby created with a donor egg was born in Australia in 1983, and egg donor agencies have been around since the early 1990s.
But demand for surrogates and gametes ― the technical term for sperm and oocytes, or immature eggs ― continues to rise. More than 20 percent of in vitro fertilization-related births in the U.S. now involve third parties. Use of donor eggs and embryos, specifically, has increased nearly 27 percent since 2005.
Not everyone has equal access to donor materials or surrogates. Paid surrogacy is banned in many countries, and even in some U.S. states. LGBTQ people and single people may be refused reproductive services. Eggs and surrogates may be hard to find or too costly, and many people prefer to work with a known donor. As for sperm, some people want to keep the insemination process entirely out of a medical setting. These scenarios are where an app can come in.
App creator Paul Ryan of Sydney says Just a Baby is his attempt to make alternative forms of family-building seem less alternative.
“There are so many people in this boat, who needed a forum in which to put their hand up and say: I want to make a baby,” Ryan said. “I figure if we can all get together, we’re going to find people who want to make babies with us, one way or another.”
A look around the app reveals people’s varied needs for reproductive assistance. Andy, 28, says he’s wanted to be a dad since he was a teenager, so he and his partner, Peter, are looking for a surrogate. Because of her age, Jane, 50, and her 33-year-old male partner need a donated egg to help them conceive. They are willing to trade sperm for eggs. Chase, 28, is desperate to be a mother, but does not currently have or want a partner, so she needs a sperm donor or co-parent. Alicia, 37, can’t bear a child because of health issues, so she is seeking a surrogate. Kayarnah, 32, and her female partner would like to give their 2-year-old daughter a younger sibling.
Just a Baby may be part of a trend. A London sperm bank debuted an app last year. On the CoParents website and app, you can search for a sperm donor or co-parent among 100,000 members in North America, the U.K., and Australia. There’s even an at-home insemination guide. Known Donor Registy doesn’t have an app yet, but its website has it all ― donor sperm, eggs, surrogates, co-parents, and 33,000 members.
The ethical and legal complexities of egg-shopping
Unlike with a dating app, there are complex questions of legal liability, medical ethics, and responsibility associated with creating a baby with a stranger.
Dominique Martin, a bioethics professor at Deakin University in Australia, worries about people establishing donation terms casually, over an app, without being fully informed about what exactly it can mean to donate eggs or sperm.
“Any app or other mechanism that helps to connect people for the purpose of creating families through gamete donation needs to inform people of the risks and benefits, what to watch out for, and how to get help if problems arise,” she said.
The app’s terms of service advise users to seek legal advice before placing an ad, and to familiarize themselves with any local or national laws regarding surrogates or donors. Once you log in, the app also offers some initial legal suggestions and contact information for a fertility lawyer. But some fertility doctors have concerns outside of the law.
“I think there are many dangers to people pursuing exchange of sperm and eggs outside the medical system,” said Vitaly Kushnir, a reproductive endocrinologist at New York’s Center for Human Reproduction, one of the nation’s top fertility clinics. “These range from being physically assaulted while meeting strangers to sexually transmitted infections. Long-term issues include parental rights like visitation and financial responsibilities like alimony.”
A less traditional family-creation arrangement doesn’t necessarily mean a greater chance of running into legal issues. Problems can arise even when pursing treatment with a romantic partner at a fertility clinic. In one famous case, the actress Sofia Vergara is being sued by her former partner and, in a surreal twist, her own embryos.
In the U.S., egg donation is big business
Unlike procuring sperm, egg donation is a highly invasive medical procedure. Short- and long-term health risks for donors remain largely under-researched. And compensation of egg donors is an ethical quagmire. Laws vary by country. Paying for reproductive tissue is illegal in Australia, so it can be hard to come by. Just a Baby reminds users that donors or surrogates found via the app cannot be paid.
Last year, “60 Minutes” exposed the country’s thriving black market for donor eggs, where couples “will fork out up to $20,000 ― risking 15 years in jail.” In this case, Ryan’s app might prove helpful by connecting would-be parents to a wider pool of donors willing to provide eggs for free.
In the U.S., eggs can legally fetch anywhere from $7,000 to $20,000, depending on donor attributes like intelligence, eye color, and ethnicity. So in this country, an app like Just a Baby would have the potential to be less like Tinder and more like eBay.
“I have concerns that exploitation and coercion of vulnerable people to sell their gametes to the highest bidder could take place on these kind of platforms,” Kushnir said. “While I understand the need for various reproductive services, I think they are best provided by licensed fertility clinics.”
A gift for the LGBTQ community?
Pasquale Patrizio, director of the Yale Fertility Center & Fertility Preservation program, is more optimistic about the usefulness of such an app. “I think it will catch on and hopefully be useful for people who want a family but don’t want to start with high-cost technology,” he said.
LGBTQ people, in particular, may benefit, since they frequently encounter discrimination in health care settings ― including denial of fertility services. But while apps may provide more opportunities for people to seek donors, they won’t eradicate inequities, Martin stresses.
“We need to address the factors which can undermine equity of access to donor gametes,” she said. “Apps like Just a Baby are aiming to address real barriers to family formation in society, but they might not always offer the best solutions for everyone.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified the location of Deakin University. It is in Australia, not Canada.