By Josh Inocéncio
A few years ago, in an attempt to start their family, TJ Farnsworth and wife Margaret endured the often-complicated in vitro fertilization (IVF) process that ultimately led to the birth of their son, Wyatt. “The journey was difficult,” Farnsworth says. “There’s very much an attitude of ‘all that matters is getting the patient pregnant,’ and there’s no thought to any other aspects of that journey. Creating a family should be a wonderful experience.”
After 12 years working in the healthcare arena—nine of those years as founder and CEO of a company that operates patient-focused cancer treatment centers—Farnsworth decided to launch his own fertility clinic, a place where the clients would receive the kind of treatment that he wished he and his wife had received.
Farnsworth believes that “entrepreneurs in general have a social responsibility.” Thus, as well as addressing the problems of poor client care that he and his wife had experienced, Farnsworth wanted his clinic to respond also to the particular and entirely neglected needs of a group often subjected to discriminatory practices and attitudes: prospective LGBT parents, too often the victims of narrow-minded bias. “If [LGBT couples are] not having as good as an experience as everyone else has, they’re being discriminated against,” Farnsworth emphasizes.
To advise him on the issues LGBT couples face, Farnsworth invited openly lesbian Chantell Preston, chief development officer at Mentis Neuro (a company that operates brain-injury rehabilitation centers), to sit on the executive board of the newly formed Aspire Fertility. A veteran of the fertility process herself, Preston went through intrauterine insemination (IUI) to carry and give birth to her daughter.
Preston and Farnsworth were met with similar challenges during their fertility clinic experiences in Houston. “No one knew your story and what you were going through—and frankly, I don’t think they cared,” Preston says. As a member of the LGBT community, the issues surrounding gay and lesbian fertility are very important to her, and she feels they shouldn’t become such a “taboo conversation” for couples.
With the exception of California’s Bay Area and parts of the northeast, many American fertility clinics (which are typically owned by physicians) refuse to treat LGBT couples, either for religious reasons or because they fear they’ll lose business from heterosexual clients who are biased against LGBT families. Even while Houston’s HERO protections were temporarily in place last year, Farnsworth reports that “physicians who objected to treating same-sex couples would often advise patients to go elsewhere.”
But Farnsworth had more in mind than creating a place with a caring attitude that could also cater to an underserved community. “There’s nobody driving innovation on the non-medical side of things,” he says, and he determined to become that missing innovator in creating a patient-centered experience for those choosing to become parents through medical intervention. To improve his clients’ journeys, Farnsworth and his team created the Aspire Connect program that streamlines communication. Patients can now view ultrasounds on mobile devices and access schedules every step of the way. Aspire Fertility has “technology well beyond what anyone else in town has,” states Farnsworth, and he wants to “drive the cost down” by improving efficiency so that more families can manage the expense of fertility treatments.
While clinics frequently offer financial advice, Aspire is relatively unique in its approach to help LGBT couples find grants designed to fund their fertility procedures. The company has a menu of other unique social services for their clients, as well. They equip clients with a licensed marriage and family counselor, and they refer them to family lawyers who specialize in LGBT law. They also help gay men find LGBT-friendly female surrogates so that they can be involved in the entire process without having to fear unexpected discrimination.
In addition to these features, Farnsworth recruited Dr. Diane Wright to serve as Aspire’s lead embryologist. In addition to Wright’s experience as director of the fertility center for Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard Medical School, she is a lesbian who, like Preston and Farnsworth, has used fertility technology to start a family.
Aspire’s entire staff went through training about the special needs of gay and lesbian couples, says Farnsworth, including using appropriate pronouns, celebrating couples equally, and engaging the non-biological parent if there is a disconnect.
While many gay and lesbian Houstonians harbor fears about homophobic reactions to LGBT families, Preston was surprised by the acceptance she experienced, especially at her daughter’s school.
“In Houston, it’s such a common thing. We’ve never had anyone in our schools, anywhere, not accept us,” says Preston. “I think it’s great to show other people that we are no different. We have our careers, we have our kids, we live our lives just like you do.”
Reflecting on the joys of becoming a parent, especially as a career-oriented woman who didn’t think about having a child until she was 35, Preston says, “You learn more from your children than they ever learn from you in regards to who you are and who you want to become. It just changes your whole perspective of life.”
Farnsworth articulates similar sentiments: “Everyone tells you what an amazing experience it is to hold your child for the first time, and I had no idea. I can’t even begin to describe to you the feeling of all of a sudden holding this human that you’re now responsible for, for the rest of your life.”
Aspire Fertility is built around compassion and doing everything possible to make the process enjoyable, says Farnsworth: “We create families for everyone.”
For more information on Aspire Fertility, visit their website at aspirefertility.com.
Josh Inocéncio is a playwright and freelance writer. A Houston-area native, he earned a master’s degree in theatre studies at Florida State University and produced his first play, Purple Eyes, before returning to Texas last May.