20 years into the new millennium, we’re looking at a brave new world of available fertility treatments. 1 in 8 couples in the U.S. alone face infertility — that’s around 6.7 million individuals. There’s a diverse, almost overwhelming amount of options out there to choose from when trying to overcome infertility, including in vitro fertilization.
In IVF scenarios specifically, fertile women often play a key role — by supplying the egg or eggs needed to form an embryo.
If these situations are successful, the couple will conceive and the donor will receive considerable compensation for her part in the conception. While we’re accustomed to seeing the happy outcomes of these success stories, we rarely see the pain and anguish often present behind the scenes, as well as the psychological weight the donor’s decision will have on the rest of her life.
A Selfless Act?
There are many reasons as to why a woman may choose to donate her eggs. For some, it’s about the impact her donation will have. One woman reveals that she donated hers because she was sure she “wouldn’t use them.” While she had no desire for kids herself, she donated her eggs to assist other couples who were trying to conceive.
For some, it’s about the impact her donation will have. For others, it's about the money.
But for many, it simply comes down to money. The going rate for donation could be anywhere upwards of $5,000, depending on the agency or clinic responsible for facilitating the donation. The compensation could be even more based on the financial resources of the couple. For many women, the appeal of donating is in the money.
Dr. Brian Levine of the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine reveals that a large majority of donors are college-aged women and other young adults, struggling with paying off student debt or trying to bring in secondary income.
It almost sounds too good to be true. You get a free checkup, fill out some paperwork, have your medical bills taken care of, and all you have to do is undergo a quick process to retrieve what your body has already naturally produced. And you’re helping others in need and getting paid for it. What could be better?
A Serious Decision with Serious Consequences
Reasons for donating aside though, the possible consequences appear to be largely underestimated. A donor would be fortunate enough to have all of the possible physical reactions to donation explained to them by their healthcare provider. But it doesn’t stop there.
For one thing, egg donation over-stimulates ovaries to produce eggs, possibly leading to ovarian cysts and endometriosis. Furthermore, donation can lead to ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), a painful inflammatory condition brought about by artificially encouraging the ovaries to produce viable eggs.
But the real ramifications, while not apparent to the naked eye or visible with a sonogram, are even more painful.
Egg donation over-stimulates ovaries to produce eggs, possibly leading to ovarian cysts and endometriosis.
Writer Alana Newman poignantly describes her own experience — and eventual regret — as follows: “Once I learned of the baby born from my eggs, the gravity of what I’d done set in. I had contributed to the creation of a new life. There was a human being out there to whom I was intimately and genetically connected, but I could never verify his well-being. There’s no way to describe this feeling except perhaps comparing it to having a phantom limb. Only my phantom limb was a human being.”
Newman perfectly encapsulates the unexpected anguish many donors may feel following giving up their eggs — that they’ve played a tremendous role in creating a new life, yet they’re forbidden from participating in that child’s life.
Think about it. How would you feel if someone took your child away from you, or even told you that you could never meet them? The pain would be agonizing. And no amount of non-disclosure agreements, paperwork, medical releases, or hefty compensation can prepare a woman for that.
A Brave New (Unknown) World
The truth is, we honestly don’t know what this decision means. We have ideas from the outset and we’re fed information by doctors and other sources. But when it comes down to it, we have no idea how that will affect not just our short-term mental and physical health, but how it will affect the rest of our lives.
Linda Kahn, a research fellow at NYU School of Medicine, surmises that we have no grasp of the long-term effects because “nobody has followed these women systematically.”
We don’t know how egg donation will affect our short-term mental and physical health — and the rest of our lives.
While we lack scientific studies on these women, we do have some anecdotal evidence from a couple of sources: the documentary Eggsploitation and a short film Maggie’s Story. Both were directed and produced by mother and former nurse Jennifer Lahl, and they share the stories and reflections of egg donors whose perspective on their experiences is less than favorable. These women describe “being seduced and flattered into selling their eggs — only to be overstimulated with hormones, sometimes resulting in strokes, cancer, and surgical complications.” Unfortunately, multiple of these women are now infertile, two developed cancers (outside of family history), and one died in her early thirties.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. What would a comprehensive, long-term study of egg donors reveal?
Even with increased awareness and research, it’s unlikely that women will altogether stop choosing to donate their eggs.
But they should be more well-informed before they make their choice, and it’s apparent that there’s a startling lack of information out there about the long-term effects. Many medical conditions can be diagnosed and treated. But the crushing weight of guilt and regret are symptoms of a larger condition an individual will always have to live with.
If a donor is lucky, she’ll have little to no physical side effects from donating. But as for the psychological effects, she might be completely unaware of the journey she’s about to start.