Et cetera jobs. That’s where you’ll find the ads for gestational surrogates and egg donors:
YOUNG WOMEN WITH JEWISH HERITAGE NEEDED $8,000
Become an Egg Donor for a Loving Family — Earn $6,500+
Fast, Safe matching for Egg Donors. EGG DONOR compensation $8k-10k
Egg Donors in Demand! Earn THOUSANDS of $$$ While Helping Others!
COLLEGE EDUCATED Egg Donors Needed!
I’d noticed these ads many times when browsing Craigslist and feeling desperate enough to look in the etc. jobs section, but on one occasion, when I was feeling particularly low and frightened by the state of my savings account, I actually considered responding. I’m a college educated woman! I want to help people! I want eight-thousand dollars! I realized that choosing to donate my eggs solely because of Craigslist ads would definitely be a poor life decision, but they did get my wheels turning. They got me thinking about what it would actually mean to donate my eggs, and what I would gain and lose from selling a part of my body for money. Was it ethical? Could I live with myself knowing I had an egg out there in the world that could be a living, breathing human being? Could I handle that?
It’s just as ethical as selling sperm, I thought, which seems somewhat more socially acceptable. Yes, I thought, I can handle it. I could sure use a quick $8,000, too. Hell, if I did it more than once, that would be almost twenty grand. That could be a new car. That could be a wedding. That could be a down payment on a home. That could be the American Dream.
Plus, I’d be helping a couple who desperately wanted a family. I could frame my monetary motivations around moral ones instead, and I could be okay with that.
I talked it over with some people closest to me. They didn’t seem to be 100% in support of me doing it, but they weren’t really against it either. It’s kind of a touchy subject. People seem to feel icky about it without knowing why, without being able to pinpoint what feels wrong about it. Maybe it’s because people don’t like thinking about the female reproductive system. Maybe it’s because there’s money involved. Maybe it’s because it sounds kind of black market-ish. Like selling a kidney.
I did some research online — actually I did a lot of research online because I knew this wasn’t a decision to be made lightly. I researched, and then I thought about it for a few months, and then I researched some more. I didn’t want my eggs ending up in the hands of just anyone, and I wasn’t about to inject myself with a bunch of hormones without knowing the potential consequences. I searched for egg donation and surrogacy agencies (turns out, there’s a lot of them). I read reviews. I read pregnancy blogs and chat room threads. I read things written by people who had been donors. I read things written by people who used donor eggs to have babies. Some people had terrible experiences, but most people had really positive ones. I read about the process. I read about how I would need to inject myself and go to the doctor almost daily for a period of time. I read about the follicle-stimulating hormones, and how they’d make my ovaries swell. I read about how they take out the eggs and how I’d probably be in pain for a week or so. I read about how I’d need to undergo medical and psychological evaluations. I read about the various levels of anonymity — from open donation processes where I could meet the parents face to face, to completely closed agreements where they wouldn’t know me and I wouldn’t know them. I contemplated whether I’d ever want to meet the kid potentially grown from my egg. What would I even say to this kid? What if I remained anonymous, and then one day in some random place, like an airport bathroom, I saw a cute little girl with strawberry-blonde hair who looks just like me when I was a kid? I would totally wonder if that was my egg. My little egg. Could I live with that?
After all of my research and contemplation, I decided to give it a shot. I decided the money would go to good use in my own life, and in the process, I’d be doing a really good thing for a couple who couldn’t conceive otherwise. I would apply to be a donor and then wait and see. I was verging on thirty, so I thought there was a good chance nobody would even want my old eggs.
I chose an agency that seemed to have a good reputation and filled out the egg donor questionnaire on their website. I got a phone call a few days later and spoke with the donation coordinator. She explained that once my application was complete, couples looking for a donor egg would be able to view my profile online. Like OKCupid, but for eggs. If a couple was interested in my egg profile, I would get to see their profile. If we agreed to proceed, I would need to be ready to fly to wherever this couple was located to undergo the egg retrieval process. The coordinator explained that this agency operated all over the country. If the couple that wanted my egg was on the other side of the United States, I’d need to be able to go there for a week or two. That took this agency off the table for me. I couldn’t commit to leaving my job for a week or two to fly somewhere else for a non-essential medical procedure.
