Egg Donors and The Human Cost of IVF

“Melissa” is a college student, blonde, bright, and beautiful. A high achiever with a soft spot for other people’s troubles, she heads back to her Ivy League campus this week. First stop: the financial aid office to sign loan documents to secure this pricey education and coveted degree.

She’s exactly the type of young woman targeted by egg donor agencies, desperate couples, and fertility clinics. They want her eggs. Badly. And they know how to find her.

Using Craigslist.com, flyers posted in coffee shops and fitness centers, and ads in university newspapers, egg “recruiters” find young women to meet the exploding demand for human eggs. Roughly one in seven couples now suffers from infertility. Delayed childbearing and rampant sexually transmitted infections mean that many would-be moms have eggs too old or organs too damaged to support conception. So donor eggs are a hot commodity. (Indeed, many fertility clinics report more success with donor-egg IVF than IVF using a woman’s own eggs.)

The scientific clamor for embryonic stem cell research also drives the demand for more eggs. New York, for example, allows payments for donor eggs intended for stem cell research. Ethicists worry that payments for research-bound eggs may induce women whose eggs won’t pass muster at fertility clinics to donate eggs without fully realizing the risks involved.

Egg donation carries serious risks, no matter whether the eggs end up in a research scientist’s lab or an infertility clinic’s freezer.

Eggsploitation, a powerful, disturbing documentary, tells the heart-wrenching stories of egg donors who suffered devastating consequences, including lost fertility, serious disability, and near death.  This award-winning film sends a critical warning to young women thinking about donating their eggs: Don’t.

The film triggered my own search of infertility-related websites to analyze the messages aimed at prospective donors–young women like Melissa. Rife with competing interests, this results-driven industry offers few protections for the person most vulnerable to exploitation—the young woman who sells her eggs.

“It’s Not About Money. Really.”

The fertility industry targets young women with an altruistic narrative: The “fulfillment from helping an infertile couple achieve the dream of having a baby is priceless.”  Recruiters flatter their donors, telling them they are indispensable (“women [can’t] realize their dreams of having a family…without you, the egg donor”) and validate their worth with an $8,000 check. Others “guilt” women into donating, telling them they represent an infertile couple’s last hope (“Without egg donors like you, couples… struggling to start a family would have little hope”).

Egg donation is portrayed as “one of the most powerful and rewarding decisions a woman can make.”

It’s a convenient myth. Coating the raw financial deal with the emotional gloss of altruism helps both would-be parents and egg donors feel better about the process—and themselves.

Lift the veil of altruism, however, and reality looks very different. If women weren’t paid, very few would donate eggs.  Countries that forbid or limit payment to egg donors can’t find enough donors to meet the demand. Women themselves admit that money matters: less than a third of donors claim their only motive was altruistic (e.g. to give infertile couples a baby). Nearly 60% say money motivated their decision, at least in part (18.8% say money was their only motive). Surely many egg donors are sincere and compassionate, but the industry would shrivel up without cash incentives to keep the pipeline flowing with donor eggs.

 

Exploitation

Paying healthy young women to undergo a medical procedure with significant risks and no personal benefit exploits them—especially when the sums paid are large and the risks poorly studied and ill communicated.  And that’s the case with egg donation.

Donors are typically students, like Melissa, or women with entry-level jobs. Dangle $8000-$10,000, per monthly cycle, in front of a cash-strapped college student or a barista struggling to live in an expensive city and you’ve got donors. It’s an effective incentive. (One agency even promises $50,000 to $100,000 to egg donors who meet stringent, personalized search criteria.) Students discover that they can easily cover tuition of $50,000 by becoming a repeat donor. The unofficial limit is six cycles, but money entices some women to exceed that limit.

The Risks

No one really knows how egg donation affects a young woman’s future health and fertility. Small studies and scattered donor reports suggest links between fertility drugs and cancer, infertility, and other health problems. In the U.S, no one tracks complications or long-term health risks for egg donors. Most egg donors are anonymous (no registry) and receive no follow-up care once the donation cycle ends.

Industry players also routinely minimize the known risks. One of the few studies of past donors found that 20% did not recall being informed of any risks. Although 12.5% of past donors reported experiencing ovarian hyper-stimulation (a serious, potentially fatal, complication), donor agencies and fertility centers downplay the risk as “rare,” or present in “1-2% of patients,” or as a “5% chance in any cycle.” And prospective donors who wonder whether egg donation might affect their future fertility are flatly misled: “Donating eggs will not harm your future fertility.”

The industry has a collective self-interest in not researching the long-term risks of egg donation, lest they scare women from donating just as demand skyrockets.

The Human Cost

The fertility industry exploits women by soft-pedaling the potential risks of egg donation while offering quick payoffs. But more appalling is the silence surrounding the human costs of IVF itself.

Donor agencies and fertility clinics erect deliberate smokescreens, obscuring what egg donors see of the baby-making process. They promote a mental image of the “results,” captured in happy photos of cherubic babies and ecstatic parents.

But this rosy picture of smiling babies and happy endings is one of the cruelest deceptions in egg donor recruitment. Agencies and fertility centers never give prospective donors a realistic picture of the human costs accompanying egg retrieval, fertilization, cultivation, storage, and implantation; at best they describe the processes in euphemisms, downplaying the loss of life.

What’s at stake is not whether the donor’s pain and effort are worth it, given the human cost; the real question is whether egg donors even see the moral implications of the process they set in motion.

