The Hunt for Golden Eggs: Young Women Donating Eggs

Young women who donate their eggs say they're driven by a desire to help couples who are trying to have a baby. In an age of widespread infertility, they're also paid well.

By: Brooke Lea Foster

Melissa says she’s again ready to put her eggs up for sale. She keeps long hours as an attorney, making it hard to commit to the infertility clinic where she last donated. But she’s finally found the time.

Melissa, 29, is tall with long blond hair and blue eyes. She arrives at Fairfax’s Genetics and IVF Institute in a sleek pantsuit, carrying a designer Ferragamo purse. “I love all things Italian,” she says.

After graduating from law school two years ago, Melissa left the Midwest and moved to DC to launch a career in public policy. She was sorting through her mail one afternoon when a flyer caught her eye: egg donors wanted.

The ad tugged at her heart strings. Her eggs could help a couple have a child—and she could make several thousand dollars. Even though Melissa earned a good salary, she had student-loan payments. Plus, she knew she didn’t want kids of her own. Her eggs might help someone.

She researched egg donation online. She talked to her parents, who’d had infertility troubles before having Melissa. They thought it was wonderful that she was willing to help a couple have a baby. She didn’t have a boyfriend. If she did, she would have sought his approval, too.

As soon as Melissa was accepted into the program at Genetics and IVF, she became Donor 811. Her profile and childhood photographs were put online so shopping parents could get to know her. They could hear audio clips of her answering questions like “Who’s your hero?” and “How would friends describe you?” Couples could learn nearly everything about her, from her family’s health background to her SAT scores.

Donor 811 is one of Genetics and IVF’s most popular egg donors. “She’s the girl next door,” says a staffer. Four couples have bought her eggs over the last two years, earning Melissa $28,000. Melissa says she’ll donate as many times as the clinic will allow her to: “I was surprised by how easy it was.”

Conception used to be easy: Man and woman went into the bedroom. Woman got pregnant. But with more women putting pregnancy on hold to further their careers, couples in their thirties and forties are facing fertility troubles. As women age, so does the vitality of their eggs.

“We make it possible for a 50-year-old woman to have 21-year-old eggs,” says Michael Levy, a doctor at Shady Grove Fertility Center in Rockville.

Decades ago, women past their reproductive prime began relying on costly in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments—fertilization of the woman’s egg with her husband’s sperm outside the body. If that failed, they adopted children or had no children at all.

IVF with a donor egg, first used in the early 1980s to help women with premature ovarian failure get pregnant, has introduced a third option. If a husband’s sperm is healthy, couples can still have a child that is “half” their own.

It’s often the treatment of last resort. Women struggle with the idea that they’ll be carrying a baby that doesn’t share their genetic makeup; the child will merge the genes of an egg donor and the woman’s husband. But they often choose this method over adoption because it satisfies a primordial urge to give birth. Some women believe the baby will feel more like their own if they carry the child in their womb.

Egg donors are typically between the ages of 20 and 32, with most in their midtwenties. Many are college students and young professionals. Some are moms. Most egg donors say they feel surprisingly little for the child conceived using their genetic makeup. They don’t allow themselves to see the procedure as more than an organ donation. Most believe, as fertility clinics are quick to point out, that it’s nurture that makes a parent, not nature.

In exchange for a substantial payment, donors go through a monthlong process requiring injections and invasive doctor’s appointments. “It’s like getting a pap smear over and over again,” says one donor. “It’s not pleasant, but it’s not horrible.”

Women typically produce one mature egg a month. Donors are pumped full of drugs so they will artificially stimulate and create 15 to 20 eggs.

On egg-retrieval day, doctors use a vaginal probe to explore a donor’s ovaries, removing her microscopic eggs with a small needle. Those eggs are fertilized with the would-be father’s sperm to create embryos. Within a few days, one or two of those embryos will be implanted into the would-be mother’s uterus.

