Is the Price Right?
College-aged women are selling their eggs for thousands of dollars. A great deal—except for the costs that come with it
Words Sam Katzman | Illustrations Natalie Greene
On a wintry afternoon in December 2013, Megan B., a law student at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., was sitting in a lecture hall, struggling to pay attention to her professor’s civil procedure lesson. Something was on her mind: money. Actually, money troubles. “I have almost an entirely full scholarship to Georgetown, but my cost of living is ridiculous here,” says Megan (who requested her last name not be used for this story). When she was an undergrad at the University of Oregon, she worked several part-time jobs, some overlapping, to pay for her living expenses. “I always worked to cover everything, but I can’t do that in law school,” she adds.
Megan, 25 at the time, clicked away from the blank page of notes on her laptop screen and headed to Google. Friends had told her of an easy route to make money. With little cash to pay for groceries let alone a happy hour with classmates, Megan realized she needed to find a source of income. So she dragged the mouse to the search bar and typed in Egg Donation.
Suddenly, Megan was about to enter a world inhabited by many a cash-strapped young woman; a world where women trade their unfertilized, healthy eggs for payments of upwards of $100,000.
With such money at stake, Megan decided selling her sex cells was an option too good to ignore.
She applied to an agency in New York that connects donors from around the country with hopeful parents willing to pay extra for eggs that come from women with specific qualities. Megan had the traits the agency was looking for: Italian descent. Dark hair. Blue eyes. Law student. “I guess that’s a really rare combination,” she now says. It took a few weeks to complete a required psychological and physical screening; her agent needed to ensure there were no red flags in regards to her family or medical history. Once approved, though, Megan had couples lining up, eager and ready to take and fertilize her eggs. “The agent said, ‘I’ve been waiting for someone like you.’” Megan recalls. “With the first and second couple [who received her donated eggs], the female was an attorney who was brunette and Italian.”
She received $9,000 for her first egg retrieval. It turned out to be a relatively effortless and quick procedure so she decided to keep doing it. Megan donated four times in less than one year. She had more than 110 eggs retrieved between January and December 2014 and earned $39,000 in that span.
But for all her earnings, Megan also discovered they came with a cost. Following her fourth retrieval, she says, “I almost died.”
According to the most recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, in vitro fertilization pregnancy attempts using donor eggs soared from 10,801 to 18,306 between 2000 and 2010. For some women, donating eggs can be a rewarding opportunity, providing hopeful parents with a means to create the gift of life. “I figure if I’m not using them, I might as well let someone else have a great experience because of them,” says Rachel Stewart, 27, a 2009 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa who donated her eggs earlier this year after moving to Portland.
But other donors are being drawn in by the dollar signs.
Payment for one egg donation cycle in the U.S. varies, though the checks are quite often at least four figures. If a clinic or frozen egg bank doesn’t have a donor with the qualities a couple desires, the recipients will seek the services of an “egg broker”, a third-party agency that offers top-dollar for donors who meet more specific criteria. To recruit their donors, agencies and fertility clinics frequently advertise in college newspapers, social media sites, and Craigslist.
Sitting in her office on the third floor of Hendricks Hall, in the heart of the University of Oregon campus, Elizabeth Reis pulls up an image from her computer’s desktop. It’s an ad for the Fertility Center of Oregon that appeared a few years back in the school’s newspaper, then known as The Oregon Daily Emerald: “WHAT’S A FEW EGGS BETWEEN FRIENDS? BECOME AN EGG DONOR. EARN $4,000,” the ad reads.
Reis, head professor of the UO Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, instructs a class that explores the medical ethics of assisted reproductive technology. This advertisement is just one of many grainy scanned clippings in her collection of egg donor want ads. “They direct this at college-aged women because that’s when their eggs are at the height of their health,” Reis says. “This is a transaction—they want your eggs and they’re going to pay you—but they’re not giving you all the information, at least not in the ads.”
The advertisements are attractive to women who are attending college or recently graduated, billboarding dollar signs in eye-catching, bold letters. What the marketing materials often don’t include, though, is any mention that donating eggs involves an invasive surgical procedure that sometimes can lead to serious medical complications. But the concerns go beyond the physical. The psychological dilemma egg donation poses for these women can be as crisis bearing as the health risks. Today donors may need the money, but in the future when the money’s long-gone, they may regret not knowing the child (or children) walking around with half of their genes. “This is a human life that you’re participating in creating. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme,” Reis says. “Do you really want to have this baby come back to you twenty years from now and say, ‘I found out that when my mom was pregnant with me the egg came from you’?”
Typically, egg donors are selected after undergoing a thorough screening, which includes a psychological consultation and medical tests. With a dose of birth control pills, the process begins. To stimulate the production of multiple eggs—and to prevent the natural release of just a single egg—donors inject themselves with hormones daily for a little over a week prior to the procedure. Once enough sex cells have developed, it’s time to harvest the ore.
With the patient under anesthesia, a long, sharp needle is inserted through the top wall of the vagina and into the ovary. From there, the needle extracts each egg individually. This is repeated several more times to ensure the recipients aren’t given dud eggs. Within about an hour, the procedure is over, the patient is sent home, and recovery usually takes less than a week. Usually.
