Speaking of Women's Rights: Egg donation? More questions than answers.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Egg donation? More questions than answers.

“Young women at top colleges and universities, long a prized source of eggs, are now being recruited not just through advertising in student newspapers but on Web sites like Facebook and Craigslist, even on highway billboards.”
This quote from a New York Times article on egg donation stopped me in my tracks for a couple of reasons. First, the very idea that my body might be considered a “prized source” gives me the heebie jeebies -- it's a pretty blatant statement of commodification and objectification.

Second: I’m just fascinated by the weird and complex world of compensated egg donation. I’m hoping to explore it more in a series of blog posts, but I want to start by summing up my initial reactions and posing a bunch of questions. I doubt I’ll find definitive answers to all of them, but I’ll try to dig in deeper.

Three (of the many) things that freak me out about egg donation

1. The thought of selecting donors based on traits that may or may not be genetic.

I understand that parents might want kids that look like them. Or, given some degree of choice in the matter, they might even want kids that are different from them in specific ways -- taller, blonder, straighter teeth. But does that really explain/justify seeking donors with particular SAT scores, or athletic abilities, or personality traits? I’m also curious about why certain traits seem important enough to potential parents that they would attempt to manipulate them.

An ad in a local free weekly paper reads:
Blue or Green Eyed Egg Donor Needed
Special donor needed for couple – begin at once. Seeking a healthy, college educated woman, 20-27. Best match would be 5’3” – 5’9”, slender/athletic build, blonde or brown hair. Extra great match to recipient: musical (voice/dance), athletic, adventurous, good sense of humor, empathetic. $5,000 compensation.
It’s as though the wannabe-parents are saying “Our dream child would have all of these traits, and science is too slow to figure out which ones of them are actually genetic – so we’ll assume ALL of them are, just to make sure we get the most perfect baby possible.” Even if a child can inherit empathy and a good sense of humor from her mother, what’s to stop a donor from claiming to have desirable traits that she really doesn’t have? Would the potential egg recipients demand proof? Is it OK for them to do that because they’re the ones holding the checkbook?

2. It’s risky and painful.

According the New York Times article, the donation process is like this:
First, a series of hormone injections stimulate the ovaries to produce 10 or more ova in one cycle. Next, the eggs are extracted surgically, under local anesthesia. […] Donation can cause abdominal swelling, mood swings and hot flashes. The most significant risk is ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which can cause bloating, abdominal pain, and, rarely, blood clots, kidney failure, and other life-threatening ailments.
This sounds like a big deal! Not easy. Not fun. I’m curious about how many people do this, and what motivates them. I’ve heard anecdotes about women who donate eggs to finance major expenses (travel, grad school), but I would bet there’s a lot more variety than that.

3. Regulating the whole business.

The New York Times article quotes a doctor who studied the phenomenon of women being offered large sums – up to $50K – for their eggs.
“The concern is that some young women may choose to donate against their own best interests,” Dr. Levine said. “They’ll look at the money on offer and will overlook some of the risks.”

The study noted the possibility that the ads represented a “bait and switch” strategy, with large offers primarily designed to lure donors but with prices negotiated downward once they respond.
So a woman can be smart and independent enough to attend a “top university,” but when she considers becoming an egg donor there’s a danger she’ll become so dazzled by dollar signs that she cannot make a decision in her own best interest. According to Dr. Levine, some authority ought to dictate compensation, in order to protect women… from their own inability to make good decisions? This sounds problematic to me, not to mention paternalistic.

Of course, donating eggs is risky, and very, very complicated – and nasty negotiating tactics are reprehensible in this realm. I’m all for donors being empowered to choose wisely, and understand the risks they’re taking. I think some amount of regulation is appropriate, and necessary. But it’s hard to conceive of getting the details exactly right. How should women – and women’s right to control their own bodies - be protected when they're voluntarily donating eggs, and being compensated?

There is already a lot of knowledge and discussion about this out there on the internet. Good places to start: this article about egg donation in Canada, and Julie Shapiro’s blog. I’m just beginning to learn, and I hope to write more about this.

Please share your thoughts on egg donation in the comments! What do you think about compensation? Egg donors are often compensated, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. How do you set a price for a human egg? What race and class dynamics do you think are at play? Who benefits? Who is being exploited?) What about kids born from pregnancies started with donated eggs – how do they feel about where they came from?

Photo credit: Carly & Art