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Egg Donors: A High Price to Harvest

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Guest blogger Gina Kaysen Fernandes: From the moment Sarah Haberfeld De Haaff first held baby Ethan, she felt a deep connection. The newborn wasn't hers, but he came from her body. "I could see the family resemblance," says Sarah, who calls Ethan her "eggling." It's an endearing term she uses to simplify the complex relationship that evolved after Sarah donated her eggs to an infertile friend. "It's amazing, the things we are able to do," says Sarah, who remains in awe of the procedure that nearly killed her.

Egg donation is big business in the multi-billion-dollar infertility industry, and many young women are tempted to cash in on the high value of their eggs. Agencies are using classified ads and social-media sites to target attractive, college-educated women who are ripe for the picking. But critics say there's an ugly side to the egg-donation industry, because most donor candidates are unaware of the potential health risks of harvesting their eggs. Activists say that not enough research has been done on the long-term consequences of donating, and that women are unknowingly putting their health in jeopardy for the promise of quick cash.

Sarah says that her desire to donate her eggs wasn't motivated by money, but that the prospect of making several thousand dollars didn't hurt. As a graduate student in her early 20's, Sarah toyed with the idea of harvesting her eggs after seeing a solicitation in a campus newsletter. The money would pay for school expenses and simultaneously sate her desire to help couples fulfill their dreams of having a family. Then finals came along, and the 80-page application form landed at the bottom of her to-do list.

Several years later, however, Sarah became friends with Robin, who had suffered years of infertility problems. Robin and her husband were in the midst of an egg-donation process when they encountered a devastating setback. When Robin confided in Sarah about the egg donor falling through, Sarah offered to donate her own eggs in a moment she describes as "an impulse." She never imagined that that choice would put her life in danger. "I know it's unusual," she says. "But it seemed very natural, normal and no big deal."

Sarah describes her screening process as "less intense" than what most donors endure. It generally involved filling out a medical and psychological questionnaire, undergoing genetic testing and signing release forms. Then, several times a day over the course of many weeks, Sarah injected herself with hormones in order to stimulate her ovaries into producing multiple eggs. Thirty-six hours after the final shot, a doctor removed 30 eggs from Sarah's ovaries in an outpatient surgical procedure. She thought the worst was behind her ... but it was just the beginning of a terrifying medical emergency.

The next day, Sarah felt nauseous, and her stomach became distended. She went back to the fertility clinic, but no one seemed overly concerned. "They offered me a cookie and told me to drink ginger ale," she says. It wasn't until several hours later that blood tests revealed her body was beginning to shut down.

Sarah was suffering from a rare condition called ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), wherein the organs become saturated in fluid. Sarah's kidneys had to work overtime to expel all the excess fluid, and she suddenly fell into acute respiratory distress. Friends rushed Sarah to the ER, where she spent a week in the cardiac unit of the ICU. Even the specialists were stumped by her condition. "The doctors were fascinated," she says. "They were trying to figure out protocol." Meanwhile, her family and friends stood vigil by her bedside for ten days until she pulled through.

While doctors considered Sarah's condition a freak occurrence, critics argue that OHSS happens more often than the infertility industry is willing to admit. "There are so many dirty little secrets in this enterprise," says Jennifer Lahl, founder of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network and producer and director of the documentary "Eggsploitation." Lahl, a former pediatric nurse, believes cases like Sarah's are just the tip of the iceberg. "People just don't know this is happening," she says. "Once they're aware it's happening in America, they're horrified."

Donating eggs for money is illegal in a number of countries, including Canada and France. Lahl's biggest concern is the lack of comprehensive studies of egg donors. "It's meaningless to say the risks are low," she says. "Young, healthy women are assuming a risk that's a benefit to someone else," she says. Lahl believesthat once money becomes involved, donors naturally downplay the potential danger. She thinks thatmore government oversight and removing the financial incentives would make the process safer.

The debate over compensation has been a hot-button issue for years. Technically, donors are paid for the time and effort involved -- for the dozens of appointments, not the egg itself."It's ... one of the most misunderstood topics," says Mary Ellen McLaughlin, co-owner of Alternative Reproductive Resources, a Chicago-based gestational surrogacy and egg donation agency."Egg donation is not a walk in the park. If it were, we'd see more women willing to donate."

Despite seeing a 50 percent increase in the number of applicants over the past year, McLaughlin says the actual number of qualified donors has not increased. Unhealthy lifestyles, genetics and psychological problems rule out many hopeful candidates. Some critics claim that donors with high SAT scores or athletic prowess can earn a bigger check, but McLaughlin insists that couples can't pay for a "designer baby.""There are ethical guidelines," she says. "Egg donations can't exceed $10,000, except in exceptional circumstances."

Donors shouldn't expect a quick payday, either. It can take months to go from the selection stage to egg retrieval, and donors may have to wait up to a year before getting paid. After 18 years in the business, McLaughlin has found that the drive for compensation usually takes a whole new turn once a donor begins the process, however. Sitting in the waiting room with fertility patients "really brings home that they're helping create families," she says.

After Sarah's medical ordeal, Robin felt compelled to pay her $2,500 for the egg donation. Although Sarah insists that "it wasn't ever about the money," she says that getting paid for what she went through made them both feel better. "It made it more of a transaction, more legitimate," says Sarah.

What remains highly unusual about Sarah's story is her close and unwavering bond with "eggling" Ethan, who's now 10 years old. Despite living hundreds of miles away, Sarah visits him several times a year, sends birthday cards and talks frequently with him on the phone. "He's such a grounded, lovable person," she says. "I enjoy watching him grow."She credits Robin with enabling their relationship. "Our ability to be clear and honest has had a huge impact on how it turned out," she says.

Typically, egg donors are similar to sperm donors in the sense that they have little information about the offspring they may have helped create. "The majority remain anonymous," says McLaughlin. As a safeguard, the parties involved sign a double-blind agreement that gives the donor a 10-month period to contact the recipient couple to get the intended father's date of birth. That information can be used by the donor-sibling registry to prevent half-siblings from dating one another. (McLaughlin says that the risk of these related children meeting each other is very rare.)

Sarah now has two young children of her own who also share a close connection with Ethan, although she's not sure how to define it. Right now, she and her husband are not comfortable calling them half-siblings. "It's such a unique relationship," she says. "We need to come up with a special term."

Her advice for other women who may be considering egg donation is to do it from a generous place. "The money is nice, too, but [the egg] is a part of you," she says. "It's an incredible gift."

next: I Can't Go to the Movies Because of BED BUGS!
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