Only White, Straight, Attractive Women Allowed? The Strange World of Egg Donation

At 8:50am I'd get to the fertility agency and carefully hang my coat while the phone rang. Messages filled my voicemail, left in that window of night saturated with infomercials and irrational thought patterns. A voice would fumble “Yeah, um. I was wonderin’ about this egg donation that I read in the paper. It says I can make $7,000.”

The overwhelming majority of callers were from the “wrong” side of the city. Black girls in their 20s with low income and limited education. They sat, nervous in the waiting room, thumbing through photos of their kids with acrylic nails the color of tropical fish. 

As the calls rang in, I’d put on my phone-voice and ask: How old are you? What is your racial background? How much do you weigh? How tall are you? What is your education level? Have you ever been depressed? Diagnosed with anxiety? An eating disorder? Are you in contact with both of your birth parents?

At least 80 percent of girls didn’t pass the first round of requirements. 

If one of my usual black callers made it through, I knew she would just sit in the system, never earning the promised seven grand. “You just want white bitches,” one girl said when her application was denied, and hung up. We did. The intended parents were buying genes, and they wanted white, movie star beautiful and diplomas from the right university.

Sometimes I felt awkward when a friend asked about becoming a donor. You had to be BMI fit. Even a past that included therapy raised eyebrows. When my cousin's girlfriend pressed me, I didn't quite know how to say that the company I worked for had a silent policy on lesbians. They never made it through. Not one. Bisexuals sometimes did, but when their bisexuality came up, we had to weigh whether or not we wanted them. Were their photos cute? Being bisexual myself, I felt  uncomfortable with this rule and a little scared about being outed. I'd call one of my superiors, who pinged me around, until finally someone justified. “Well, they won’t pass the psych screening. And no parents will pick them.”

We estimated that the calls doubled in the economic meltdown. I worked there in 2008, a time when the economy was digging itself into a hole. A time when recent grads were facing college debt without jobs. The media picked this up as a trend story: “College students turn to donating eggs in economic crisis.” I was on television twice, answering the phone and conducting interviews while smiling: “I'm sorry but you don't meet our requirements at this time.”

As for intended parents: it seemed the price tag was not a deterrent — a single donation cycle cost $20,000, which does not include clinic fees and doesn't guarantee a pregnancy. Further, egg donations are on the rise: In 1992 there were about 1,800 egg donor cycles. In 2004 there were 15,175 egg donor cycles. (The industry has undeniably boomed, but this number also shows increase from eggs donated for stem cell research.)

According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, in 2008, 49 percent of intended parents for egg donation were white and 33 percent did not want to disclose their race, 6 percent were Asian and 4 percent were black, 4 percent Hispanic. The majority were in their mid-30s to mid-40s. The women I saw were seemingly middle- to upper-middle-class, some wealthy. In the past few years, intended mommy blogs have cornered a space of the Internet, about the hardships of infertility, giving a face to the thousands of woman going through this process every year.

At parties, I would find myself cornered by a flock of young women. They'd seen the ads on the bus too. I'd give my usual spiel: “If you pass the requirements you are put in the system and when an intended parent chooses you, we'll call and ask if you can go through a cycle. There are several early-morning doctor appointments. You will get a shot of hormones, side effects are similar to PMS. After a month, you will go through the egg donation process which is done vaginally. You'll be put out for it, and you'll wanna take the entire day off and get plenty of rest.”

They stood listening, eyes a-glitter, breasts pushed out in unconscious knowledge that their female bodies had the ability to give life, that this was sought after.

What was not included in my speech was that the process involves health risks, some serious. The shots are drugs that encourage the ovary to ripen several eggs simultaneously, rather than the one egg normally ovulated each month.

Many donors experience symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes, according to the Egg Donor Information Project. Enhanced ovulation also raises the risk of unintended pregnancy.

Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) is a rare but extremely serious complication. Thirty or more eggs develop at once and fluid begins to leak in the abdomen and chest. This can result in kidney failure, blood clotting and death.

Some argue that we don't know enough about what a heavy dose of hormones does to the body later on. There have been no long-term studies, and agencies don't follow up with donors after the process. We shred their profiles after a few years, often not able to track them down if we wanted to.

At work, the question inevitably directed at me was “So when are you going to donate?” And it was temping: It wasn’t just a single seven grand, you could do it up to six times. If you were a good donor, a “proven” donor whose eggs resulted in pregnancy, you could haggle for more money.

 One afternoon I was alone in the office when a woman called. She was hysterical. "I just don’t understand how you could do this. It’s wrong. There are so many babies that need adopting. Why are people doing this?” I was bored, watching light fall through the shades of the window, tired of Facebook. I calmed her down and let her talk. I knew, but didn't tell her, that adoption is often cheaper than using an egg donor.

In 2006 there were 126,967 kids in the U.S. and Puerto Rico waiting to be adopted. Almost 70 percent of kids waiting to be adopted have been in foster care for two years or more; 25 percent for five years or more, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

On my lunch break I’d walk to the park in the affluent neighborhood. The pretty stay-at-home moms were on parade, kids in cute outfits dragged along to brunch. They talked, ignoring when their babies reached for them, not hearing when the kids said they needed something. Nannies strolled by, talking on their cell phones, mindlessly saying “Uh-huh” while the kids babbled on.

 At work, the parents had to go through a psychological screening to ensure they weren’t, by all legal definitions, insane.

And yet, there was crazy, spilled right on my desk. There were women who stalked us, calling 10 times a day. There were parents on edge, who, when things didn’t go well, called swelling with rage. Intended fathers who loosely threw verbal assaults and mothers who burst into tears, blaming and threatening in tantrums. 

If I were to donate my eggs, I couldn’t choose which parents I wanted to help have a baby. You knew nothing about who picked you. I might be helping people who probably had the money to raise a child, who wanted a child, but would they have the psychological awareness? The empathy?


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