So I kept researching.
I found another egg donation and surrogacy center located in the largest city closest to where I live. I spoke with their egg donation coordinator. She explained that most of their clients were from the greater-metro area, and if I were matched with a couple, the procedure could take place in the the city or even at my local hospital depending on the couple’s medical insurance and preferences. The furthest I’d need to travel would be two hours away for a day or two. Perfect.
I filled out the donor questionnaire and sent in copies of my most recent medical physical. The donor questionnaire was the most detailed form I’d ever completed in my life. It asked about my medical history, my physical appearance, my personality, my education, my hobbies and interests. It asked about the physical appearance and medical history of my siblings, parents, aunts, and uncles. What color eyes and how tall are all of my aunts? Is there a history of any genetic diseases in my family? Cancer? Diabetes? Mental illness? What was I like as a child? How well did I do in school? What is my job? What are my future ambitions? How will I spend my compensation? How often do I exercise? Have I ever gotten pregnant? Have I ever given birth? Do I want to have children? Why do I want to be an egg donor?
I sent in photos of myself. A few recent photos and some of me as a kid. The egg donor coordinator said she’d contact me if a couple showed interest in my profile. I honestly thought I’d probably never hear from them. There must be tons of potential donors. Why would a couple choose me?
I heard from the coordinator a few weeks later via email. She said a couple was interested in my profile and sent along their information. The couple had to fill out a questionnaire similar to mine, but more concise. I looked at it with excitement, wondering who are these people that picked me?
The pair were in their mid-30s. They’d met in college, and gotten married within the past few years. He was an anesthesiologist earning over $200,000 annually. She worked in medical research and earned about $50,000 a year. He played guitar for fun. She did yoga and jogged. They came from normal, middle-class families. His mother was a nurse. He had one brother. Her mother was a teacher. She was an only child, but knew she always wanted kids. One of the questions asked if either of them was ever arrested or convicted of a crime. His answer described a story from when he was in college. He and some friends were at a restaurant, the kind of restaurant that has memorabilia-type stuff on the walls. They stole a sign off of the wall and carried it out with them. The restaurant called the police. They were brought into the station and arrested, but were released with no charges. That was the worst crime this guy had ever committed.
They were like a better version of my boyfriend and I. They sounded like a couple we would hang out with on Friday nights if we were the type of couple that went to dinner parties on Fridays rather than hanging out with friends at our house smoking pot, drinking cheap whiskey, and watching re-runs of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. These people would probably be appalled by that show. I bet they enjoy How I Met Your Mother, and I bet they drink white wine, and I bet they would gladly get out of bed at 6 a.m. on a Saturday to go watch their kids play soccer and they’d sit on the sidelines in their fabric camping chairs and drink Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and hand out orange slices after the game and talk with the other parents about how many miles to the gallon they get in their new crossover vehicle.
Apparently, they’d been trying to conceive since they got married, but there was a problem with her eggs so they decided to look for an egg donor. They described how much they wanted children and I realized that this couple truly sounded like they’d be excellent parents. I suddenly felt really excited to be able to help them. I forgot that I had been kinda on the fence. I forgot that I kinda just wanted the check. I suddenly wanted to give them a child. I want to give them my eggs! I replied to the donor coordinator, letting her know I was in.
After some more back and forth regarding logistics, and payment (I agreed to accept $6,000) there was one more thing to be done before signing off on any official agreement: they asked that I have a blood test to check for two things. First, they wanted my FSH levels checked. FSH is short for “follicle stimulating hormone.” This basically means, am I fertile? Second, they wanted me tested for cystic fibrosis carrier mutations. They learned that he carried a mutation for cystic fibrosis when they were undergoing various fertility-related tests trying to get pregnant. I don’t have any history of cystic fibrosis in my family, so I assumed this was just a precaution and I’d pass with flying colors.