At Shady Grove Fertility Clinic, donors go home with $6,000 to $6,500—the money is paid throughout the process—and a box of chocolates.

An IVF patient at Shady Grove using her own eggs has a 47-percent chance of getting pregnant. If she uses a donor egg, her chances move to 55 percent.

Says Trina Leonard of Genetics and IVF: “Egg donors are the unsung heroes of infertility.”

Sarah decided to donate her eggs last year after seeing an ad in Washington Parent newspaper. The money drew her. She could start a college fund for her two-year-old son, Shawn. But the decision was also driven by emotion. Sarah, 32, couldn’t imagine not having her little boy. “It’s a fantastic thing to be able to do this for someone,” says Sarah, who lives in Woodbridge.

Sarah had dozens of friends who’d suffered from infertility. She’d watched several go through in vitro and others adopt. She knew infertility could destroy a marriage. “I felt a little awkward the first time I went to the clinic,” she says, “because my husband and I got pregnant right away.”

Shady Grove matched Sarah with a couple in July 2005. The clinic required that Sarah’s husband meet with a social worker. Clinics like to make sure that husbands are okay with the idea that their children could potentially have a half-sibling somewhere. Sarah’s husband was. She’d reassured him that it was an anonymous donation. It’s not like they’d have any responsibility for the conceived child. Later, Sarah and her husband would find out that the intended mother had survived Hodgkin’s disease, but chemotherapy treatments had rendered her eggs useless. Sarah was so touched that she cried.

For the first two weeks, Sarah took a daily injection of Lupron, often used in the treatment of endometriosis, so doctors could control her ovulation cycle. Then she began mixing and injecting a cocktail of medications into her belly fat to stimulate the production of eggs. Her ovaries grew from the size of a walnut to the size of a tennis ball. “You’re packed with eggs,” Sarah says. “The only way to describe it is that you feel really, really full.”

Donors inject themselves morning and night for 18 to 22 days, depending on how quickly they produce. They can’t have sex during the injection period and for about a month after the last one. Not only will their ovaries be sore after the retrieval, making intercourse painful, but they run the risk of getting pregnant with twins or triplets. Doctors may not locate every egg their ovaries produce.

Almost immediately after starting the injections, Sarah fell ill. She had a high fever and was throwing up.

“They didn’t realize how active my ovaries would be,” she says. Doctors had overstimulated her, so they scaled back her medication, and she felt better. After that, she got very hormonal. She describes it as really bad PMS.

Donors often say that they’re driven to donate because of a desire to help people. Many women have a friend or a family member struggling with infertility. They believe that they are doing the ultimate good deed.

But Julia Derek, author of the 2004 book Confessions of a Serial Egg Donor, says women tell themselves they’re helping others because they feel like they’re selling themselves. “The bottom line is that if they weren’t getting paid, they wouldn’t be doing it,” she says. “The clinics know that—it’s why the compensation keeps going up.”

England passed egg-donation laws in 2005 forbidding the sale of eggs as a commodity. Donors can only “volunteer” their eggs. So many women stopped donating that infertile English couples today face a five-year waiting list for a donor egg.

Julia Derek was a broke college student at George Mason University when she saw an ad in the Washington Post: “Infertile couple searching for tall (5’8” minimum), athletic, green eyes, brunette egg donor between the ages of 18–30. Preferably from Northern or Eastern Europe. Very discreet. Compensation: $3,500.” She could live off that money for an entire semester, Julia thought. So she met the couple for coffee. Meetings between donors and couples is forbidden in many clinics; this couple wanted to find a donor before approaching a clinic. Ultimately, they didn’t choose her.

But a few months later, Derek, a five-foot-eight Swede with model-good looks, moved to Los Angeles, where she was recruited by an “egg broker” who sold her eggs for top dollar. Derek donated 12 times over the next four years, earning about $50,000.

That was several years ago. Today she could earn double that.

