July 3, 2013

Egg Donation is Made to Look Easy, but Questions and Health Risks Remain

First in a series on egg donors and the egg donation process.

by Ryann Summers

Recently, a former co-worker and his romantic partner sent me a text message that left me reeling.

It essentially read: Hey, can I have ur eggs? Thx.

Few couples would be better equipped to raise a well-loved child than these two men, and I fully supported their decision to start a family. But I wondered how we had arrived at the point where this request has become so casual that it can be communicated in fewer than 140 characters. At least take me out to dinner.

I don’t fault my co-worker; his question mirrors how the issue is presented in our culture. As a woman in her early 20s, I am bombarded by advertisements seeking my eggs.

Recently when I was riding the T in Boston, I found myself staring at the face of a smiling baby, and a dollar amount. It seems, well, easy.

Egg donation payments range anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000; some solicitations offer amounts as high as $20,000, or even $100,000, for donors with specific characteristics. I could definitely benefit from thousands of dollars, and hey, I probably have eggs to spare, right?

These attractive compensation offers lack any balancing information about risks and hazards, creating a deus ex machina temptation: As far as I know, I have the potential to help create life for a deserving future parent — and make a staggering profit.

These two potential outcomes are, in fact, quite possible. It can be life-changing and rewarding to help others realize their dream of having children. The sky-high payment — sky-high, at least, to many college students, the prime demographic — is just gravy in this scenario.

But in a different light, it can be a bit like putting a price on the creation of life. Or, tilt again, and it’s simply reimbursement for the donor’s time, as well as the physical risk and discomfort.

So I dug a little deeper, and what I found is while the perspective may shift, there are some immutable realities that are rarely included in donor discussions.

Unlike the process men undergo to donate sperm, the preparation and procedure involved in egg donation require a longer-term commitment — a woman’s body is hormonally altered through the process, and she undergoes surgery.

I’d like to see ads note that fact, along with the known risks of egg donation. The ads don’t mention ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), a condition that causes the ovaries to swell and become painful in about one-fourth of women who use injectable fertility drugs. (OHSS generally goes away after a week or so, but in severe cases it can cause rapid weight gain, abdominal pain, vomiting and shortness of breath.)

Nor do they mention that the surgery to remove the eggs can sometimes lead to complications, including cramping, bleeding and infection.

Egg donors also need to be told that the long-term risks of egg donation remain largely unknown. There is little long-term safety data on the infertility drugs commonly used to stimulate egg production, and there have been no follow-up studies on women who have donated their eggs.

This lack of safety information has led Our Bodies Ourselves and other women’s health advocates to call for a mandatory egg donor registry that will allow researchers to track the long-term health of women who have donated eggs. The Infertility Family Research Registry, a voluntary registry, is based at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (see below for more more information).

In addition to physical risks, there are the possible psychological reactions to consider. While donors generally undergo both physical and psychological testing before the process begins, it is impossible for donors to predict with certainty the emotional impact of this procedure.

A 2008 study on egg donors’ experiences published in Fertility and Sterility found that almost one in five women reported lasting psychological effects, some positive and some negative, including “concern for and/or attachment to their eggs and/or potential offspring, concern that the donor or resultant child might want a relationship with them in the future” and “stress resulting from the donation process as a whole.”

“Women need to look at the risk involved very carefully, and pay attention to what they’re being told about risks, not just to what they’re being offered to do it,” Nancy Kenney, co-author of the study, told HealthDay News.

As a member of the target demographic, I want complete and balanced information. With the prospect of such a permanent and life-altering decision, I need to know the risks and rewards.

Other women do, too. Three women who donated their eggs have begun collecting personal stories from fellow donors with the hope of creating a self-advocacy group.

“Some of us consider egg donation to be the best thing we’ve ever done. Others do not feel that way at all. Whatever her stance, each donor’s story is welcome here,” they write in the mission statement at WeAreEggDonors.com.

I personally decided against donating my eggs. I sympathized with the overwhelming process my former co-worker and his partner were experiencing, but I told them that I personally did not feel that egg donation was the right choice for me.

I knew very little about egg donation back then, but I did know enough not to match his casual request, delivered via text, with a casual promise that might worry me for years to come.

Plus: OBOS is actively encouraging infertility clinics and centers across the country to promote awareness of the Infertility Family Research Registry based at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. Learn more about ongoing studies.

Read more about issues and concerns related to egg donation, particularly from a nursing perspective, in this article from MCN, The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing.

A Boston College alumna, Ryann Summers served for two years as a bilingual program advocate at Voices Against Violence, providing counseling and advocacy services to Spanish-speaking survivors of domestic violence. As an undergraduate, she founded and facilitated a support group for student survivors of sexual assault. An avid yogi and writer, Ryann aims to explore women’s public health themes regularly for OBOS.


3 Responses to “Egg Donation is Made to Look Easy, but Questions and Health Risks Remain”

  1. Lisa Says:

    It is interesting to read the perspective of the egg donor as my husband and I wrestle with the idea of seeking an egg donor after 3 long years of infertility treatment, including 4 IVF treatments.

