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New Business: Eggs for Sale

by Vicki ThornA recent article from The Sunday Times in the United Kingdom caught my eye. The headline read, “IVF doctors to raffle human egg.” The raffle, sponsored by a fertility clinic in London last month, was meant to promote the clinic’s new “baby profiling” service.Notably, the actual treatment would be done in America with eggs from American donors: British law prohibits for-profit payment to egg donors. This means a British woman would receive no more than £250 pounds for her donation – and that egg donors are in short supply.So, off to America, where college campus paper advertisements solicit young, educated women. “$10,000 to $50,000 to become an egg donor!” What a temptation to a struggling college student – it seems like such a noble thing to do for such a lot of money.An article in the Wall Street Journal Health Blog from March 24, 2010 says that, according to guidelines from the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, payments for an ovum donation are not to exceed $10,000. However, the guidelines are simply suggestions at best.In her book “The Baby Business: How Money, Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception,” Debra Spar discusses the business of finding the perfect donor and paying well for that service. She cites a 1999 ad posted in Ivy League campus papers offering $50,000 for the egg of a donor who “had to be at least 5’10,” with an SAT score of 1400 and no family medical problems.” A more recent ad from the same high-end service promised $100,000 “to a Caucasian woman ‘with proven college level athletic ability.’”According to Spar, American firms specializing in egg donation have risen to the “top of the global egg trade” because commercial donation is “illegal in most other industrialized countries.” 30% of one center’s business came from abroad. One wonders why other countries have made it illegal?One program on the West Coast says the following in its ad:Our egg donor clinic has the most beautiful and accomplished donors in the country. Our egg donor center is also known for its extensive database of Superdonors, which includes hundreds of women from many diverse ethnic backgrounds. For over 15 years we have specialized in matching couples with exquisite young women whose motivations are heartfelt.”How could someone resist the description, either as someone looking for an egg donor or as a woman seeking to donate? Most certainly I’d be flattered to be considered an exquisite young woman with heartfelt motivations. The site is in English, Italian, French, Spanish and Chinese. There are lovely photos of possible donors to be seen along with descriptions of aptitudes and attributes.Additionally, this center also tells the donor women that besides the financial compensation, they deserve “some instant gratification” and lists the gifts that they may receive, including an iPod Nano, video camera, Starbucks card, flowers, silver necklace and the list goes on. All the testimonial letters are glowing, with the donors say how much they like the gifts.Clearly there is money to be made here! If the donor is paid this much, what are the others involved in this process making?One site lays out the costs to egg recepients this way:• Agency fee: $3500• Donor fee: $5000-$7500• Legal fees: up to $1200• Short-term insurance: $400• Psychological screening: $300-$800• Medical screening: $2000-$3000• Donor medications: $2500-$3000• And additionally, hotel, travel and per diem costs if the donor isn’t local.Clearly, lots of people are benefiting financially for this event. And clearly, those seeking to be parents are paying dearly for the opportunity.There is a book called “The Confessions of a Serial Egg Donor” by Julia Derek, who donated 12 times over ten years for a total of $50,000. A Newsweek  article reviews Derek’s observations on the physical risks to donors – something rarely thought of by a young undergraduate grabbed by an advertisement in her campus paper. From the article:Donors not only make a lengthy time commitment – difficult enough when juggling classes and surgery – but may also face medical complications. Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome occurs in one percent of all donation cases and can cause a life-threatening build-up of fluid around the heart and lungs. Donors also risk infection and adverse reactions to the anesthesia. Other may experience significant discomfort.“The majority of egg donors can breeze through this,” said Dr. Mark V. Sauer, director of the Center for Women’s Reproductive Care and professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. “But some people are going to have these complications and not everybody, especially younger women, thinks of this. A lot of programs don’t define who pays the bills if something goes wrong.”The state of New York publishes a booklet entitled “Thinking of Becoming an Egg Donor?” which lays out the possible health risks in detail: The donor’s future fertility can be compromised. There can be internal damage done to organs during ovum retrieval. There is a chance of infection. The list goes on.Then there is the issue of what really happens to the eggs: They may be discarded or used for research, they may go to more than one recipient, or the ones left over may be frozen and never used again. There is no guarantee that your ovum will go to one family and result in a baby. In cases where multiple pregnancies result, the doctor and family may choose “fetal reduction,” “where a lethal chemical is injected into one or more fetuses to lower the number that continue to develop and decrease the risk that the entire pregnancy will be lost or end prematurely.”Once again, something that seems to be wonderful and altruistic has many faces. In a world where infertility is increasing, more and more businesses will step into the breach in the guise of compassionate care. More young women will be enticed by a situation that seems to be a win-win, only to discover that it is not what they expected and can in fact radically change their life forever. Donor beware!pastedGraphic.pdf(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Headline Bistro or the Knights of Columbus.)

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