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Several years ago, William Preston began feeling the pressure of time. He and his husband, who had been together since they were teenagers, were now in their 30s and beginning to think seriously about starting a family.

But they were shocked when they found out the costs of surrogacy and adoption. So, Preston was thrilled when his employer, the San Francisco-headquartered Internet of Things company Samsara, made a special announcement last November. Starting in 2019, it would be offering up to $15,000 (£12,300) per-employee-per-year to cover fertility expenses.

It was a no-brainer to sign up for the fertility benefit immediately, Preston says. If they’d been sitting on the fence before then, the new policy “pushed us over the fence”.

Preston, a sales executive who’d previously worked for small Bay Area start-ups, was initially drawn to Samsara partly because of its generous perks, from catered lunch to Uber and Lyft credits. But the value of the fertility benefit – which can also include egg and embryo freezing, adoption and semen analysis – dwarfed those.

Of course, the couple will still have to shell out large sums from their own earnings. The cost of commercial surrogacy, which is banned in many countries such as the UK and Germany, can reach six figures in the US (but less than half that in Ukraine and Kenya). This process involves paying a gestational carrier (surrogate) to carry a baby for the intended parents. The eggs could come from her, an intended mother or an egg donor. Sperm could come from an intended father or a sperm donor. An embryo fertilised through IVF could also be implanted in the gestational carrier. So a baby born through this process might be biologically related to one or more of the parents, but not necessarily.    

As you might imagine, then, the process has a lot of steps. The Samsara policy, administered externally by the fertility benefits management company Carrot, went beyond financial support to include a wealth of information that Preston and his husband found useful.

After a long process of choosing an egg donor and verifying the clinic, the couple are expecting to receive their eggs later this month. They are hoping for a successful pregnancy by the end of 2019. An old friend of theirs has already offered to carry the baby (they’re finalising the arrangements including the compensation). Surrogacy appealed because “being part of the same DNA as the child was somewhat near the top of the list”, Preston explains, but they’re open to adoption as well.

The benefit is available to all Samsara employees regardless of length of service, and at the moment there’s no requirement to stay with the company for a certain length of time to retain it. But there’s a subtler effect. “If anything, it makes you feel like you want to do well and that you want to succeed in the role so that you can continue to take advantage of that,” Preston says. As the company benefit is available each year, he’s hoping to draw on it next year as well, when the couple expect their first child to be born.

US law and consulting firms were among the first to offer fertility benefits for staff (Credit: Getty Images)

Why companies are offering costly surrogacy benefits

Because Carrot handles all the fertility arrangements, Samsara doesn’t know who’s accessing these benefits, according to Melissa Yeh, Samsara’s head of people (she works in human resources). “For us, it’s really about investing in our employees,” says Yeh when explaining why the company offers this benefit.

The idea was suggested by a group of female employees, and the company was quick to see the advantages: “That was something we’re really excited about, to lean into these benefits that we heard from the larger tech companies – the Googles and the Apples of the world. So we knew we’d be leading the market for our size and stage, and we’re happy with that.” (Apple and Google have been some of the most visible companies to offer parental benefits early on, from parental leave to egg-freezing.)

Yeh doesn’t seem daunted by the cost to the company or the possibility of employees essentially taking the money and running. “We have a really rigorous hiring process, and our employees are highly trusted…So it’s not something we put into policy to have some sort of reimbursement; this isn’t necessarily to keep people around if they don’t want to be around.”

There are stricter requirements however at Circle, a Boston-based surrogacy and egg donation company that naturally offers surrogacy coverage to its own staff. These include Kristin Marsoli, director of marketing, who has herself experienced infertility and surrogacy. As Marsoli explains, employees taking up this benefit must have been with the company for at least one year, and stay for six months after the child is born.

Whatever their exact policies, these companies are no longer outliers in the US. Fertility packages are spreading quickly, and are more likely to be offered by large companies.

