FOX21 SPECIAL REPORT: In Vitro Fertilization – Then and Now

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Rhea Harless, named after the Greek goddess of fertility, did not arrive in this world by chance.

“They told us we had less than a one percent chance [of conceiving naturally],” said Kelli Harless, Rhea’s mother.

The four-month old girl is here because of science and the increasingly affordable cost of in vitro fertilization.

“The birds and the bees were not how she came to be. She’s different,” said Harless.

Harless and her husband saved up everything they had for a year to pay for IVF.

Rhea is also here thanks to the pioneers of IVF, like Ellen Casey of Colorado Springs.

“I’ll never forget, I was sitting in the room waiting for the doctor and he walked in and said ‘Well, Ellen, you can’t get pregnant,’ and he didn’t look at me,” recalled Casey. “I was sitting there thinking ‘Oh my God, Oh my God.’ I’ll never forget it, but I knew I would,” said Casey.

One infection, 8 surgeries, then two failed pregnancies later, Ellen was running out of options.

“I had to do it before the Internet. Think about that. I had to sit in the basement of the library going through medical journals on microfilm.”

In December 1981, Ellen heard about the first test-tube baby born in the U.S.

“When Elizabeth Carr was born in Norfolk, Virginia, I knew I would have a test-tube baby. I knew it.”

Ellen was admitted to an experimental program in Houston. Altogether, her treatment cost $60,000 – and that was back in 1983. That’s equivalent to about $145,000 dollars in 2016.

“At the time, luckily, Elizabeth’s father, my husband, was a really successful stockbroker, so we were able to afford it.”

It worked.

“Easiest delivery, easiest pregnancy, she was the joy from the second she was born,” said Casey.

Elizabeth’s birth announcement graced the front page of USA Today.

Ellen spoke with every local and national reporter who asked, hoping to increase awareness and normalize the procedure.

“I’m a perfectly normal woman. I was a young woman at the time and had a perfectly normal darling baby, and I wanted people to know this isn’t morally elicit, which is what the Pope said.

Now 33 years later, Elizabeth – Colorado’s first baby born from IVF – is all grown up, married and living with her husband in Chicago.

Only now is she fully understanding the impact her mother made.

“It’s obviously a huge compliment. It’s something that shows me how much they really loved me and wanted a baby,” said Elizabeth. “Knowing because of my mom and the things that she was willing to go through to prove out the process, my close friends are able to have their adorable children.”

Both Elizabeth and Ellen are thrilled to see the barriers of having a baby torn down.

Dr. Paul Magarelli, a board-certified endocrinologist and fertility specialist, is one of the doctors pushing the prices down.

“I can say almost everyone, ‘if you’re willing to embrace this technology and I make it affordable, you have a better than 50 percent chance.’ That is remarkable to be able to say that versus when I started in the 80’s… three percent.”

Dr. Magarelli turned the industry on its head. He and everyone in his practice took a 15 percent pay cut.

They slashed prices to $4,800 for the most basic IVF, compared to the national average of $12,000. From there, he goes up to $8,900 for the most effective option.

His margins went way down, but the number of patients (and eventually parents) multiplied.

“Sixty percent of my patients are young guys and gals in the military. They don’t make very much,” he said.

He also points out the cost of medical equipment and technology has fallen.

“Well, if it’s less expensive and more accessible and there’s a lot more people trained in it, you would think it would be less and less expensive. Please ask your doctor wherever you are, ‘why is it $20,000?'”

Researchers estimate well over 5 million babies have now been born worldwide with the help of fertility treatments.

Elizabeth was one of the very first, while little Rhea is one of the more recent – two lives forever linked to science.

“Words can’t describe how happy she makes us,” said Harless.

“Never ever ever give up,” said Casey.

*** Keep in mind – even with the $4,800 option, Dr. Magarelli says “cost to baby” is a little less than $10,000 when you include medications and other tests. A variety of individual variables impacts the final price.

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