I Donated My Eggs -- & Here's the Scary Truth the Public Doesn't See


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If you've ever been on a college campus, or on a bus or a subway, or flipped idly to the back of a magazine, you've seen the ads. A soft-focus young woman smiles into the middle distance, or cradles a flower lovingly in her hands. "Give the gift of life!" the copy trumpets. "Help create a family!" "We're looking for angels!"

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I fell for these ads, hard. I won't tell you I donated eggs out of altruism. I was 25, and could no more have fully comprehended the pain of infertility than I could have flapped my arms and flown to the moon. But the $8,000 compensation -- or what was left of it, after taxes -- was equal to three months' salary. And after that first retrieval, which yielded more than 30 high-quality eggs, I was convinced that I had something other people needed, and that it would be selfish not to share.

The egg donation industry loves this idea. They talk in rapturous terms about the fulfillment of dreams, the completion of families. And they shy away from language that spells out too clearly that money is changing hands -- so vulgar! So crass!

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They also leave out the uncertainty, the guilt, the nagging feeling that somewhere out there a woman is newly pregnant with a baby -- or babies -- made from your DNA. Will the parents treat it well? What if you helped create a child, through this rigidly protected, often-anonymous, intensely weird process, who will grow up in an abusive home? How would you ever know?

And who is the woman on the other side?

As the donor, I filled out a form that was 20 pages long and intimidatingly in-depth: my complete medical history, education, interests, hobbies, and physical attributes. In some respects I must have looked like a good selection –- educated at a prestigious college, gainfully employed. But who could have looked at my family's medical history -- my mother's cornucopia of health woes, my father's blank page ("Cause of Death: suicide; Medical History: unknown") -- and thought, boy, this horse'll run? Only someone desperate, someone for whom this is the last resort.

Most women using an egg donor have already gone through an extraordinary battery of tests and procedures, not to mention years of trying "naturally." These women might not have considered carrying a baby that wasn't genetically theirs until faced, as a 40-year-old friend doing IVF said to me, "with eggs like old blueberries in a plastic container -- half are smushed up in one corner, and the other half are covered with mold."

The donation process itself could hardly be more surreal. Your medications come with a giant sack of tiny needles; before you take them home, you practice on ad-emblazoned fake butt cheeks dreamed up by some put-upon pharmaceutical brand manager, even though you'll be injecting your belly. You hide the tiny bottles of hormones at the back of the fridge for weeks, lest you have to explain yourself to a date. You wake up every hour with night sweats.

When the day comes, you side-eye other donors in the waiting room, noting without much surprise that you are all tall, blond, and skinny, hand-selected for the attributes which the recipients thought would help their kids get a leg up. You try not to laugh when the nurse refers to the retrieval as "the harvesting," which makes you feel like the alien queen host in a bad science fiction movie. It's a minor surgery, done intravaginally with a large needle. It takes place in a suite in a large office building, one that looks exactly like every place you ever sweated through a job interview.

They wait to pay you until after the retrieval -- I guess to avoid your running off with your check and your grapefruit-sized ovaries and your needle-pockmarked stomach. A nurse comes around the recovery room when you wake up, relieves you of your blanket, hands you your money, and ushers you down a back hallway to the cargo elevator, so there's no chance you'll be seen by the recipient. And ... that's it. You're done. You've gone one way, the would-be baby another.

Often, multiple embryos are implanted, though if more than three "take," doctors will usually selectively reduce. By my calculation, with three successful donations under my belt, there are between one and nine children out there who are carrying my DNA. This may be the most surreal part of all.

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Anonymous donation, the norm when I started doing it 12 years ago, is now frowned upon by many in the donor world, who view it as unfair to the resulting children. I have mixed feelings. I understand the desire to know where your genetics come from, but at the same time, I am not these children's mother. Their mothers are the women who carried them, who birthed them, who raised them and loved them. Now that I have a child of my own, I understand in my soul and in my bones that my relationship with my daughter has little to do with DNA and everything to do with the unshakable bond formed by spending the hours and the years of our lives making a family together.

But in case there are children who do want to find me, I have listed myself -- vital stats, dates of donations, donor ID number -- on the Donor Sibling Registry. My daughter may one day know her half-siblings. Being that I'm an only child myself, that completely blows my mind.

And of course, I've wondered what it would look like if one of the donor-babies ever came to meet me. I'll be in my mid to late forties by the time they're 18, and will likely look much the same (though a bit more polished, we can only hope). Will they look familiar to me, or I to them? Will we have anything to talk about, anything in common? Will they be angry with me for "giving them up" in the way that an adopted child might be angry with a birth mother? Will they be interested in talking to me, in telling me about themselves, or just looking to fill in blank spots in their medical histories? 

I recently joined a private Facebook group where past and current egg donors can share their experiences. I have met eager young women who've bought into the idea of being a "donor angel," pragmatic women looking to pay off bills and student loans, women donating to friends and sisters. I've followed their stories with great interest, fascinated by the agency these young women have, agency that would have been unthinkable to me when I was a shabby twentysomething white-knuckling it in the clinic waiting room. They have lawyers who negotiate their contracts. They have contracts, rather than the poorly xeroxed take-it-or-leave-it agreement that told me if anything went wrong, I was on my own.

And yet.

They are often overstimulated to produce a dizzying 70 or 80 eggs at a time, more than double what was done to me. (IVF patients using their own eggs are typically stimulated to produce 10–20.) Producing so many eggs puts donors in danger of developing ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a condition that is pooh-poohed and downplayed by the doctors who are purportedly caring for them -- but who are paid by, and answerable to, the recipients. They are bait-and-switched -- promised open donations with known recipients who disappear before the anesthesia wears off. They search in vain for long-term studies about the effects of egg donation -- of which there are none, zero, zip -- when they miscarry, are unable to conceive, have unexplained chronic pain and illnesses. These symptoms could be unrelated, or they could be the direct result of their donations. No one knows.

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I hope the children who were born of my eggs -- now between 9 and 11 years old -- are happy, healthy, and safe. I don't regret helping to bring them into the world. But I regret supporting an industry that treats young women like a product, that misleads them, and that puts their health at risk.

I'm lucky, I know, to have conceived a healthy baby "naturally" at the ripe old age of 38. But here's what I know from the experience of reading the stories of these girls. Even if I'm not so lucky the next time around, even if my husband and I never have another child, I will never use donor eggs. I don't blame women who do; the industry has paid handsomely in marketing dollars to ensure that they don't know the risks and pain they're putting young women through so that they can carry a baby.

But I know.

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