baby

Why I almost signed up to be an egg donor at 28.

By Grace Jennings-Edquist

“Us Jennings women can get pregnant at the drop of a hat.”

My nanna’s advice to my younger self was ringing in my ears as my cursor hovered over the Facebook ad. It offered up to USD$48,000 to eligible, fertile respondents who were interested in “helping others.”

At 28 years old, I was healthy, I was fit, and I was fertile – according to nanna’s words of warning, anyway.

The notice was advertising for egg donors, and I was interested.

I’d never considered becoming an egg donor before. Why would I? I grew up in Australia, where it’s illegal to pay donors or surrogates for their services. The women in my circle were in their mid-20s, an age bracket struggling more commonly with unwanted pregnancies than with infertility. Egg donation, to my mind, was a process that affluent, mature Other People used.

But I’d moved to New York, where even a full-time, professional salary doesn’t always comfortably cover the cost of living. In this expensive, busy, anonymous city, any way to make cash on the side is applauded, or at least granted the legitimacy of indifference. You can advertise and sell anything here, reproductive materials apparently included.

Against a backdrop of slippery boundaries and suspended judgment, egg donation had a certain sheeny, get-rich-quick appeal.

'I was fit and healthy.'

I weighed the pros and cons of the process. On the one hand, I’d be required to inject myself with hormones every day for two weeks. I’d be bruised and sore, then my abdomen would swell and grow sensitive to the touch as my ovaries became hyper stimulated. Eventually, I’d be administered with general anaesthetic so a specialist could “harvest” (what a word) the multiple mature eggs I’d produce as a result of the hormones.

On the upside, I could help a loving couple realise their long-term dream of starting a family – a particularly amazing, life-affirming use of medical technology, I considered. I was also fairly confident my biological child would be loved and provided for, given the emotional and financial investment required of the parents who seek a donor.

I had zero qualms about “messing with nature” or “playing God”: I’m a believer in science and pragmatism. I can also imagine seeking the services of a (well-paid, non-coerced) donor myself if I ever struggle to conceive, so I’m not one to judge.

Also, the whole process could be done and dusted in a month. And at the end of it, I’d be paid enough to line my pockets for a generous maternity leave period when I have a family of my own.

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So I clicked the link, taking an initial, hesitant, shuffling step down the rabbit-hole that is the US reproductive fertility market.

"One ad offered $50,000 for eggs."

There are countless childless couples willing to pay top dollar for an egg donor in New York City, I soon discovered.

A quick Google search revealed at least a dozen fertility clinics in Manhattan, as well as private clients advertising for donors on Craigslist. The going-rate seemed to be USD$8,000 per cycle. There was also an option of committing to several cycles, hence the aforementioned $48,000 figure. Some ads targeted donors of a particular ethnic or racial background —Asian and Jewish women seem particular popular — but most listed only youth and good health as donor prerequisites.

One Craigslist ad offered $50,000 for eggs from a tall, Ivy league-educated “professional model” with green or hazel eyes: I shuddered to think of what kind of upbringing the child living in this Gattaca-style designer baby home would experience. (Not that those parents would choose me, anyway: My eyes are dark brown, even in the brightest light.)

Another ad’s earnest, hopeful tone caught me eye.

“My husband and I cannot conceive naturally, and our family depends on your generosity,” the ad began. “If you are a healthy, good person and you wish to make a big difference to a loving couple, please get in touch.”

The ad promised the process was “relatively easy,” assured readers the process only took a couple of weeks, asked prospective donors to email through photos and Body Mass Index statistics to a woman named Madina.*

My husband of 18 months and I have big plans for kids of our own someday. Our discussions about family planning had been extensive; they’d never extended, though, to whether one of us should sell our biological matter to strangers.

So that night, I asked my husband his thoughts on egg donation.

He was iffy. “Won’t it damage things in there?” he asked at first. Then: “You don’t respond so well to hormonal changes, do you?” (A tactful reference to a contraceptive pill that had sent me loopy some years prior.)

