Donna Carr cried when her name was called. They should have been tears of joy, but Carr felt guilty: Surrounding the Minnesota woman and her husband were dozens of women and couples facing infertility, just like they were.
"It was hard to stand there and know we were the ones when maybe other people needed it more," she said.
It was 2007 and Carr, then 37, had just won one free cycle of in vitro fertilization (IVF), a procedure in which an egg and sperm are joined in a laboratory and later implanted in a woman's uterus.
She was one of a lucky few. Last weekend, two more women won free IVF treatments at an annual Minnesota conference -- the same one that awarded Carr her treatment three years ago -- and, on Wednesday, another woman won a free treatment with donated eggs at an IVF seminar in London.
With scant insurance coverage often available for IVF and each treatment cycle costing some $12,000 or more, IVF advocates and treatment winners call such giveaways nothing short of a miracle.
IVF patients, advocates say, sometimes must make budget-busting choices to pay for the procedure, such as taking out loans, leaning heavily on credit cards or depleting their life savings. Adding to the financial burden: first-time IVF treatments often don't work and many women must undergo -- and pay for -- several IVF cycles before successfully carrying a pregnancy to term, if they get pregnant at all.
"It's very expensive and many people have to make really difficult choices about if they're able to become parents," said Julie Berman, a former IVF patient and the chairwoman of an infertility and adoption conference hosted last weekend by RESOLVE, a national infertility organization. "They're making huge sacrifices to be able to afford it."
At RESOLVE's weekend conference, held in Golden Valley, Minn., the organization awarded IVF treatment cycles from a Canadian clinic and from the Reproductive Medicine Center at the University of Minnesota, which provided Carr's treatment in 2007.
The weekend giveaway came just four days before a similar event in the United Kingdom: the Genetics & IVF Institute of Fairfax, Va., a private infertility center, awarded one free IVF treatment and donor eggs -- for women who can't use their own eggs -- at an IVF seminar in London, where a lack of egg donors has left long waiting lists of would-be moms and dads.
GIVF said it has donated at least seven IVF treatments in the last couple of years, while the Reproductive Medicine Center in Minnesota said it has been donating an IVF cycle to RESOLVE's Minnesota conference each year for the last decade.
Such giveaways aren't the only way to receive free IVF: Through its Partnership for Families program, the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio provides a free, second cycle of IVF treatments to couples who earn less than $100,000 a year and who paid for a first cycle but didn't succeed in conceiving.
University of Minnesota Law School professor Michele Bratcher Goodwin, the editor of the 2009 book "Baby Markets: Money and the New Politics of Creating Families," said IVF giveaways are a relatively recent phenomenon, coming to the fore as the 30-year-old practice of IVF procedures has matured into a full-fledged industry.
Offering free products or services is "a way of advertising," Goodwin said. "What we basically see is an industry unfolding in a way that we've seen other privatized industries unfold before it."