Most local clinics pay donors $6,000 to $8,000 per retrieval. If a couple is looking for a highly educated or particularly attractive donor or a specific religion or ethnicity, they pay more. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine has said that any payment over $10,000 isn’t “appropriate,” but that doesn’t keep some agencies from paying more. In 2002, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that a couple had paid $500,000 for the eggs of an Ivy League egg donor who was five-foot-ten or taller and scored over 1400 on her SATs.

Prices are driven by demand—in 2005, the most recent year of recorded statistics, upward of 6,500 babies were born in the United States because of egg donation. Some estimates run as high as 10,000.

The global egg trade is driving prices, too, according to Debora Spar, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of The Baby Business: How Markets Are Changing the Future of Birth. Many area clinics work with couples from countries with strict donor egg laws like England and France. These couples have no other choice but to look abroad. Some fly to cities like Washington to buy donor eggs.

Joe was a single physician who wanted a baby of his own. He planned to use a surrogate to carry the child, and he wanted to buy the eggs of someone who was his intellectual equal.

“Whatever the going rate is—double it,” he told Diane Hinson, founder of Chevy Chase–based Creative Family Connections, an agency that works with donors and surrogates.

Hinson reassured her client that she could find a great donor for no more than her standard rate. She doesn’t believe in “overpaying” for eggs. Whether you went to Maryland or to Harvard, says Hinson, “we pay you $7,500 for your eggs.”

If a client has a type of donor in mind, Hinson’s agency offers “a specialized search.” Most agencies give couples a book filled with donor profiles; depending on the agency or the clinic, there may be two donors to choose from or a hundred. Hinson will search for someone specific, down to a donor’s height and ethnicity.

Hinson placed an ad for her physician client in student newspapers at Princeton, Columbia, and New York University. She was hoping for a graduate student. But the ad didn’t generate much response.

Then she found a copy of NYU’s paper. Says Hinson: “The ad above ours was offering $20,000.”

Competition to find good egg donors is fierce. There are ads on such radio stations as 107.3 FM and in such newspapers as the Washington Post’s Express. Some couples are beginning to post their own ads on sites from Craigslist.org to Myspace.com.

James Shrybman, a reproduction lawyer in Burtonsville, Maryland, has been connecting couples with egg donors for several years. His most reliable source—universities.

Because of religious traditions, Georgetown University and Catholic University forbid such ads. So Shrybman advertises in papers like University of Maryland’s Diamondback and George Washington University’s Hatchet. He typically gets about 20 calls after his ad comes out; one local clinic says it gets as many as 600 within a few weeks of advertising. Shrybman trolls for women on campus because “the younger the person is, the better the chance that she’ll produce a lot of eggs in one retrieval.”

Hinson’s agency and at least two other area clinics don’t like to recruit undergraduates; they find them unreliable. “I had a few drop off the face of the earth in the middle of the process,” Hinson says. Instead, she targets young professionals. Young mothers are sought after, too—they have a track record of fertility. “And they empathize more,” says Kelly Rugola, egg-donor recruiter at Shady Grove Fertility Center.

Julia Derek was 25 when she first donated her eggs. She says the younger you are, the less emotionally mature you are. “It’s so seductive,” Derek says. “You’re making money. You’re spreading your genes. You feel wanted. It’s an ego boost. For me, it became easier and easier.”

After Derek donated five times, she asked her egg broker if it was safe to continue. The broker used to be the egg-donor coordinator at the clinic where Derek had been donating. But she’d lured Derek away when she started her own donor agency. “Trust me,” the broker said. “I’m a professional. You’ll be fine.” Derek believed her. She knew someone who’d donated for the broker 16 times, and she’d seemed okay.

Derek’s egg broker called her every day and played mom to her—until Derek’s health waned. With a body pumped full of hormones for four straight years, Derek grew depressed. Sometimes she didn’t want to get out of bed. She asked for help, but the broker stopped returning her phone calls. Months later, the broker finally did call back. She said she’d get Derek some estrogen to help her feel better. Now her broker wanted to play doctor.

