One woman's experience as an egg donor changes her life in unexpected ways.
If you’ve checked out the [ETC] category of Craigslist’s jobs section, you’ve seen them, interspersed between dog-walking gigs and ONLINE SURVEYS IN ALL CAPS: the ubiquitous call for egg donors.
They’re looking for Jewish women, Asian women, East Indian and Italian women, women with blue eyes and high SAT scores. Most ads promise compensation in the $4,000–$10,000 range, and in the summer of 2011, I was a postgrad who had just moved to New York City with only a $1,000 tax refund and a suitcase to my name. So I clicked the link in the ad with the least amount of wacky capitalizations and sketchy-looking claims. The listing was looking for a female aged 21 to 29, a non-smoker, a non-drug user, neither significantly overweight nor underweight for her height, with some formal education beyond high school. I was redirected to an egg-donation agency’s website decorated with shades of muted lavender and pictures of smiling families, where I filled out a very long application that asked me very personal questions. It was like crafting a résumé and cover letter, except that it included my family’s health history and the age at which my grandparents died. I became hyperaware of my privileges as I literally checked them in boxes on the screen; I wondered why queries like “favorite movie” and “favorite color” were relevant and subsequently wondered if my answers (Harold and Maude, black) would disqualify me. I finished the survey in about an hour. Then I waited.
Within a month, I received an email notifying me that my application had been accepted, and the agency invited me to take the next step in the process: attending a seminar for prospective egg donors. I went and was pleased to see a diverse variety of young women there, rather than the sea of tall, blue-eyed blondes in Dartmouth sweatshirts I’d half expected. Afterward, I uploaded photos of myself at various ages to my donor profile, including two current images, one with makeup and one without, just so the mysterious people out there perusing my stats could see what they were really getting. And I told my friends and family that I had applied to be an egg donor, asking for any input they might be able to offer.
“If no one chooses you, then I have no faith in this world,” one of my friends declared, and several others agreed. I voiced my concerns about whether egg donation just contributes to overpopulation, when so many kids are waiting to be adopted. I also talked out my misgivings about parents trying to create designer babies, and my worries about what effects the hormone treatments might have on me. An acquaintance who had donated her eggs once told me she would never do it again; her agency was unhelpful when she needed assistance, and it took months for her to “feel normal again” after the cycle of hormone injections and egg harvesting was over. As part of my research, I also watched Eggsploitation, a 2010 documentary by Jennifer Lahl that explores the pressure that the multibillion-dollar fertility industry puts on young women who are enticed by the reward they are promised upon egg donation. Even the term “donation” as a euphemism for what the process actually is—the sale of body parts—icked me out a little. “How do you feel about the possibility that you might have a kid you’ll never get to meet?” my friends asked. “Pretty great,” I replied. But there was, deep down in me, a selfish desire to one day witness, from a safe distance, an experiment of life that had come from my own body.
So when I got semiannual emails from the agency asking if I was still interested, I always clicked Yes. For as long as I can remember, I’ve never wanted children of my own, but I saw no reason why I couldn’t use the material my body had already made to help someone else’s dreams come true. When friends expressed their concern that egg donation might affect my fertility in the future, I wryly responded that I hoped they’d make a mess down there. But truthfully, I saw the act of egg donation as an almost-sacred duty that I’d be happy to take up, if someone thought my genetics would be ideal. I just didn’t think I’d actually be chosen. (I was sure I should have selected a more flattering photo to represent my adolescence.)
And then it happened: After almost two years in the donor database, I got a call from the agency’s regional case manager informing me that a couple was interested in my profile. I waited 24 hours before I called her back and told her I’d do it. She was thrilled that I was on board, and days later, a thick folder of paperwork arrived in the mail, including a timeline of the process, a sample legal contract much like the one I would have to sign, and tax forms for my compensation of $8,000.
The next step was an extensive online psychological exam, which took so long to complete that I was sure it must have been a trap. The same acquaintance who had told me she’d had a bad donation experience had also confided that no one really checks your medical history, and I momentarily considered this as the questions designed to screen for anxiety and depression cropped up. Ultimately, I was honest. A psychologist called me to get some more in-depth answers about everything from my parents’ relationship to my reasons for donating. I must have done something right, because I was advanced to the next round.
The agency kept everything anonymous, and all contact I had with the hopeful recipients of my eggs was overseen by the caseworker. Egg donors must agree to be reachable in the future, in case of any medical emergency with the child that could benefit from their insight. I had also consented to limited contact with the intended family, though I was assured that they would never learn my true identity. As much as the prospect of having children I’d never have to know thrilled me, I was actually never uncomfortable with the idea of knowing them, either. I was curious, admittedly, and I was comforted by the idea that, at the very least, he or she or they would be lucky to have parents who so clearly wanted him or her or them. One day, my caseworker sent me an email from the intended mother of my could-be child, signed only with initials. The message explained why she had chosen egg donation and, specifically, why she had chosen me. She was in her early 40s, with a rare, incurable but non-fatal autoimmune disease; her husband, 10 years her junior, had a prostate condition that blocked the passage of sperm in his ejaculate. They had already tried two rounds of in vitro fertilization, which failed. They decided to try egg and sperm donors. She liked that I was an artist, that I had mentioned an interest in helping the LGBTQ community, that I didn’t give the same sunny, boring, Miss America Pageant answers she’d seen so many times, and that I used semicolons properly.
