WASHINGTON -- Married 14 years and yearning to have their own baby, Cathy and David, a young black couple from suburban Philadelphia, thought their prayers were answered when a black woman agreed in 1996 to donate her eggs so they could conceive.
But their dream was dashed when the would-be donor backed out of her contract. The reason: She was scared of needles.
After a two-year search for another donor, they again hit pay dirt. Or so they thought. This time, the donor got pregnant days before she was to begin the donation procedure.
Today the couple, who asked that their real names not be used for this article, still is looking for a black woman willing to donate her eggs.
It's been an emotionally and financially draining three-year ordeal. Especially galling for them is knowing that if they were white, the search for an egg donation would almost certainly have been easier.
The couple's determination to have a child whose skin color is like their own brought them face to face with a racial squeeze in the rapidly growing field of assisted fertility -- a severe lack of black and other racial minority donors of eggs or sperm.
"If we were white, we would have had a child years ago," said the father-in-waiting, a 44-year-old clergyman. "White people have so many options. They can pick the height, weight, eye color -- just about anything they want for a donor. We have almost no options -- none.
"We aren't blaming anyone. We aren't crying discrimination or anything like that. It's just the way it is. But it's been a very sad situation for us."
Relatively few members of minority groups seek out donors for assisted fertility. But those who do find their options on donor characteristics extremely limited compared with whites.
"It's been a concern among some in this field, but since the number of blacks seeking out donors is small, the issue has been hidden," said Dr. Abraham Munabi, founder of the Reproductive Science Institute near Philadelphia, a leading fertility clinic. "Black and other minority infertile couples seeking help are suffering."
The plight of black couples seeking black egg or sperm donors is borne out on Web sites that list potential donors, including their race, ethnicity, height, eye color, educational background and blood type.
The sperm donor Web site of OPTIONS National Fertility Registry, a Los Angeles-based fertility clinic, lists no blacks, two Hispanics and one Asian among the 32 sperm donor profiles.
On the Northwest Andrology & Cryobank Web site, there are no blacks, Hispanics or Asians among 24 donors. And the Rainbow Flag Health Services Web site, which states, "We are especially interested in finding African-American and Jewish donors," has one Asian and no blacks or Hispanics.
"If a black man comes in and says he wants to be a donor, we get very excited because they are so few and far between," said John Olson, president of Cryogenic Laboratories Inc. in Minnesota, one of the nation's oldest and largest semen banks.
"The number of individuals seeking black sperm donations is small but those people have virtually nowhere to go," he said.
Olson, whose facility had six blacks, 14 Asians and three Hispanics on its donor list, said that because of stringent screening requirements, the sperm donation shortage cuts across racial lines but is most severe among minorities. His facility's acceptance rate for sperm donors is about 17 percent.
"If I could get 50 healthy black donors through my door today, I would love it. We might not use it today, but it would be like money in the bank because we could save it to build a better backlog of black donors," Olson said.
Testing costs around $1,500 per donor, said Olson. The sperm of Jewish men is the most highly sought after, but all donors -- who are asked to give four deposits each month -- receive the same pay: $40 per deposit.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine says the number of children born with assisted techniques has grown nearly tenfoldin recent years -- from 250 babies in 1985 to 21,198 in 1996, the most recent year for which figures are available. Racial breakdowns were not available.
Munabi suggested that several issues may underlie the dearth of black donors: a lack of knowledge about the science of assisted fertility, religious prohibitions against [filtered word], a skepticism of medical authorities in general and a fear of being identified.
"People in general aren't aware of how they can help another couple," Munabi said. "Others are very suspicious of the medical establishment and fear the commitment. They don't want to be tracked down."
The only thing Cathy and David wanted to track down was an egg donor.
They used the OPTIONS facility and, at a cost of $12,000 for finding a donor and conducting medical exams, found a young black woman who said she was willing to provide her eggs. The couple spent another $3,500 for the woman's medications. But she backed out when she saw the needle used for the procedure.
Prospective egg donors take a combination of hormones to stimulate egg maturation. A long needle is inserted through the vagina to remove a few eggs from the ovaries. Sperm from the father are then combined with the egg and implanted into the mother's uterus.
"After waiting so long, I was completely frustrated with the process," David said. "You build your hopes and dreams along the way. Everything is moving like clockwork right down until it's time to take the injection and everything falls apart. It was complete heartbreak."
Yet Cathy wanted to try again.
Terry Royal, director of OPTIONS, said she has found prospective black egg donors are less likely to go through with the procedure than their white counterparts. While 97 percent of white, Asian and Hispanic women complete the donation, only about 25 percent of black women do, she said.
"I'm in constant search for (black) women who have empathy for the couple and aren't the type who will walk away," she said.
Royal said some agencies she declined to name won't work with black women donors because so few complete the process. A firm can lose $10,000 to $20,000 in medical screenings and legal fees when a donor backs out, she noted.
"The black donors we talk to tell us they were turned down by X company or Y company and they are happy to find we talk to them," Royal said.
In July 1998, OPTIONS found another would-be black egg donor for Cathy and David.
But after the couple spent $7,500 in fees and medication for the woman, the donor began complaining of stomach cramps. In a cruel irony, she had just gotten pregnant.
By November, the couple totaled their losses at more than $24,000.
One of their worst moments occurred when Temple University students laughed at and taunted them as they handed out homemade fliers on campus seeking potential black egg donors.
Also troubling was the coolness of their own relatives, they said. The couple thought they'd find compassion. They got indifference.
"Our situation became a kind of conversation piece, but no one wanted to help," Cathy said. "Their attitude was, 'I'm not going to ruin my body for you."'
For David, the fight was over. "I was moving her towards adopting. That was it."
But it wasn't.
In the last six months, Munabi located another prospective donor.
"She seems to be the kind of person we want. She wasn't overly concerned about money," David said. "She has had a baby and said she wants to help another family experience the joy of having a baby. We want it to work out badly but we've learned to be patient."
A sampling of sperm donor Web sites on the Internet:
--The Sperm Bank of California at www.thespermbankofca.org The donor list shows three blacks, eight Asians, no Hispanics and 25 whites.
--The OPTIONS National Fertility Registry at www.fertilityoptions.com. The donor list shows no blacks, two Asians, one Hispanic and 25 whites.
--The CryoGam Colorado, Inc. at www.cryogam.com. The donor list shows one black, two Asians, one Hispanic and 42 whites.
--The Northwest Andrology & Cryobank, Inc. at www.nwcryobank.com. The donor list shows no blacks, no Hispanics, no Asians and 24 whites.