The investigating authorities have released few details of the specific allegations but the National Post said that two egg donors, who had been recruited by the firm, disclosed to the newspaper last year that they were paid $5,000 for their contribution.
The money was supposed to cover expenses, but one of the women, a university student, said she had no obvious costs. The other said payment helped her deal with financial troubles. However, the National Post also said one woman who used services provided by the company to arrange a surrogate was 'surprised' by the charges brought against it. She told the newspaper she paid her surrogate only expenses for which there were receipts.
The payments of sperm donors, egg donors and surrogate mothers other than for reasonable expenses is explicitly prohibited by the Assisted Human Reproduction Act 2004 (AHRA), although surrogacy remains lawful.
Allegations against the company, Canadian Fertility Consulting (CFC), were raised in September 2011 to the Assisted Human Reproduction Canada Agency, who turned the matter over to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. An investigation led to the company and its owner, Leia Picard, to be charged under the AHRA and also for forgery. The company says on its website that it offers a 'fixed price' for its services.
Ms Picard's lawyer said his client had since received many emails in support. 'The law is bewildering and its enforcement is uneven', he said. '[Ms Picard] was not offered an opportunity to tell her side of the story before they made the decision to lay charges. So, we will just have to settle the issues in court'.
Diane Allen, executive director of the Infertility Network, Canada, believes the charges against CFC are a positive development but suggested it may be unfair to single out Ms Picard when others are engaged in similar practices. 'Some things, including human life, should just not be for sale', she said.
Dr Juliet Guichon, a bioethicist at the University of Calgary, Canada said: 'The very fact that finally charges have been laid will send a strong signal to others'.
However, others who work in the fertility consultancy business are concerned about the impact the allegations could have on the industry. Sally Rhoads-Heinrich, who runs Surrogacy in Canada Online, explained that fertility consultancy firms help intended parents and surrogates through the complex and emotional process without being exploited.
'If we have to cease working, it means they're on their own and more subject to being taken advantage of. They're just left with Kijiji and Craigslist', she told the National Post, adding that some Canadian fertility clinics are already paying US women around $8,000 for eggs under an apparent legal loophole.
In 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that certain provisions under the AHRA were unconstitutional but upheld provisions regarding the remuneration of donors and surrogates (reported in BioNews 591).
In response to the ruling, the Canadian government announced in 2012 that it would wind down Assisted Human Reproduction Canada by the end of March 2013, and that its federal functions would be transferred to Canada's healthcare regulator, Health Canada.
Ms Picard is scheduled to appear in court on 28 March.