My desire to donate my eggs came from my desire not to use them for myself. I didn’t want kids. Asians don’t donate as often as other women, but there are Asian couples out there who want children and can’t have them. I was a healthy, young, college-educated woman in my early 20s. Why not get compensated for helping someone else start a family?
But the application process was a process. The application itself had eugenic qualities, I noticed as I filled it out. I was supposed to note my skin color as “fair,” “medium,” “olive/light brown,” “dark brown,” “ebony,” “freckled” or “rosy.” I was asked if I would be comfortable taking an IQ test, what my philosophy on life was, what my goals were and if I had achieved them. I was asked what talents ran in my family, and whether I was ever in any gifted and talented programs. I answered each question to the best of my ability, and sent in flattering pictures of myself as well as a copy of my college transcript.
The next step was to wait for a match. In the meantime, I connected with We Are Egg Donors, a donor advocacy resource forum where several hundred women shared their experiences and collective knowledge. There were many women like me, who were starting this process for the first time. There were women who had chosen to donate up to eight times. There were women concerned about Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS), one possible and serious result of taking fertility medications, with an increased risk as the dosages increase. Of those who had experienced health issues, they couldn’t say for certain if their problems were related to the repeated use of fertility medications. Why? Because there isn’t adequate research.
There were women who had scheduled back-to-back donations, only having recently recovered from a previous cycle. There were women who had decided to stop after their third or fourth donation, but found themselves feeling guilty when they were matched again, worried about letting down another couple that the agency said “needed” them.
One of the most disturbing things I noticed was that doctors would tell some women their ovaries were “overachievers,” using the word jokingly after retrieving more eggs than the recommended 12-15. The use of this language was suspect, first because it was so widely used among many different clinic doctors, and second because it put such a positive spin on having fertility drugs forcibly stimulate a woman’s ovaries to produce more eggs than they should. Ovaries aren’t designed to “overachieve.” The “overachieving” was artificial. The doctors did not note: “You produced more eggs than typical, so if you decide to donate next time, we’ll lower your dosage so you won’t be at risk for OHSS.” Instead, donors were congratulated for their hard work. Some, to their dismay, experienced similar or increased dosages in their next cycle.
In egg donor databases, you will see head shots of young women with carefully groomed hair, bright smiles, and white teeth. Alongside each potential donor is her age, location, height, and any other notable information. Prospective parents may feel like they are browsing a dating website.
Ads target college-aged women who may have just graduated with loans to pay back. Officially, donors don’t get paid for their eggs (that would be illegal, silly!). So they get compensated for their time, and their pain and suffering. This doesn’t explain the disparity between those whose eggs are more desired (Asian women, Jewish women, redheads, Ivy League alums, gorgeous people, etc., etc.), and whose are “run of the mill.”
Clinics and agencies often use feel-good and altruistic language. As a donor, even if you are not feeling wholly altruistic, you will act accordingly, knowing what’s expected of you. I found myself answering each application question with the kind of thoughtful and upbeat attitude found only in the most successful of job interviews. In my meeting with the psychologist (part of the process is a psychological evaluation and genetic screening), I dressed business casual to impress, but after I signed the contract I wore my snapback, t-shirts, and sports bras. When asked about whether I wanted to disclose my sexuality, I declined, for fear of not being chosen. As a potential donor, I had an acute sense of when the stakes were higher or lower.
If you apply to be an egg donor, you will be asked quite often why you want to donate. Sperm banks often emphasize compensation when reaching out to donors. While egg donors are also presented with tempting compensation, most will also encounter discussions in which they have to prove that they are not entirely in it to get paid.
Sometimes the desire to help may come into conflict with the desire to self-advocate. You don’t want to feel like a difficult donor. When I stuck to my guns about my compensation, my agency said, “We’re not in the business of trying to just take money from parents.” It was a subtle accusation, but I couldn’t shake the idea that that’s exactly the business they were in. My agency would be making a lot of money off my body from a couple that could afford to pay the fee.
I asked a lot of questions throughout the process. What was my follicle count; how high were my estradiol levels; would I be taking cabergoline to mitigate OHSS symptoms? I compared notes with other donors, relieved to find that my own numbers were conservative. In the end, I wasn’t so afraid of the drugs. I was more afraid of being lied to.
This is how I gave myself shots. I went into the clinic and a woman explained to me in a sing-song voice (so as to show how fun it is) how to mix your drugs in the tiny provided bottle, and how to measure 225 IUs into a syringe, and how to get all the air bubbles out. Needles didn’t make me particularly anxious, but I’d never poked myself before, and yeah, I was nervous. At home the next evening, I read the instructions over and over and then mimicked the demonstration. I pinched the fat in my lower abdomen, just underneath and a few inches left or right of the belly button, and poked. It really didn’t feel like much.
My breasts got bigger, which is par for the course when on hormones. It always happened when I was on birth control, and it’s the last thing I maybe still dislike about my body, and of which male affirmations only make me feel more despairing. Leading up to the days of retrieval, I felt bloated and uncomfortable, and could walk at about the same pace as my grandmother. The injection sites got bruised. Damn, I was sick of it.
Though nervous, I was relieved when my retrieval date finally arrived. The doctor told me the anesthesia would work in ten seconds, and I didn’t even get a chance to start counting. In the end, the clinic retrieved 12 eggs. The next day, another donor shared that her clinic had retrieved a drastic 52 eggs from her — three and a half times the recommended amount. Floods of support and tips rushed in for her, and I found myself thinking of her during my own recovery.
Every egg donor is different, has different motivations, and is willing to take different calculated risks. Several of the donors at We Are Egg Donors made connections with the intended parents, and personally saw an experienced the difference they made. Others felt cast off and unsupported.
I never met the intended parents who got my eggs. I’m happy if they’re happy, but I didn’t feel like a “hero” the way many agencies or clinics will often tell donors they will. I felt like I was giving away something I didn’t particularly need, and receiving something in return. I learned to exercise self-advocacy. But still, I participated in a transaction I was critical of the whole time. I signed the contract, and stayed the course, out of some abstract feeling of commitment and obligation, like people clinging to a marriage they don’t believe in.
Would I donate my eggs again? Doubtful. I saw what happens when an industry is almost entirely unregulated. You can do your research, take precautions, self-advocate, and even come out with an optimal experience, as I did. But to me the process will always feel exploitative, too.
At this age, my body feels resilient, but the money doesn’t seem worth the possible and expensive health complications faced by many repeat donors, whose collective knowledge highlights some shady business practices, manipulation, and a lack of transparency. The promise of being well compensated to help others achieve their dreams is sweet, but not even the fine print can give you the full picture.
Ari Laurel grew up in Oakland, CA and has lived near the ocean for most of her life. She is a blog editor for Hyphen magazine, and is currently living in the landlocked and writerly city of Missoula while pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at the University of Montana.