But he conceded that he didn’t know much about the procedures and its risks and side effects. “It’s your body,” he said. “You choose.”

Grace with her husband, Ben.

Emboldened, I emailed Madina a couple of images and my height and weight stats.

“I don’t know much about the process yet, but I could be a match,” I typed, adding a few lines about my relatively clean bill of familial health.

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Madina emailed back, attaching a brief biographical summary. It turned out she was a successful, 42-year-old business consultant. Originally from Western Europe, she and her husband had a spacious apartment on New York’s ritzy Upper West Side, Central Park views, and an empty room in their apartment ready to be filled.

They’d earned the full Gossip Girl lifestyle, but they’d met late in life and couldn’t conceive naturally. Now, the only thing missing from their idyllic life was a baby—and I could make that happen for them.

Madina wanted to meet that week for lunch. She was keen, clearly.

She also emailed through an application form and some details about the procedure, which would be conducted at a fertility clinic in a posh part of town. I would have to be formally approved through the clinic, but Madina seemed positive about the outlook and eager to begin the process right away.

“Can you submit the forms tomorrow?” she urged.

Suddenly I was paralysed by indecision. The prospect of donating my eggs was now real. It was really real. I was supposed to submit my medical history to the fertility clinic immediately, and I was in a panic.

I lay awake late that night, Googling every what-if question I could think of, as if my smartphone held the answer to such a personal dilemma.

My skin prickled as I read cautionary tales online: One young, athletic woman described horrific bloating that left her looking five months’ pregnant for weeks after her eggs had been plucked from her. She later suffered severe sciatica after the retrieval process damaged her nervous system, she claimed, and has been told she never be able to comfortably run again.

But for every precautionary tale, there were positive stories of dreams fulfilled and empowered donors. It was relatively easy money, some women said. It was magical to help out a stranger in such a meaningful way.

Then I read the fine print about compensation in Madina’s paperwork. The figure was lower than that advertised in the online ad. My mind raced. Was there some sort of massive taxable portion I’d overlooked? Did I have to haggle over the price of my eggs?

Was this all… kind of degrading?

I was wary that I didn’t have enough answers to make an informed decision.

Simultaneously, a blanket of guilt settled over me. I had told an infertile woman I may be able to help her. Could I really back out now?

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I told my family what I was considering, seeking reassurance that I should move forward.

But I wasn’t expecting their strong reactions. My mother was horrified; she pointed out that the side effects of egg donation hadn’t been studied in a controlled, long-term way. She was concerned the cocktail of hormones could put me at risk of psychological instability, weight gain, uterine instability, infertility, even cancer.

Mum also raised concerns about trafficking in women’s body parts. Wasn’t this just marketeering women’s bodies? In my particular situation, I didn’t think so: While the exploitation of poor women in countries like Thailand and India is indeed horrific, my own situation didn’t involve coercion (in the form of a major economic imbalance, for example).

Then one of my sisters sent me a Facebook message that stopped me in my tracks.

“You want to make sure that you are 100% okay with having your son or daughter being raised without your love or protection,” she pointed out.

“You won’t know if they are being abused or neglected. You don’t know if they want to know you.

“You want to make sure it’s something you won’t regret.”

That gave me pause. I pictured myself in five years, with a baby of my husband’s and my own in my arms. I pictured myself as a mother, thinking about the biological child I’d sent off into the world with strangers– probably in a whole other hemisphere, speaking in a different accent, waking up in a different time zone.

I imagined looking down at my future child and realizing, with a thud, the true weight of what I’d given up as a 28-year-old. There was a real chance I’d regret going through with it. And years down the track, thousands of dollars couldn’t buy my decision back.

I texted Madina back in the morning, telling her I wasn’t a good match.

I told her I was deeply sorry, and I really am. A part of me wishes circumstances are different—that I’d already completed my own family, perhaps— so I could go through with it.

But I wasn’t the right person for the procedure; not this time, not this quickly.

For Madina’s sake, I truly hope somebody else is.

*Name has been changed.