As I read, at once delighting in her witty turns of phrase and feeling tears collect in my eyes, I was relieved to realize that the intended mother was more wonderful than I could have imagined. I’d spent the past couple of years trying to build a life for myself, and her letter not only gave me a ton of perspective on what it means to really build a life, but also the determination to do this thing and do it well. Any doubts I had about the process were assuaged; and with that, we began corresponding, sending long emails to each other through our shared caseworker. We discovered mutual interests, and she gave me a heads-up that our doctor at the fertility clinic we’d both be going to was a bit of a jerk, but his nurses were very kind.
The clinic was an hour’s train ride from my apartment, but I was assured that if I saved my travel receipts, I would be reimbursed after the egg retrieval. On my first few visits, I got a Pap smear and had dozens of vials of blood taken for testing. The doctor said I had plenty of eggs, and none of my tests revealed anything problematic, except for a high-risk, cancer-causing strain of HPV, which I should keep an eye on. (And although it’s rumored that fertility hormones can cause cancer, there is actually no documented proof that this is the case.) He asked how long my boyfriend and I had been together, and when I told him four years, he said, “Isn’t it time for marriage?” “Isn’t it time to give up antiquated patriarchal rituals?” I shot back. The nurse sitting by my side laughed. “You’re a great match for the IP,” she said, using one of the many abbreviations (this one for intended parent) I would learn throughout the process.
Once it was determined that I was physically ready to begin, I started taking birth-control pills, which would match my menstrual cycle to that of the IP. A nurse showed me how to inject the hormones I’d be taking to stimulate my ovarian follicles. One had to be mixed from two vials, one was a pen not unlike the one my diabetic boyfriend uses to administer insulin, and yet another was a preloaded syringe that would prevent me from ovulating too soon. The IP would take the same medications. Precisely 36 hours before my egg-retrieval surgery, I would inject a hormone that would induce ovulation.
All told, the hormone phase was pretty short—about two weeks, with doctor’s appointments every other day to observe the size of my follicles and test my hormone levels. The drugs were intimidating at first. The nurse had ordered me a little extra of everything, as she, rightly so, anticipated that I might need to toss out my first efforts at mixing the proper dosage. My hands shook the first time I pushed the syringe into my stomach, surrounded by sheets of instructions on my bedroom floor. It took a couple of days and one panicked call to the nurse for me to feel like I was doing it right, but I was surprised how easy it really seemed overall. I’m not afraid of needles; abstaining from sex, drugs, alcohol, and exercise was no problem for me; and my side effects were minimal. The biggest risk egg donors face during their cycle, though it is rare, is ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), wherein blood vessels in the ovaries leak fluid that swells the ovaries and abdomen. But I didn’t really feel any different during my cycle; I had expected to be a bloated, emotional mess, but instead, I was just a little tender around the injection sites. My retrieval was scheduled for a Monday afternoon, so at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning, I administered my final injection of a hormone called recombinant human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). The nurse had instructed me that this injection should create a false-positive reading on a home pregnancy test, so I took one to ensure that the hormones were working. As I waited for my pee to kick in on the stick, I thought of the few times I’d taken pregnancy tests before, always with bated breath, hoping that it would turn up negative. Seeing the plus sign materialize on this test was surreal.
On Monday morning, I met my friend Courtney at the train station. I was required to have someone accompany me to the surgery to make sure I got home OK. The procedure would take about 20 minutes, during which I would be under anesthesia while a needle traveled through my vaginal wall and into my ovaries to aspirate the fluid in my follicles. The eggs would be removed and mixed with sperm in a lab to create embryos, the best of which would be implanted in the intended mother and hopefully become a fetus, which would hopefully become a baby, which would hopefully become the smart, creative person my IP was hoping for. Once I arrived at the clinic, I filled out some forms, changed into a hospital gown, and listened to the anesthesiologist explain how I would be sedated as I slid my legs into stirrups at the end of the operating table. I remember her saying, “Good night,” and then everything went dark.
When I woke up in recovery some time later, the room was spinning and very cold, but after a few sips of ginger ale, I wanted to try to get up. I stumbled into the room where my clothes waited, and changed. I took a picture with my phone to send to my mom, and it remains one of the most pathetic selfies I’ve ever seen, my face a swollen, twisted portrait of misery. “How many eggs?” I asked the doctor as I shuffled into the waiting room. “Just six,” he replied. “We were hoping for more.”
