LEE COUNTY, FLA — Before each new batch of embryo creation, workers at IVFMD Fertility Center in Naples, do routine testing of their equipment, using specimens from smaller animals.
"They're mouse embryos," said IVFMD Physician Dr. Connie Alford.
Dr. Alford says they do this to make sure nothing goes wrong for their upcoming batch of human patients.
And she says even in a pandemic, the patients are still coming.
"We've been increasing every year steadily, but last year we weren't expecting to increase, we were expecting to decrease but we actually continued to increase," said Dr. Alford.
Here's why she thinks that is:
"Having a family is so important to people and I actually think that when people stayed home and they were not working or even if they were working, the virus helped really make people prioritize things," she said.
A study from the Guttmacher Institute seems to back that up. It shows that while the pandemic made many hesitant to get pregnant, almost a fifth of women said it actually made them want to have a baby.
"Fertility doesn't get any better with time and I believe right at the beginning when people expected this to only last a month or two and then the virus had its own plans to last a little bit longer than that," said Dr. Alford.
And while some looking to expand their family are going to clinics like IVFMD in Naples, we've also learned that some looking for a positive pregnancy test are turning to social media for help.
They're people like Lakisha, a mother who lives in Southwest Florida.
"My body is about to start changing and I don't want to wait until it's too late," she said.
She tells FOX 4, that she has been wanting to get pregnant again, but she and her wife needed a sperm donor.
"Me and my wife were looking into sperm banks at first, but we noticed they were a bit costly," she said, "You may find some for $650 but I have never found one for under $1,000, they all want $1000 or more."
It's a price she says they couldn't afford, so a few years ago she tried Facebook and landed on the group Sperm Donation USA.
"I did find my donor in there," she said.
And after two years of talking and meeting up to get to know him, she says they recently did their first round of artificial insemination.
"We didn't try until last year November," she said.
And she's not alone.
According to the group's founder Kyle Gordy, they currently have about 15,000 members nationwide. And there are several other groups online that promote the same services.
"I started it because I realized that women want another alternative to a sperm bank," said Gordy.
Gordy lives in California and says he's started the group four years ago after working as a donor in the LGBTQ community out there, for years.
He says he saw a jump in the group's numbers during the pandemic.
"A lot more people a) have a lot more time on their hands because they're working from home and b) some people lost their jobs and are waiting to get a new job and their spouse is working and they're using this time to get pregnant," he said.
So here's how it works: male donors reach out and ask to be added to the group. Gordy says he and a team of page administrators "vet" them and then allow them in. Once they're in, they post their name, age, location, and some background info. Women and couples who are already in the group can then reach out if they're interested or they can post if they're in search of a donor.
"Anything a sperm bank offers we can offer more because yes, a sperm bank offers genetic testing, std testing, and sperm analysis, but a lot of our donors already have this done," he said.
Then there's getting the actual donation.
Gordy says donors and recipients work out whether they want it to be shipped or dropped off in person.
And what about payment?
In the state of Florida, you're not allowed to pay for the actual donation. But a Miami-based lawyer who specializes in fertility law, Manny Segarra, says there are other ways to offset the costs.
"You can compensate for the medical costs if there is any, which sometimes it's nominal. You can pay for the storage and any of those expenses as well," he said.
Segarra says many of his clients use "known donors," but typically don't find them on social media.
He adds that while Florida state law technically should protect folks from being sued for child support or custody in these cases, he draws up contracts just to be sure.
"You're gonna have the amount of time the donation is gonna occur. You're gonna have the clinic or facility where the procedure or artificial technique is going to occur. In addition to that, you're going to have language discussing any costs associated with it," he said, "I have language in there that no one is going to call him dad or sperm donor or anything like that. There is language in there about what they're actually gonna call the sperm donor."
They're contracts that they also encourage in the Sperm Donation USA group, though some of the language will vary depending on where the donor and recipient live.
It's a lot of information for interested recipients to digest, but Lakisha says the key in all of this is to take your time.
"If you are a mother out there that is looking for it, do your research. There is a perfect donor out there for you, you just have to search," she said.
That said, she says she also understands that some will see this and judge.
"Some women are probably afraid or scared of how somebody is going to look at them, but they can't look at that. You gotta find your happiness," she said.
But she does add that when it comes to expanding her family, even in a pandemic, this is the route that's worked best for her.
"If I could have did it with the other three children I have, I would have did it," she said.