Days fraught with fear and denial set into my everyday life the closer I inched towards college graduation. The reality of embarking on my adult life, expected to begin my career and support myself, along with a newly accrued mound of debt, shook my normally icy cool nerves to utter desperation. A realist and serial non-worrier (until student debt that is), it was easy to tell myself I won’t be needing these for a while, why not? The motivation to become an egg donor may differ for every woman, but I’m willing to bet that the number of donors offering up their DNA would dwindle towards ‘slim to none’ without the alluring pot of gold at the end of the fertility rainbow. Selling human organs is illegal in the United States, but it turns out that egg donation exists in a sort of scientific limbo in which the American Society for Reproductive Medicine has deemed payment ethically justifiable in order to “acknowledge the time, inconvenience, and discomfort associated with the process”. For me and countless other women, the prospect of making $10,000 in one month far outweighed the risk, or for me — a pretty real fear of needles.
I expressed my interest in donation to an agency which, as far as I could tell from my Internet sleuthing, had a good reputation. I created a profile and sent in photos along with some basic answers to interview type questions, and I was promptly contacted by a lovely woman from the agency. Despite the warm welcome, my application quickly launched a personal and medical investigation of my history in which no question is too personal, and no genetic rock went unturned: Name, age, height, have you ever tested positive for an STD, are you sexually active, with who, how did your paternal grandfather die, do you like animals [yes], what was your SAT score? And so on and so on… The final step was a psychological evaluation coupled with a physical exam and full genetic blood workup — ensuring that my eggs were ripe and my mind stable enough to hand over some grade A eggs.
Then you wait. You and hundreds, perhaps thousands of women sit in an agency’s database among your interests, hobbies, college degrees, family photos, and life aspirations until one day some stranger who has faced difficulty conceiving on their own finds you, and decides that you are the woman who they want to be the mother of their child. The moment you find out you are matched with an intended parent is surreal, and no matter what your initial selfish motivation for donating — the notion of ‘easy’ money fades away as you begin to understand the gravity of your decision.
And if that moment fails to impress upon you the seriousness of your chosen undertaking, the legal process will. Any good agency will provides you with your own lawyer, who walks you through each and every step of a lengthy contract outlining the legal boundaries of selling — excuse me, donating — your genetics. One clause states I will be at fault for damages should I back out too late in the process, another raises the awareness of my potential long term bodily harm and even death. I sign off to everything.
I highly recommend anyone with a fear of needles donate their eggs, you will be swiftly desensitized. Every few days I returned to the clinic for a hormone check, each time requires a blood draw. Each night at 9pm on the dot I inject myself twice in the abdomen, with Follistim and Menopur, one of which stings during injection. This phase is the root of all online forum horror stories — fatigue, violent mood swings, headaches, bloating — but my only notable incident was when I once injected a tiny air bubble into my skin by accident, causing an alarming purple bruise to materialize across my belly.
Two weeks into injections, my near daily intravaginal ultrasounds showed that my ovaries were blooming with egg-filled follicles nearly ready for pollination, and two days later I showed up for my retrieval where a hollow needle was inserted through my cervix and punctured my ovaries, resulting in 18 of my eggs being flushed out of my body and made ready for another woman.
Google “what it’s really like to donate your eggs” and you’ll find an overwhelming slew of horror stories; articles with titles like The Strange Hell Woman Go Through to Donate Their Eggs, Being an Egg Donor Gave Me Terminal Cancer, I Wish I Hadn’t Donated My Eggs. I must have missed those reads, or simply dismissed them with the naive invincibility of my youth, but I know that I was luckier than many women who’ve undergone the same procedure. Today reading through other women’s accounts haunts me and looms over my future like a bad fortune. But other than the fact that I gained $10,000 at a financially trying time in my life and endured some slightly painful bloating post procedure, my donorhood was largely uneventful.
My donation was completely anonymous, as most are, but I couldn’t help feeling inextricably linked to the intended mother. Our cycles were synced with birth control. I signed off on my future child being instead her future child, by law — no exceptions upon retrieval. A couple months later, I received an email informing me that my donation had resulted in a pregnancy, filling me with a sense of awe and an insatiable curiosity that will likely never be satisfied.
My mother who had been very supportive of my decision flipped a switch at this news, joking that she would stake out the Trader Joe’s near the clinic in an attempt to catch a glimpse of her biological grandchild. Together, we often speculate on physicalities: the sex of the child, what it might look like, precisely how old he or she would be now, and other things like — will the baby lack a basic sense of rhythm, love horses, and lasagna?
Although egg donation was the right choice for me at the time, the flaws within the practice of egg donation and the fertility industry are something with which I continue to struggle. The ability to exploit poorer women to the benefit of wealthy families and the practice of choosing donors based on looks, intelligence and race has troubling implications. Many people criticize egg donation and IVF treatments questioning why reproductively challenged families can’t adopt instead. The adoption process can be difficult, filled with setbacks, stumbling blocks, and even discrimination against same-sex or non traditional families. The potential for heartbreak is overwhelming, so for some families this just isn't an option.
About six months after I had donated my eggs, my mom ran into an old friend who had a one year old daughter born from IVF, and when she learned that I had donated she asked my mom to pass along a message: “Tell your daughter she’s an absolute angel for donating, it’s because of people like her that I have my daughter”. Donating my eggs was a choice I made for money and because I have the choice to make that reproductive right, as do the parents I donated to -- a choice which allowed a woman to become pregnant and give birth to her child. Donating my eggs hasn't changed my life, it doesn’t make me a selfless martyr, and hasn't bred anxiety for the lost ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ of my own future children. The money from my egg donation allowed me to pursue some short term dreams of my own and is long since gone, but for some family my donation is forever invaluable.