  2. marilynn Says:

    Well, here’s the thing, it really does not matter how much more pain and suffering a woman has to go through than a man in order to reproduce does it? A person with offspring is a person with offspring. They are parents whether they’ve been recorded as such or not whether the law says so or not, if you have offspring you are the parent organism to your child/progeny/offspring. We have a way of tracking the health issues of men and women with offspring already and it works really well, called a birth certificate. That is how everyone else with offspring is tracked and the health of each of their children is recorded in conjunction with the parent’s information and I wonder why we don’t handle record keeping the same way for all people with offspring seeing as an egg donor is still human and so are her children and in the end their physiological connection is identical to a woman who gestated her own offspring. Although she did not provide the environment where they developed at best she had no opportunity to damage development. No other environment would alter her child other than damaging or stunting growth. If the environment is good and healthy her embryo develops to its full potential hopefully resulting in the birth of her healthy children. So whay the second method of tracking? We cooking books? Two sets of books one with the real mothers info and one with the names of gestational carriers? Hardly seems prudent since tax funded medical research on heritable disease is based on birth records and not the secondary data base you speak of. Shall we just stop using birth records for monitoring health of newborns and their parents generally since so many of the records are now false? Why bother recording anything at all if it is not biologically accurate and identifiable. That’s how everyone else does it and there is no right to privacy if you have offspring you have to be named on that certificate. Why would we not do the same for all births? Just makes no sense at all. Maybe if they were not human, but they are. They are human. Deliberately falsified medical records is sort of a public health disaster verging on emergency when its close to 1 million births a year.

  3. marilynn Says:

    If they were not willing to abandon parental responsibility for their offspring at birth, there would be no reason to harvest their eggs or sperm to serve infertile or sterile clients. The object of their contracts is their children and their agreement to abandon parental responsibilities for them at birth, having agreed to that, the second part of the contract deals with harvesting their genetic material in order to produce the children they’ve agreed not to raise. They say that people are reimbursed for their time that it took to provide their eggs and sperm however they would not be reimbursed for their time had they not agreed to abandon their young at birth as a prerequisite. They sign agreements giving up their offspring and whether or not they are reimbursed for their time and trouble is almost beside the point, which is that it is not gametes that these people are giving up it’s their children. Check the contracts and its very specific.

    Also calling anyone that has offspring a gamete donor is as absurd as a cheating husband calling his lover his secretary; she may have been a secretary yesterday but that was before his wife caught him with her head in his lap in the front seat of the family station wagon. A gamete donor with offspring is a parent in the technical medical sense of the word. Continuing to refer to them as donors is a rather deceptive attempt to freeze them at a moment in time before their children existed before they became parents so that it does not appear that they’ve given up their children or that their children have lost a parent or the parents relatives. It is of course no different than any other person whose parent abandoned them because nobody remembers their gestation or birth and everyone is born being the child of their biological parents who are either absent or present, end of story. Donor offspring have at least one absent parent whose shoes may or may not be occupied by another person attempting to fulfill their duties for them.

    Also donated gametes don’t treat infertility or sterility. In reality fertility treatment is a treatment offered to fertilize a woman’s eggs so that she can increase her chances of conceiving, reproducing and becoming a biological mother and so that the man fertilizing her eggs can increase his chances of reproducing and becoming a biological father. Donor’s contracts also state very clearly that they are desirous of receiving this fertility treatment for those purposes. They are in fact the patients receiving treatment to become parents, not the infertile or sterile customers who we think of as receiving treatment with donor eggs or sperm. Some customers are in fact recipients of treatment but they have healthy reproductive systems and simply need someone to mate with someone to produce offspring with. Gestation is not the same as fertility or conception. Transferring someone’s embryo into the body of an infertile woman does not help her conceive her child or even a child. She becomes pregnant with an embryo conceived by another woman. She will gestate, but she will not reproduce. The optimal outcome is for her body to do no damage so that the embryo can develop to its full potential and be born a healthy person. Unless she damages or stunts the embryo’s growth with her body somehow, she will have no impact on the body or brain of the person she delivers. That person will be exactly the same had they been gestated by mother who reproduced providing of course that her own body would not have stunted the person’s growth due to her poor health for instance.

    So really the reproductive rights being exercised here are the rights of the parents who reproduced. If they allowed their fetus to be gestated by another woman, and if they allow someone other than the reproducing parents to do the child rearing, it is at their discretion. Nobody would have had the right to force them to reproduce and abandon their parental responsibilities. It’s important not to imagine more authority than the recipient has. Their parental bond will come from rearing the offspring of whoever reproduced, not from conceiving reproducing or gestating technically. So leading them to believe that their infertility can be treated with donated eggs or rather by raising a donor’s child, means the child has a job to do which is fix the physical problems of the infertile or sterile person, rather than exist and be themselves related to their own relatives.

    And the only way to fix the problem is to have all people with offspring follow the same rules so all their offspring have the same rights. We can’t keep trying to break the rules expecting to get conventional results. Donate your eggs to research unrelated to reproduction if your really itching to part with your ova.

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