I made some kind of anguished sound to signal my disappointment, and Courtney led me outside to the cab she had called. The ride home was incredibly unpleasant; the pain was like the worst period cramps I’ve ever had, with the sharp intensity of a knife twisting around my abdomen. At home, I popped some extra-strength ibuprofen and, once I was sure my bowels were not falling out of my body, which is what it felt like, I sipped on soup and water, my first real nourishment in more than 12 hours. Eventually, the pain subsided, but it took a few days. I received a check for $8,000 in the mail by the end of the week. My caseworker and the nurses at the clinic called to check on me, and the IP wrote me another letter thanking me for what I’d gone through, although I dared not tell her that I’d produced only six eggs. “All it takes is one,” my caseworker assured me. “You were a great donor,” the nurse said. “We will definitely recommend you for another cycle.” If I did just one more, I thought, I’d have enough to pay off all my student-loan debt. So even though the pain after my surgery was unpleasant, I said I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Five days after the retrieval, I received a call from the doctor. “The embryologist mixed your eggs with the sperm and—I’m afraid we weren’t able to get any viable embryos,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” While I tried (and failed) to hold back my tears, the doctor explained that the sperm donor had created multiple successful pregnancies before, so it was likely my eggs that were responsible for the abnormalities in the embryos. About 20 to 30 percent of the eggs that a woman my age produces are abnormal, but not a single one of the embryos mine produced had the correct number of chromosomes. It was a failure. The IP had wasted her time and money on me. The doctor didn’t say as much, of course, but he did tell me that if I plan on having my own biological children, I am at a higher risk for birth defects, miscarriages, or failure to conceive, especially if I wait until after age 30. I guess I won’t be having kids, then, I thought. It was strangely satisfying to have an answer to everyone who insisted I would change my mind and want to get pregnant someday. No, I really won’t, I thought. The doctor said I should not donate eggs again. I thanked him for letting me know. And then I sobbed. I contacted my caseworker and asked her to remove my donor profile from the database. She was the one who had to read all the letters between me and the IP to make sure we weren’t revealing anything we were contractually obligated not to; we had a special bond, she said, and I knew she was right. It was the most acute sense of devastation I’ve ever known, but I couldn’t imagine how the IP felt.
Everyone, from the doctor to the caseworker to the IP herself, reminded me that it wasn’t my fault—that there was nothing I could have done. But I still felt incredibly guilty. I had failed at what was, in my mind, the easiest thing in the world: providing my own basic genetic material, which I had no use for myself and was more than happy to give away. I had been expecting an existential crisis around having a kid out there in the world but found myself having a different kind of crisis entirely—I had to deal with the fact that I was biologically flawed. I felt deeply ashamed for having been so open and confident about the process with my friends; it made it harder to explain what had happened. I practiced saying things like, “It’s OK, it probably would have been a demon anyway,” with a droll smile.
A few days later, a message appeared in my inbox from the IP. It wasn’t an easy read—I burst into tears several times, especially when she told me that she had chosen me because she thought I could be a better version of her. She made it clear that she was not giving up, that she could afford to try something else, even if she could not emotionally afford to get as close to another donor the way she had gotten to me. At the end of her letter, she wondered if maybe we should reveal our identities to each other and proceed as friends, whenever we felt comfortable enough to do so. I’m still considering it.
“Are you glad you did it?” is the most common question my friends asked afterward. In some ways, I do regret it. I wish I wasn’t responsible for another setback in the remarkable IP’s life, though she’s assured me that, with her medical condition, she’s learned to get over bad news quickly and move on. There were a few details about the process that made me a bit uneasy, like the back door of the clinic I had to use to make sure I kept my identity a secret, and all the legal provisions ensuring that I wouldn’t try to kidnap my genetic material, as I had seen in an episode of Law & Order: SVU. But despite the fact that my cycle was a failure in the most basic way, it was still an incredible learning experience. I gained a new respect for motherhood, and for my own mother, who had been upset at the thought of never getting to know her sort-of-grandchild(ren). (When I told her about the abnormal eggs, she said, “Well, I always knew there’d never be anyone else quite like you.”) And of course, there was my IP. I had written in my first letter to her that I wasn’t sure the world needed more people, let alone people like me. But she assured me that it did.
If you’re wondering if egg donation is right for you, make sure you’re educated about the process and its risks. For those going the agency route, choose one with a mission that you connect with (in my case, I looked for ethnic diversity on the website, no religious undertones, and a message welcoming LGBTQ families). It’s important to remember that should you ever become uncomfortable, you can stop, but make sure you know your contract well and are aware of any possible financial—and emotional—repercussions of quitting mid-cycle. And if the opportunity to get to know the person or people who have chosen you arises, it’s up to you how to proceed. Just keep in mind that the lady who wants to have your baby might be awesome. You could change her life, and she’ll definitely change yours.
The author of this piece chose to remain anonymous. Reprinted from Bust (February/March 2014), a bimonthly magazine for women with something to get off their chests.