I got the blood test done. A few weeks later, the donor coordinator called saying my results were in, but the lab couldn’t share results with her. They had to give me the results directly, which I could then consent to sharing with the agency. I called the lab for the results and was told a nurse needed to explain things to me, and that I’d get a call back. Several days of phone tag went by. I felt like they were giving me a lot of runaround and that there must’ve been something wrong with my test. If test results are normal, doctor’s offices always just tell you “everything was normal.” They only want to speak to you when there’s a problem.
After a week or so, I finally talked to a nurse there. She gave me my results: good news first — my FSH levels are awesome. I’m as fertile as a healthy, American female in her late 20s should be. Bad news next — I tested positive for a cystic fibrosis mutation. I’m a carrier.
The way cystic fibrosis works is this: you need two copies of the mutation in order to have the disease — you inherit one copy from each of your parents. If you only have one copy, you are simply a carrier of the mutation. Carriers do not have the disease, they do not have any medical signs or symptoms due to the mutation. If two carriers decide to have a child, there’s a 25% chance the child will have cystic fibrosis, there’s a 50% chance the child will be a carrier, and there’s a 25% chance they won’t inherit even one copy of the mutation.
So, if the couple used my eggs, given that he was a known carrier, they’d have a 25% chance of having a child with cystic fibrosis. That’s a huge risk completely mitigated by simply deciding to not use my eggs.
They decided to not use my eggs.
I told the donor coordinator to give the couple my apologies, and to send them my best wishes. She said she would, and she said she would keep my profile in the agency’s system. She said there was still a chance, albeit a slim one, that a couple would want to use my eggs. The screening tests, though, are not 100% accurate. Even if you test negative as a carrier, there’s still a very, very slim chance you might be a carrier. So, who would take that risk on me? Who, after investing thousands of dollars out of pocket to undergo testing and in vitro and to buy donor eggs, would take that risk?
I haven’t heard from the donation agency in over a year, and am confident I never will. Even if my profile is still in their system, my eggs have been flagged. They are marked. They have a mutation. You don’t want these eggs.
I really, truly hope the couple I almost donated to found another donor and I hope they have a happy, healthy child in their home right now. I felt so disappointed that I couldn’t help them. I felt so disappointed my genes weren’t good enough. I felt angry. I read that on average, 1 in 25 white people of European ancestry are carriers. I’m that 1.
I feel a new burden I didn’t even know I had before: I’m a carrier of a cystic fibrosis mutation. The nurse explained to me on the phone that day that this means the guy I decide to have kids with, if or when I decide to have kids, would need to be screened, too. If he turned out to be a carrier, we’d need to look into different ways of conceiving to be sure our child didn’t get cystic fibrosis. In vitro fertilization would be one option, where the embryos could be tested before implantation. Adoption is obviously another. We could potentially use donor eggs or donor sperm.
The detection of my genetic mutation could be a blessing in disguise — it’s important information I would never have known otherwise. It’s information that will influence my future reproductive choices one way or another. It’s information that I suppose I should feel happy to have, but I don’t. It makes me nervous. I can’t just casually try to have kids when I feel ready. I can’t just quit taking the pill and see what happens, like so many other women usually do. My pregnancy has to be a firm and conscious decision. I need to decide yes, I want kids! And I want kids with this guy! And now this guy needs to get tested, because what if he’s a carrier too? Then what? Do we want kids badly enough to pursue genetic counseling? Is it even worth the risk to have kids at all?
Today, I’m not $8,000 or even $6,000 richer and I could have really used that money. Is what I got even better than the money?
Maybe I’ll look back on this one day and feel grateful, but it really just feels bittersweet.
I went into this half-assedly thinking it would be a quick way to make some money, but then, after learning about the couple, I felt genuinely excited to be able to help these people who actually sounded like they’d be fantastic parents. I felt truly hopeful and confident about my choice to donate. And then, after learning my test results, I was suddenly awash with disappointment, not only unable to help, but still staring at an awfully frightening savings account.
I’m listening to my biological clock and it’s tick, tick, ticking away. I don’t even know if I want kids and this makes the decision all the more complicated. It fills me with me even more uncertainty and dread.
Photo via Flickr