A little more than twenty-five years ago, a fictional character sparked a nationwide debate and shattered preconceived social norms. Murphy Brown was more than a journalist and television news anchor—she was debunking the perception of women in the workplace contrived decades earlier. Played by Candice Bergen, Murphy Brown was in her forties, divorced, and had a child outside of marriage. It was 1992, and Murphy Brown’s narrative shocked and inspired audiences.
The polarity of the character only grew when Vice President Dan Quayle, speaking about family values, criticized the show, stating that Murphy Brown’s decision mocked the importance of fathers, calling the choice to bear a child alone “just another lifestyle choice.” The comments garnered a response from the show on September 21, 1992, when Brown’s character stated: “Perhaps it’s time for the vice president to expand his definition and recognize that, whether by choice or circumstances, families come in all shapes and sizes.”
With that sentence, the changing tide in the United States was officially in full force. And to this day, the evolution of what is considered the modern-day family continues.
“Over this arc of time, we’re seeing how the construct of family changes,” says Nazca Fontes, founder and CEO of ConceiveAbilities. “We’re witness to the shifting models of parenthood and family. We see single mothers by choice, we see single fathers by choice. So it is definitely changing and evolving. And what I do definitely plays a big role in that, particularly as it relates to same-sex couples. With the recognition of same-sex marriage here and in places around the world, we have a huge movement of same-sex couples pursuing surrogacy as an option.”
“We’re witness to the shifting models of parenthood and family. We see single mothers by choice, we see single fathers by choice. So it is definitely changing and evolving.”
It was four years after that episode of Murphy Brown aired that Fontes would found ConceiveAbilities, a Chicago-based agency that provides resources for egg donation, assists with matching parents with surrogates, and coordinates gestational surrogacy—which unlike traditional surrogacy creates no genetic link from surrogate mother to child.
“When I started ConceiveAbilities, egg donation was something that was just coming into its own as a commercial viability for intended parents,” Fontes recalls. “Before that period of time, it was relatively unknown, and it really wasn’t widely practiced in the field of infertility.”
Having previously worked in infertility clinics, Fontes recognized a tremendous need for assisting families when it came to finding egg donors. At a time before the widespread use of the internet or a donor database, it typically took more than a year to find one available donor. Clinics struggled with recruiting donors, much less getting repeat donors. Seeing the need to introduce a better way, Fontes put herself in the shoes of intended parents and assessed what they would want in the process, such as a photo of the donor, more information about their family and background, and strong guidance throughout the process from passionate counselors.
“I really wanted to create a situation where the intended parents had more trust in the process and more transparency,” Fontes says.
Today, ConceiveAbilities has grown into one of the most renowned agencies for egg donation and surrogacy in the nation. Partnering with physicians and intended parents around the world in aiding in family reproduction, ConceiveAbilities has developed a high-quality reputation in the industry through client interaction, transparency, and its unique Matching Matters process. The program includes pre-screening surrogate candidates for both medical and psychological criteria, and all surrogates and egg donors are vetted with strict standards to increase the chances for an ideal match.
Through Match Matters, about 95 percent of intended parents are matched with the first surrogate presented. Engagement is also typically 13–18 months, as opposed to 18–24 months at other agencies.
But just as ConceiveAbilities has grown over the past two decades, so too has the construct of the modern family. What was once considered controversial after Murphy Brown raised a child as a single mother is now just one way families can be shaped today. Surrogacy and egg donations are now deliberate choices by intended parents as a means for family creation. Same-sex couples, single men, and single women are pursuing surrogacy as a premeditated choice. Fontes says one of the primary catalysts for that change has been the wider acceptance of same-sex marriage in recent years.
“I believe that as long as they continue to assert their right to have a family, I think that they will be the catalyst for the cultural shift,” Fontes says.
Fontes also points to the advent of social media and ubiquity of the internet as another reason for the culture shift in accepting surrogacy. Now, people can go online and see single mothers and fathers who intentionally chose to be single parents.
“Surrogacy and egg donation used to be the last resort option,” Fontes says. “Obviously, we help those who do find themselves at this juncture in their family building and this is the last resort as a medical treatment, but for others, it is more of a deliberate and cautious decision to build a family.”
In an industry that deals with life itself, sensitivity and understanding are of the utmost importance. Fontes says families need to be confident that they are in the hands of a company that puts their interests first and offers the professional support to carry out the process. That process, according to Fontes, does not stop when a match is made for surrogacy. ConceiveAbilities brings forth a team of experts—be it a medical team, legal team, counselors, therapists, insurance agents, and more—as support for the growing family. Surrogacy is a deeply complex process, which is why ConceiveAbilities offers such a vast team of knowledgeable experts. Fontes says that while there are many well-intended surrogacy advocates, there can also be a lack of oversight and expertise, which results in uncertainty for families.
“Consumers are challenged to find a trustworthy source to do something so profound,” Fontes says. “We are dealing with life, and for those who want to build a family with a third party, they need to be confident that they are in the hands of a company that really puts their interests first and offers the professional support to carry out the process. ConceiveAbilities puts its stake in the ground by having a multi-disciplinary team that really is unrivaled in the industry. It is offering the best quality and the best service.”
While Fontes and ConceiveAbilities are leading the evolution that the writers of Murphy Brown helped inspire decades ago, there is still work to be done in changing the perception of what is considered the modern family, especially when it comes to societal judgment of women’s reproductive choices. Women now have the ability to exercise choices not only when, but in how they can build their family. With or without a partner, surrogacy now supplements in vitro fertilization (IVF), egg freezing, sperm donation, and egg donation, which creates control for people when it comes to timing opportunities rather than pursuing various technologies that were once considered a last resort.
“I think traditionally we’re supposed to want to carry our own children, we’re supposed to want to enter into the traditional construct of family, but life unfolds in a variety of ways, at different times for different people,” Fontes says. “Where there was once no altering the biological destiny of parenthood, and motherhood, in particular, we now have the ability to face different paths of well-thought-out choices on one’s personal and professional situation in life.”
Photos: Michelle Nolan