“These clinics have a bottom line,” says Derek. “You’re not the patient. The couple is the patient. You’re the product that’s going to keep the patient happy.”

Derek doesn’t know how many children were born as a result of her donations. “It makes it too concrete to know that,” she says. “I prefer to think of it in the abstract.”

There isn’t a watchdog group that looks out for egg donors. Recent FDA regulations require only that donated genetic material is tested for infectious diseases.

The closest thing the industry has to rules are the “suggestions” released by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which recommend that women donate their eggs no more than six times. But there’s no national registry to track donors. A woman could donate six times at Genetics and IVF, six times at Shady Grove, and again at Dominion Fertility.

Area clinics are upfront with donors about the risks associated with the procedure: They may experience some mild cramping. Doctors could nick an ovary when they go in to retrieve the eggs. A donor’s ovaries could “hyperstimulate,” a condition that at its most extreme causes fluid to build in the abdomen and can cause kidney failure or even death.

Shady Grove’s Levy says such dangerous complications from hyperstimulation occur in 1 to 3 percent of the population or less. “We’ve had about 1,000 donors over the years,” he says; fewer than five required hospitalization.

What’s less certain are the long-term effects of the drugs used to stimulate the ovaries. In an August 2006 Nature article, authors cite several studies that say it’s unclear whether reproductive drugs can stimulate the growth of cancers. Some have speculated that fertility treatments Elizabeth Edwards used to have her two youngest children may have contributed to her recent breast-cancer recurrence.

But several studies show no link between fertility drugs and the disease. At NIH’s National Cancer Institute, Louise Brinton collected medical records of more than 12,000 women who received ovulation-stimulating drugs between 1965 and 1988. There weren’t any statistically significant increases in breast and ovarian cancer, but Brinton did find that such women were about 80 percent more likely to develop uterine cancer.

It’s uncertain whether scarier statistics will emerge. Most women Brinton studied took a different kind of drug than the drugs introduced for IVF in the 1980s—the same drugs that are used on egg donors today.

On the fourth floor of Shady Grove Fertility Clinic is the embryology lab. It’s like a photographer’s darkroom, lit only by dim yellow fluorescent lights. Lab techs in scrubs, masks, and plastic gloves move about holding vials and petri dishes. They disappear into cubicles and hover over microscopes.

At one end of the hall is a large closet filled with what look like 25 giant thermoses. When the top of one is unscrewed, a white fog of liquid nitrogen comes out. Inside are dozens of test tubes holding hundreds of embryos.

At the other end of the lab is a steel door leading to the operating room. A dry-erase board hangs on the door with the name of the next donor coming in for a retrieval. The lab may do a dozen retrievals in a day, says Jim Graham, its head.

Graham, who hangs pictures of funny-shaped embryos on a bulletin board, explains that two hours before the donor’s eggs are collected, the recipient husband goes to another floor to “produce.” The clinic says it’s careful to schedule the donor and husband appointments far apart so there’s no chance they’ll run into each other. But both need to come in on the same day. “Fresh sperm is best,” Graham says.

The sperm is then brought up to embryology, where Graham’s techs will sift through it, eliminating any weak ones and storing the rest in an incubator until the donor’s eggs are retrieved. The fertilization happens within a few hours.

Many women who donate at fertility clinics don’t have any say over what happens to their eggs. “As soon as the eggs are retrieved,” says Shady Grove donor-program coordinator Kara Weaver, “they become the recipient’s.”

One retrieval of 15 to 20 eggs can produce two or three children. Even though all mature eggs are fertilized, only about half will produce strong embryos. A would-be mother will have one or two of the best implanted in her uterus; she and her husband can freeze the rest for later use, which costs about $360 a year. Sometimes they want a second child to have a genetic sibling.

