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Fertility clinics’ raffles ruffle feathers

Smaller facilities trying contests to get customers

Ramsi and Brian Stoker spent about $25,000 in four years on failed in vitro fertilization treatments, but recently got a free round in a raffle at a park in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Jeffrey D. Allred/The New York Times

Ramsi and Brian Stoker spent about $25,000 in four years on failed in vitro fertilization treatments, but recently got a free round in a raffle at a park in Salt Lake City, Utah.

NEW YORK — ‘‘That’s right, one lucky woman will win the ultimate chance at starting or building her family,’’ said a contest announcement issued in April by Long Island IVF, a clinic in Melville, N.Y., that offers in vitro fertilization to women who are having difficulty conceiving.

Contestants were asked to submit ‘‘the most emotional or entertaining essays and homemade amateur videos’’ explaining why they wanted a free round of in vitro fertilization.

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‘‘Make us laugh with you or cry with you,’’ the announcement said. ‘‘Tell your story straight from the heart.’’

The winner, Jessica Upham of West Babylon, N.Y., submitted a video that showed her repeatedly injecting her abdomen with hormones and later weeping on her bed as a clinician delivered bad news. When she found out that she won the contest — a doctor holding balloons knocked on her door the day after Labor Day — she ‘‘just lost it,’’ she said in an interview.

‘‘I feel inadequate that I can’t provide this to my husband the natural way,’’ said Upham, 37, who has a son conceived through IVF and is receiving the free embryo implant this month. The prize, she said, is ‘‘a wonderful opportunity that I wouldn’t otherwise have.’’

Fertility clinics across the country have found that such promotions, which can include random drawings and essay contests, can be an effective way to raise their profiles and crowd their mailing lists with potential customers. While larger and better-known clinics have no problem filling their waiting rooms with women who can pay $10,000 to $15,000 for a round of IVF — and who know the odds against their success — smaller clinics say they must do what they can to compete, despite the ethical concerns critics have raised.

‘‘It is against the law to raffle off a puppy, but we’re allowed to raffle off the opportunity to have a baby?’’ said Pamela Madsen, a founder and former executive director of the American Fertility Association, a nonprofit organization based in New York City. ‘‘What if they were raffling off chemotherapy? Would we be OK with that?’’

‘It’s not like they were raffling off a baby.’

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The people who stage the raffles say that both sides benefit: one woman gets free treatment, and the sponsor gets publicity.

‘‘I hesitate to use the word marketing, but we wanted to get our name out there,’’ said Robin Musiak, the executive director of Reproductive Health Specialists, a Pittsburgh clinic that has conducted several raffles. ‘‘It worked really well.’’

Still, medical ethicists fear the contests exploit vulnerable people and trivialize human conception. British authorities have condemned the giveaways, and an Australian government official has proposed banning them, yet they have become increasingly common, particularly in the United States.

Some people are fine with the contests — particularly infertile people who see them as adding some fairness to a system that favors the wealthy.

“If a doctor is willing to donate his services that way, I think that’s amazing,’’ said Ramsi Stoker, 32, of Holladay, Utah, who last month won a round of IVF donated by the Utah Fertility Center as a raffle prize at a 5K race. She has spent more than $25,000 over four years trying to conceive, without success.

‘‘I don’t know what a better prize could have been,’’ she said. Besides, she added, ‘‘it’s not like they were raffling off a baby.’’

In some ways the contests mirror how IVF has become mainstream. Its use has nearly doubled among American women in the past decade. Today about 1 percent of infants born in the United States are conceived through IVF, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Many raffles strike a respectful tone. An online lottery won in 2009 by a schoolteacher in Forest Hills, Pa., required only that she share her e-mail address and fill out a survey.

‘‘I belonged to an online message board for people suffering from infertility, and someone posted about a clinic that was raffling an IVF cycle away,’’ said the teacher, 32, who asked that her name not be used. ‘‘Six months later, I got a call saying we were the winner. Now we have a 2-year-old girl.’’

Such success stories are powerful advertisements. ‘‘Our angle on it was to reach more people to make them aware that fertility treatments existed,’’ said Musiak.

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