Justine Griffin realized egg donation wasn’t what she hoped it would be after completing her one and only retrieval. In 2013, Griffin, then 25 and a recent graduate of the University of Central Florida, donated to help a couple build a family and pay off her student loans. Griffin was offered $5,000 for her donation cycle. “It’s hard to walk away from money like that, especially when you’re young,” she says.
But about a week after her retrieval surgery, Griffin was sitting in a Tampa emergency room being told by a doctor that a cyst had developed and ruptured on her ovary. More than a year and a half later, she’s still feeling side effects that she says are related to her decision to donate. “I’ve had to go off birth control pills because my hormone levels have been so messed up since the egg donation. My hair still falls out,” Griffin says. “I just notice little things about my body that will probably never go back to the way they were.”
Megan can relate. In December 2014, she had scheduled her fourth retrieval of the year in New York during “dead week,” the week before final exams. “I thought, ‘Well, I won’t have any classes and I’ll just study in my hotel room,’” Megan says.
Normally, the sites where the needle is inserted are supposed to clot within an hour or two. But this time they weren’t clotting. “A few hours after the surgery I couldn’t breathe. I’d never felt that much pain before,” she says. Megan rushed to the ER where she received blood transfusions, painkillers, and spent the next week in the hospital recovering from internal bleeding. “I couldn’t take any of my finals because I was in the hospital,” Megan says. “It wreaked havoc on my school schedule. I had to withdraw from one of my classes, and it took six weeks before I was able to even try to exercise.”
Are the medical setbacks Griffin and Megan experienced the norm or outliers? According to Reis, no systematic study has been conducted on the long-term side effects associated with egg donation. But even those in the industry can attest that it can be a tricky procedure. “There are very significant risks to doing this, which is why I talk extensively with donors,” says Sue Armstrong, donor coordinator at Women’s Care, the nearest fertility clinic to the University of Oregon. “I tell them every single bad thing that’s happened to a donor. These things haven’t happened here, but I know they’ve happened in this country.”
For these reasons, donors such as Griffin and Megan are calling for more governmental oversight of egg donation. Some states have passed laws to regulate the industry. In California, for instance, advertisements seeking donors are required to include warnings like the ones you’d see on prescription medications or tobacco product packaging. But currently, on a national level the industry is loosely regulated. No federal laws exist that limit the amount a donor can be paid or how often she can donate. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offer guidelines in the interest of protecting egg donors. Payment with “sums over $10,000 are not appropriate” and women should not exceed six donation cycles in a lifetime, according to the ASRM. But assisted reproductive facilities are not required to adhere to the guidelines.
That’s not the case outside the U.S. In several countries in the European Union, national laws cap the amount a donor can be paid per cycle. And in Canada, donors are not allowed to receive compensation. “In general, other countries have more restrictions,” Reis says. “ The U.S. is considered the Wild West when it comes to reproductive strategies.”
Though Armstrong acknowledges the risks involved with egg donation, she says the process is safer than ever due to advancing medical technology. “Most of the time, donors report to me that they had a good experience and feel good about what they did,” Armstrong says. “Some call me up and say, ‘I would like to do this again. Is there anyway you could match me up with somebody?’”
Rachel Stewart, who donated in April, is among those who had such a positive experience that she plans on donating again. Though she did it in part for the money, it was not her primary motivation.
Stewart uses an analogy to a recent injury she suffered to explain her decision. “I was training for a half marathon and I had an injury creep up—issues with my Achilles tendon,” she says. “I was furious when I found out I couldn’t run. It’s so frustrating when you want to do something that your body is supposed to be able to do and you can’t.” She pauses. “If somebody came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I’ll give you my perfectly good Achilles tendon.’ I’d say, ‘Cool, thanks.’”
Donating eggs can be a gratifying experience for those who want to help create a family—and pick up quick cash. But aside from the health risks, trading eggs for money also raises ethical concerns. During the psychological screening, every donor is asked the same basic question: “What would you do if your donor child comes knocking on your door one day?” Stewart donated anonymously and isn’t opposed to meeting the child she played a part in creating. Still, she says, “I don’t want this to be naive or shortsighted, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.”
Back in Hendricks Hall, Reis has a different take. She tells the story of the day her daughter, Leah, called to let her know she was considering applying to be a donor. She saw an advertisement in her student paper, The Harvard Crimson, offering $100,000 for a donor with exceptional qualities. Reis told Leah, “‘Don’t do it.’ For one reason I listed all of the medical side effects, but then I also said, ‘You’re creating a child. That’s something to really consider.’” Megan B. has a lot to consider these days. The Grants Pass, Oregon, native is wrapping up her studies in Washington D.C. next year. She’ll spend this summer at a law firm in Portland, the same city where her second-to-last egg retrieval took place.
She’s no longer able to donate but doesn’t want to anyway. “I would never have done it without the money. For me, it’s not worth the risk unless it’s above a certain number,” Megan says. “This is the econ minor in me talking; I think there’s a price point for every woman.” Anything less than $6,000 wouldn’t have been worth it, she says.
But can you quantify the price of life?
One day, Megan says she hopes to settle down and create a family of her own. Until then, she has a lot on her plate. She’s chipping away at her student loan bills from her days as an undergraduate and busy finishing her law degree. Still, while Megan doesn’t have much time to think about her genetic offspring that she’ll likely never know, occasionally her mind starts to wander. “I worry about that sometimes,” she says. “It sounds like a really terrible made-for-TV movie where my daughter meets my egg donation son but doesn’t know it and dates him.”
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