A donor’s eggs may be shared with up to three families in some fertility clinics’ “shared cost” program—meaning three different families may have babies from one batch of a woman’s eggs. The donor is not told if this happens.

Some outside agencies require that couples pay for their egg donors to consult a lawyer. One of the biggest issues that comes up in the contract is what happens to the leftover frozen embryos. Unless it’s stipulated in the contract, a couple can donate the embryos to another couple or to science.

A donor will never know if any of the leftover embryos are donated to a place like the Snowflake Embryo Adoption Program, an agency in California heralded by President Bush, which matches frozen embryos with parents unable to produce embryos of their own. A decision to donate embryos is often steeped in religion. Some believe that life begins with an embryo and that destroying one is like killing a child.

One egg donor says she was floored when her attorney said that the embryos she helped create for a couple could be sold by that couple to another. She made sure that her contract was clear. If the couple didn’t use the embryos, they were to be destroyed: “I didn’t want all of these kids with my genes running around.”

Inside the operating room, a 27-year-old egg donor named Heidi is under anesthesia and attached to an IV. A vaginal probe—outfitted with ultrasound and a needle—is inserted, and her ovaries come into view on a monitor beside her. The doctor sees a few large black sacs on the screen. They’re follicles, which may hold an egg. Doctors never know until retrieval.

The tip of a needle comes into view on screen, and one by one the black sacs begin to collapse. They’re being drained.

A lab tech pours the fluid from a vial into a petri dish and begins searching for eggs through a microscope. An untrained eye would never see the eggs. They look like cloudy masses, almost like the whites of a chicken egg. “Four, five,” she yells. She’s handed another vial. “Six.” The lab tech holds the petri dish sideways under the microscope, trying to glimpse some that she may have missed.

Ultimately, they’ll collect seven eggs from Heidi that morning—hardly the harvest of 15 to 20 they’re accustomed to. Says Graham: “It’s like panning for gold.”

Jessica, 28, ran into her coworker’s office the minute she found out that the couple to whom she’d donated her eggs had gotten pregnant. “It’s just so cool,” she said. Even after Jessica got home from work, she couldn’t stop thinking about the news. She sent an e-mail to her agency, Creative Family Connections, one of those that will inform a woman about the outcome of her donation: “This is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done.”

The first time that Jessica went to a fertility clinic to donate her eggs, she left uneasy. The doctor there made “me feel like my organs were nothing to them but a business transaction.” She’d nearly walked away from egg donation.

Then she got an e-mail from a friend who knew she’d been thinking about donating her eggs. Her friend’s aunt worked at Creative Family Connections, and it just so happened that Jessica looked exactly like one of its clients who was searching for an egg donor. The agency e-mailed her: “Will you consider it?”

The couple sent Jessica a letter about their quest to have a child. They’d tried everything; egg donation was their last resort. Their last egg donor had dropped out midcycle. They were desperate.

Jessica thought of her mother. She and her stepfather had struggled with infertility for years—and her mom never again got pregnant. Imagine that someone like me could have helped them, Jessica thought.

Jessica filled out a 15-page application and began the donor “screening” process, which includes the collection of a medical history and personality test. The clinic drew blood and checked her hormone levels and her ovaries.

Then officials sent her to a social worker to gauge how attached she was to her eggs. If she seemed too emotionally vested, clinics say, she’d be disqualified. The social worker asked whether her family was supportive. Many agencies strongly recommend that younger donors talk the decision over with their families. “We don’t want them to drop out later because their mom finds out and gets upset,” says Creative Family Connections attorney Linda ReVeal.

The social worker asked Jessica how she viewed her role in the donation. It was a way to help someone, she said. Jessica was asked about her circle of friends and her job—there’s fear that loner or depressed women might focus too much on the resulting child.

“Are you going to feel resentful if you can’t have your own children several years from now?” a therapist asked.

