My desire to donate my eggs came from my desire not to use them for myself. I didn’t want kids. Asians don’t donate as often as other women, but there were Asian couples out there who wanted children and couldn’t have them. Why not get compensated for helping someone start a family? But the application process was a process. And before I could become a YMCMB, I had to be put through the wringer. The application itself had eugenic qualities, and filling it out I was supposed to note my skin color as either “fair,” “medium” “olive/light brown,” “dark brown,” “ebony,” “freckled” or “rosy.” I was asked if I would be comfortable taking an IQ test, what my philosophy on life was, what my goals were, and if I had achieved them. I was asked what talents ran in my family, and whether I was in any gifted and talented programs. I filled out each question to the best of my ability, sent in flattering pictures of myself, and an unofficial copy of my college transcript. The next step was to wait for a match.
In the meantime, I connected with We Are Egg Donors, a donor advocacy resource and forum filled with different experiences and the collective knowledge of several hundred women. There were many women like me, who were starting this process for the first time. There were women who had chosen to donate up to eight times. Of those who experienced health issues, they could not say one way or the other if their problems were related to repeated uses of fertility medications. Why? Because there’s no research. There were women concerned about Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS), which can be a serious result of the fertility medications, with increased risk as the dosages increase.
There were women who had scheduled back-to-back donations, only having recently recovered from a previous cycle. There were women who had decided to stop at their third or fourth donation, but found themselves feeling guilty when they were matched again, worried about letting down another couple who the agency said “needed” them. One of the most disturbing things I noticed was doctors’ repeated use of telling women their ovaries were “overachievers,” often using that phrase jokingly after retrieving more eggs than the recommended amount (about 15). The use of this language was suspect, first because it was so widely used among many different clinic doctors, and second because it denoted a positive connotation to having fertility drugs forcibly stimulate a woman’s ovaries to produce more eggs than it should. Ovaries aren’t designed to overachieve. The “achieving” was artificial. The doctors did not note: “You produced more eggs than typical, so if you decide to donate next time, we’ll lower your dosage so you won’t be at risk for OHSS.” Instead, donors were congratulated for their hard work. Some, to their dismay, experienced similar or increased dosages in their next cycle.
In egg donor databases, you will see head shots of young women with groomed hair, bright smiles, and white teeth. Alongside will be their age, location, height, and any other notable information. Intended parents may feel more like they are browsing a dating website. Ads target college-aged women who may have just graduated with loans to pay back. Officially, donors don’t get paid for their eggs (that would be illegal, silly). They get compensated for their time, and their pain and suffering. This doesn’t explain the disparity between whose eggs are more desired (Asian, Jewish, redheads, Ivy League, gorgeous, etc., etc.), and whose are run of the mill.
Clinics and agencies often use feel-good and altruistic language. As a donor, even if you are not feeling wholly altruistic, you will act accordingly, knowing what’s expected of you. I found myself answering each application question with a thoughtful and upbeat attitude found only in the most successful of job interviews. In my meeting with the psychologist (part of the process is a psychological evaluation and genetic screening), I dressed business casual to impress, but after I signed the contract, I wore my snapback, t-shirts, and sports bras. When asked about whether I wanted to disclose my sexuality, I declined, for fear of not being chosen. As a donor, I had an acute sense of when stakes were higher or lower.
You will be asked a lot why you want to donate. Sperm banks often emphasize compensation when reaching out to donors. And while egg donors are also presented with tempting compensation, most of them will also encounter discussions in which they have to prove that they are not entirely out to get paid. Sometimes the desire to help comes in conflict with your desire to self-advocate. You don’t want to feel like a difficult donor. When I stuck to my guns about my compensation, my agency said “We’re not in the business of trying to just take money from parents.” It was a subtle accusation, but I couldn’t shake the idea that that’s exactly the business they were in. My agency would be making a lot of money off my body from a couple who could afford to pay the fee. I asked a lot of questions. What was my follicle count, how high were my estradiol levels, would I be taking cabergoline to mitigate OHSS symptoms. I compared notes with other donors, relieved to find that my numbers were conservative. In the end, I wasn’t afraid of the drugs. If you’ve gone to college, you’ve woken up in the morning cognizant (or not) of your mistakes. In the end, I was afraid of being lied to.
This is how I gave myself shots. I went into the clinic and a woman explained to me in a sing-song voice (so as to show how fun it is) how to mix your drugs in the tiny provided bottle, and how to measure 225 IUs into a syringe, and how to get all the air bubbles out. Needles didn’t make me particularly nervous, but I’d never poked myself before, and yeah, I was nervous. At home the next evening, I read the instructions over and over and then mimicked the demonstration. I pinched the fat in my lower abdomen, just underneath and a few inches left or right of the belly button, and poked. It really didn’t feel like much.
My breasts got bigger, which is par for the course when on hormones. It always happened when I was on birth control, and it’s the last thing I maybe still dislike about my body, and of which male affirmations only make me feel more despaired. Leading up to the days of retrieval, I felt bloated and uncomfortable, and could walk at the same pace as my grandmother. The injection sites got bruised. Damn, I was sick of it. Though nervous, I was relieved when my retrieval date finally arrived. The doctor told me the anesthesia would work in ten seconds, and I didn’t even get a chance to start counting.
In the end, the clinic retrieved 12 eggs. The next day, another donor shared that her clinic had retrieved a drastic 52 eggs from her. Three and a half times the recommended amount. Floods of support and tips rushed in, and I found myself thinking of her during recovery.
The most value I got from the process is through the understanding that every donor is different, has different motivations, and is willing to take different calculated risks. Several of the donors at We Are Egg Donors made connections with the intended parents, and personally experienced the difference they made. Others felt cast off and unsupported. I never met the intended parents. In the end, I’m happy if they’re happy, but I don’t have that much fanfare attached to the idea of starting a family. I didn’t feel like a “hero” the way many agencies or clinics will often say. I felt like I was giving away something I didn’t particularly need, and receiving something in return that’s pretty universally needed around here. I learned to exercise self-advocacy. But still I participated in a transaction I was critical of the whole time. I signed the contract, and stayed the course out of some abstract feeling of commitment and obligation, like clinging to a marriage you don’t believe in. And perhaps much like the end of a marriage, at the end you went through a promising process of taking someone else’s money and walking away with part of you missing (dark humor).
Would I do it again? Doubtful. This is what happens when an industry is entirely unregulated. You can do your research and take precautions, and self-advocate, and even come out with an optimal experience. But to me it will always feel exploitative. At this age, my body feels resilient, but the money doesn’t seem worth the possible and expensive health complications faced by many repeat donors. The collective knowledge highlights some shady business practices, manipulation, and a lack of transparency. The promise is sweet, but not even the fine print can give you the full picture.