According to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP), 31% of US employers with at least 500 employees offered fertility benefits in 2018, compared to 24% in 2016 (although not all of these will include support with surrogacy). Fertility plans have been described as the latest offerings in a “benefit arms race” among tech companies competing for talent. But other types of companies are running in this race.

Analysis by fertility website FertilityIQ suggests that the US workplaces with the most generous IVF policies include, yes, tech companies like Pinterest, but also Unilever and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The surrogacy coverage can’t be inclusive in terms of geography, because laws on commercial surrogacy vary widely. It’s illegal in much of Europe and some US states, for instance. In some jurisdictions it’s limited to heterosexual or married couples. And in the UK, only altruistic (unpaid) surrogacy is legal. Thus, at an international company like Samsara, with offices in the Bay Area, Atlanta and London, not all employees can benefit. (In general, of course, few employee benefits are truly universal.)

Surrogacy is highly restricted in India, where a bill passed recently by one of its houses of parliament, and pending with the other, would limit the practice to Indian couples who have been married for at least five years. Additional conditions would include age limits, a doctor’s certification of the couple’s infertility and a requirement that the woman carrying the baby be a close relative of the couple.

In the US, coverage amounts vary. Software firm Salesforce’s surrogacy benefit is capped at $10,000; Facebook reputedly offers $20,000; and Snap, best known for its social network Snapchat, is reported to provide up to $80,000.

This benefit extends to a whopping $200,000 for some clients of fertility benefits management company WINFertility. According to Peter Nieves, WINFertility’s chief commercial officer, “25% of our clients that offer a managed family-building benefit are offering a surrogacy benefit as part of the package. In addition, we’re currently seeing a significant increase in employer interest to offer this benefit next year.” 

Nieves believes that the trend started with law and consulting firms in the US, “because professionals in these fields often spend the bulk of their childbearing years in graduate and legal programmes, prepping for a demanding career. By the time they are ready to focus on family, their fertility has declined, requiring assisted reproductive services. Due to employee demand these industries started offering surrogacy as a benefit to recruit and retain career-focused top talent."

India was previously an international hub for surrogacy but national laws have changed (Credit: Getty Images)

The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans says 31% of US employers with at least 500 employees offered fertility benefits in 2018, compared to 24% in 2016

Conflicting opinions on surrogacy

“For a gay couple like my partner and me, it’s especially important,” says sales executive Preston, as some companies still don’t inclusive benefits.  In contrast, “a perk like this does make you feel included. It does make you feel like you’re an important part of the organisation.” He’s referring to the LGBTQ-inclusive nature of benefits that recognise the many varied ways people build their families.

But the extent of this trend shouldn’t be overstated. FertilityIQ found about 250 US companies offering fertility benefits, and the number providing surrogacy benefits is bound to be even smaller. IFEBP’s 2017 survey of paid leave found that while 80% of the US organisations surveyed offered some form of paid leave for adoption, only 56% did the same for intended parents working with gestational carriers. Clearly, not everyone is on board with surrogacy.

For example, India was previously a hub of international surrogacy. The US is one now, partly due to the perceived benefits of US citizenship for newborns. Ukraine, where laws are looser, is another. But Ukrainian “baby factories” have been criticised for shoddy conditions and exploitation of the women carrying the children.

Even under better conditions, a general argument against commercial surrogacy is that it commodifies women’s bodies – making them into baby factories. Feminists and bioethicists debate whether surrogacy truly empowers women to make decisions regarding their bodies or relegates poor women to being wombs for rent.

A different concern is that companies may be offering generous fertility packages partly as an inducement to tie their employees into working even longer and delaying parenthood further.

These divided views mean that companies that partly subsidise surrogacy are opening themselves up to controversy. Yet responses from employees, for instance shared anonymously on recruitment websites, tend to be positive. Female employees are especially likely to express interest in working for companies that cover fertility costs. And in general, assisted reproductive technology is important to LGBTQ people planning families.

Preston, who hopes to become a father next year, hopes that more companies will offer these kinds of benefits in the future. For employees, he believes, “it would be a huge incentive”.

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