Jessica shook her head: “It would give me hope because I’d know that this process was out there.”

About 20 percent of applicants at area clinics will ultimately become donors.

Donors at Genetics and IVF have to be college-educated. The clinic checks their college transcripts and asks for their SAT scores. Donors in its “doctoral” program, who have advanced degrees, earn $1,000 more than the others.

The most popular donors? Sometimes it’s those who show lots of personality on their audiotape. Parents loved a donor at a local clinic who told a story about how she was singing on stage once—and fell off midsong. They liked that she stood up and kept singing.

Many parents want a donor who looks like the intended mother. But a very attractive donor is almost always swooped up; some donors have a waiting list. All donor programs dismiss anyone who is overweight. People like tall donors. “Short donors aren’t picked as quickly,” says Shrybman. In the Washington area, blondes are in demand.

As are donors from specific ethnic groups. It’s hard for area clinics to recruit Asian or Indian donors. Muslim donors are more rare than Jewish ones; there are several agencies that specialize in Jewish donors. Sometimes couples have only one donor to choose from, and it’s only after a long search. For some, it takes years to find an ethnic match.

Levy says that cultural and religious reasons keep some women from donating. One local Vietnamese couple searched for a year before finding a donor in California. They flew her to Washington for the procedure.

Some area agencies post fliers in ethnic marketplaces. If they find one Asian donor, they might ask her to ask her friends. Still, some Indians and Asians may resist; there’s a desire to keep bloodlines pure, particularly among immigrant groups trying to remain true to their heritage. “We tried advertising in an Asian newspaper,” says Michele Purcell, a nurse at Shady Grove. “No response.”

Most local egg-donation programs are anonymous. A couple may know everything about their donor except identifying information like her full name or address. Donors don’t know anything about the couple they’re providing eggs to. Both could live in Bethesda and stand next to each other at Chipotle but never know it. One donor and recipient mother were so curious about each other that they sent notes back and forth through their nurse.

“I don’t want to know who they are,” says Sarah. “Then I’d think about the child.” And it would make the process more personal, the way it is for a surrogate, she says. Sarah thinks she’d analyze what kind of parents the couple might be. She’d wonder if they were going to raise the child the way she would. “That’s not my place once I hand over the eggs,” she says. “I just tell myself that anyone who’d work this hard to have a child will treasure it.”

Most local clinics don’t tell donors if their eggs result in a pregnancy. Those details might cause the donor to grow attached. Clinics sometimes refer to the eggs as “genetic material” to keep donors from thinking the newborn has anything to do with them.

Most donors like that kind of language. They say they don’t want to have anything to do with the child that’s created. A few say they don’t care much about having children themselves. “I might as well let somebody use my eggs if I’m not going to,” says one 27-year-old donor.

Says Sarah: “I see it as a blood donation. I don’t walk around wondering who got my blood. I’m just happy I did it.”

When you’ve donated eggs successfully, there’s someone related to you in a biological sense walking the earth, says Jessica. That reality hit her when she found out that both her donations resulted in successful pregnancies. “My whole life I’m going to wonder and theorize about these children,” she says. “I can’t help but be curious.”

She and her boyfriend are planning to get engaged this year. She wants to have her own kids soon after. When her future child starts kindergarten, she says, she’ll think about the two donor children. She’s quick to say it’s not an attachment she feels to them. “I used to work for a daycare center,” she says. “I wonder about those kids, too.”

Jessica believes that nurture makes a parent, not nature. Her own father disappeared from her life when she was toddler. “He’s like a sperm donor to me,” she says. “My stepfather is my dad.”

Donors can indicate on an application whether they’re open to donating an organ or bone marrow to the child if he or she falls ill. Jessica checked yes.

Donors can also indicate how they feel about being contacted by the resulting child years from now. Says Jessica: “If they show up on my doorstep in 20 years, I’d be thrilled.”