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One couple's IVF journey

This is crazy . . .

This is what I'm thinking as I get a crash course on how babies are created in a petri dish.

I'm sitting with my wife, Jill, in a consultation room at IVF Florida, a Margate clinic that specializes in reproductive medicine, particularly in vitro fertilization, aka IVF.

IVF is a medical procedure by which ripe eggs are removed from a woman's ovaries, fertilized with sperm and grown into embryos in a lab. Up to three of the embryos are then implanted into the woman's uterus.

So we are learning about things like ovary-stimulation, clean sperm, frozen sperm and ethical dilemmas, including what to do with leftover embryos.

Again, this is crazy.

* * *

For the better part of three years, Jill and I have been trying to conceive a child.

And for five morning-sickness-riddled but blissful months in 2007, we had a child on the way.

A sudden, unexplained illness compelled Jill to deliver prematurely at 20 weeks and three days, and our child was stillborn.

That kind of grief never leaves you. You cope.

After a year or so of trying again, Jill and I decided to explore artificial means of having a baby.

* * *

"Normal'' ovulation -- the release of ripe eggs from the ovaries -- for a woman is equivalent to a sparkler being lit at a Fourth of July picnic. But IVF (and the similar artificial insemination, aka IUI) involve a woman being pumped so full of medicinal stimulants that ovulation becomes a full fireworks show, with a greater number of eggs being produced than happens naturally, thus increasing the odds that fertilization will take place when they're joined with sperm.

Sperm is then "cleaned'' and, for IUI, is inserted directly into the uterus. For in vitro, sperm is taken to a lab and joined in scientific matrimony with the removed eggs. Sperm and eggs grow -- hopefully -- into embryos after a few days, and are then re-implanted into the uterus.

In both procedures, the possibility of multiple births is very real, though more easily controlled with IVF, since the doctor can limit the number of embryos implanted.

Nadya Suleman, aka "Octomom," the California woman who made headlines last month for adding eight IVF-grown kids to the six she already had, was implanted with six embryos. She ended up with eight babies because two embryos split.

But that is not the norm. The industry standard, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, is no more than two or three embryos implanted at one time.

* * *

In spite of the Frankenstein-esque quality about making babies in labs, both methods seemed simple to me until right in the middle of our unsuccessful IUI attempt in January. The headlines surrounding Suleman made us start thinking more about the moral and practical questions.

I began to realize how complicated this could get when Jill awakened from a dead sleep one night, shook me awake and asked, "What would they do with the extras?"

I mumbled what I'd picked up from common knowledge and medical documentaries: "freeze 'em."

Of course Jill already knew that. "I mean, what will they do if we're successful on the first or second or third try and then decide we don't want any more kids? We could have a dozen embryos left. They can't keep 'em in cold storage forever, can they?"

Good question, and one of many we had for Dr. Wayne Maxson, founder of IVF Florida and the man smiling at us from behind the desk that February day.

Before we can ask Maxson anything though, we have to meet with the finance officer at IVF Florida.

Jill and I have been saving our pennies just in case we ever tried something like this. But pennies aren't paying for our IVF. My mother-in-law is, God bless her.

IVF, which takes six to eight weeks per try, can cost about $10,000 to $12,000 a cycle, plus another $2,500 to $5,000 or so for medications.

In our case, the cost will be just over $23,000, plus about $2,500 for meds.

Our price is so steep because we opted for a package deal called the Shared Risk Program that allows us to pay up front at reduced price for three tries at in vitro using fresh embryos, and three attempts -- should the first three not work -- using back-up frozen embryos.

If we're fortunate enough that the first try works, we'll get a refund of 70 percent of what's left of our money.

* * *

Back in Maxson's office, he discusses misconceptions about success rates.

"People don't realize how hard it is to get pregnant naturally," he says. "Those success rates are usually about 25 percent when a woman is in her 20s, in her prime, and they go down from there. A woman in her 40s has less than a 5 percent chance of getting pregnant naturally."

In vitro success rates vary, Maxson says. IVF Florida, one of 11 such clinics in South Florida recognized by the Centers for Disease Control, sees about a 50 percent pregnancy rate among its patients who attempt IVF over IUI.

Jill and I knew the odds. We were most curious about the ethics of dealing with leftover embryos.

Many people -- including Jill -- believe that disposing of embryos is tantamount to abortion. Same goes with "selective reduction," removing some embryos from the uterus if there are too many "possibilities'' on board.

As it turns out, indefinite frozen storage isn't the only option.

Some parents donate embryos to stem cell research. We're all for the concept of stem cell research. But I don't know if we could donate our embryos.

As with eggs and sperm separately, embryos can also be donated to embryo adoption facilities.

But it's just too weird, at least right now, to think that some other couple years from now would be walking around with our biological child.

* * *

It's all a bit overwhelming.

Our first procedure will be the second week of March. After then, for the following six to eight weeks, we'll often be on call and could be required to report to the clinic several times a week, especially when the time draws near for Jill's eggs to be retrieved for fertilization.

Technically, all my questions have been answered. Practically though, I still feel clueless.

But I'm convinced that, if it works, the ends will definitely justify the means.