Consider:

  • Some of the lives created from donor eggs are deliberately thrown away after fertilization–graded and disposed of as subpar.
  • Implanted safely, an embryo may be “selectively reduced” (aborted) to avoid multiple births;
  • Implanted, an embryo may die in utero (up to 20% of successful clinical pregnancies eventually miscarry);
  • Frozen, extra embryos may languish for years in steel receptacles, labeled by number and expiration date;
  • Frozen, then finally invited to join the family, embryos may perish in the thawing process;
  • Frozen, forgotten, or rejected by the intended recipients, remaining embryos are destroyed;
  • Finally, years later, the resulting children may long desperately but hopelessly to know their biological mom, the egg donor;
  • And, the CDC warns, IVF children are two to four times more likely to suffer birth defects.

At each stage in this ‘manufacturing’ process, the human embryo is no less a person than the egg donor herself. The Church insists that embryos be treated with the same dignity and respect owed to the doctor wielding the pipette, the egg donor herself, or the would-be-mother anxiously hoping the embryo transfer “takes.”

But each stage of the in vitro fertilization process–which claims to give the gift of life–is potentially murderous; each juncture requires decisions likely to end in the deliberate destruction of human embryos, made in God’s image. The egg donor’s “gift” sets in motion a death-dealing process, masquerading as “the gift of life.”

The fertility industry doesn’t want young women like Melissa to see the reality behind the feel-good image. Donors are primed, eager to believe that their eggs likely gave another woman “the happiness of … a baby.”

I have to wonder…would Melissa’s peers donate their eggs so willingly if they realized the cherished baby is but the lone survivor atop a tragic pyramid of dead siblings?

© 2011 Mary Rice Hasson

For more on IVF see this post:  Selfish Parents: Embryos on Ice

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7 thoughts on “Egg Donors and The Human Cost of IVF

  1. So many couples chase after the false idols of this world: money, prestige, better jobs, bigger homes. They delay childbirth to pursue these empty goals, then feel an emptiness and think having a baby will fill the void – only to accelerate the money driven cycle you so aptly describe.

  2. Pingback: Celine Dion Has Lost Four Children to IVF « Catholicwideweb’s Blog

  3. Many infertile people do not have STDs, nor did they deliberately put off having children. Some people have been infertile or sterile for their entire lives (premature ovarian failure, premature menopause), others were rendered infertile by cancer treatments.

    Donating eggs requires going through the exact same procedure (stim drugs and retrieval) that all women undergo when doing IVF. The risks are the same as any one undergoing IVF to use her own eggs to have a child. If IVF were that dangerous, it would never have been approved as a medical procedure.

    Women who donate their eggs are adults, who make this decision on their own. They aren’t victims! Nobody has guilted the donors into doing this. And really, if they are so weak willed they could allow someone to “guilt” them into donating eggs, then they shouldn’t be polluting the gene pool with their DNA.

    • Just because they were talked into it doesn’t mean they were guilted into it. And alot of donors aren’t prepared for what their getting themselves into. Just because it was approved doesn’t mean that it was aimed towards college bound financial hungry women. Most of these women are in school, still learning. So alot of them are uneducated about the situation, procedure, risks, and consequences.

  4. Thank you for this article.

    Although I am not Christian and do not share exactly the same ethical dilemmas, I did notice a sense of exploitation and I have been worried about the long-term affects, and I didn’t even know that fertilized eggs would not be used or may be aborted…I just thought the way that I think, that more children from the process would be more to love.

    I have been considering egg donation myself, and I’m grateful to find a link on your page to the documentary eggsploitation…

    I want, more than anything right now to have a child one day, and if something were to take that away from me while also taking my child and handing that child to someone else, I don’t promise the clinic or the people involved would survive.

  5. This article is over dramatizing egg donation. It fails to mention that most couples have tried IVF with the woman’s own eggs before moving on to a donor, so the recipient of the eggs has gone through the exact same drug protocol as the egg donor, so how can one accuse this woman of exploiting the egg donor? And regarding the embryos that were not used, most are stored for future use or sold to another couple. The truth is that a woman produces several eggs every month, and only one or two, and rarely more make it to maturation, they just die, and if the eggs that do reach maturity are not fertilized, they are flushed down the toilet when the menses come. They are waisted…every month. Did the author dramatize that part of a woman’s cycle? In a normal cycle when a woman does not get pregnant none of the eggs are “survivors”, that’s how nature works, many eggs are waisted, unfortunately. That being said, it would be great to have better info about long term impact on the donor’s health, and also, newer techniques reduce the risk of over stimulation by not stimulating the donor’s ovaries to produce so many eggs. Techniques are improved every day to reduce risks. It is in everyone’s interest to reduce the risks to a minimum.

    • Thanks, Charlene, for your comment. A few thoughts..a new study reported in the New York Times found that IVF increased the risk of ovarian cancer–an stealthy and often deadly cancer. (link below) The risks of hyper-stimulating the ovaries (common for IVF) are too often minimized or glossed over when the donor gives consent. The hyper-stimulation process produces not one or two eggs, like a normal cycle, but anywhere from 15 to 35–a huge difference. The problem is not that the eggs are wasted but that the hyper-stimulation process itself is harmful and, I would argue, the whole process of IVF demeans human life. And when embryos have been created and then frozen indefinitely or disposed of like trash, human life is demeaned even more. I do agree with your observation, however, that we need more research on the risks to the donor’s health from the IVF process. It’s unconscionable to entice women–by payment and praise–into a process that may seriously harm their own fertility and health.
      New Study on link between ovarian cancer and IVF treatments: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/08/health/research/ivf-brings-slightly-higher-risk-for-ovarian-cancer.html

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