A Fertile Imagination

Truth may be strange, but the “truth” that best-selling author Robin Cook spins is stranger.

Every week, the Boston Phoenix runs an ad from the “Egg Donor Program” that offers $5,000 “plus karma credits” to females willing to donate their eggs. Such advertisements, and others that specify the desirability of Ivy League ovaries, inspired Cook’s most recent true-to-life medical thriller Shock, published in August 2001. Cook tackles the infertility industry and its unregulated gray areas—a perfect setting for intrigue, horror and probing social commentary. “There is an active kind of search for women to donate eggs,” he says. “My feeling, of course, is that this is very bad public policy.”

Cook’s books are fashioned to reflect the medical issues of the times. He sees himself as a teacher whose vehicle is the mass-market paperback and he shares his opinion throughout the 370-page novel. The plot revolves around two Harvard graduate students (one getting a Masters degree in economics, the other in Biology) who respond to a Crimson ad seeking young, attractive Ivy League egg donors.

The economist, Joanna, a demure Southern belle tired of waiting for her beau to propose, ditches him and decides to start her life as an independent woman with $45,000 in her pocket in exchange for her eggs. Her pushy friend Deborah decides to donate because she wants to go to Venice and egg donation seems to her a well-thought-out financial scheme. This leads to a hijacked ovary and to theses completed in Venice, along with other characteristically thrilling scenarios.

As a former student at the Kennedy School of Government (1976-77) and current Massachusetts resident, sticking close to home appealed to Cook. And if the past is any indication, this novel may become a movie. (Cook’s 1977 Coma was made into a 1997 movie of the same name.) Cook is already thinking about where the flick might be filmed. “I hate seeing all these movies set in Southern California,” he says. “It’s fun to see a movie shot here.”

Aside from the fertility clinic’s requirement that donors be Ivy Leaguers, Harvard itself has very little to do with the book’s plot. There is enough of Boston thrown in to make the setting recognizable—a little Beacon Hill, a little Boston Common—but the book could just have easily been set at any other prestigious coed university with cash-desperate grad students.

And maybe it should have been. The largest sperm bank in the country, the Boston-based New England Cryogenic Center, doesn’t even house an egg donation program. Clinic spokesperson Chris Arnone says that even with the potential for financial gain, it’s not worth the risk. “There’s a huge fear factor just because a woman’s body might be messed up from all the medication—five months of drugs—she would have to take,” he says. For men, donating sperm is not a big deal at all. “They do it for free all the time,” Arnone says matter-of-factly.

Although the intricacies of the stolen-genetic-material plot can be more tedious than frightening, the book’s premise is not completely divorced from reality. According to Arnone, colleges have long been a major resource for fertility clinics and that his sperm bank solicits donations from many area schools, including Boston University, Northeastern and Harvard. Because the clinic accepts only 1 in 30 donors, clinic administrators feel that catering to students helps them streamline their stringent selection process. “Almost all of our donors come from colleges,” Arnone says. Unlike in Cook’s plot, Arnone says the Boston clinic does not pay top-dollar for Ivy League sperm. He says that while other banks are willing to pay up to $100 more to donors with Ph.Ds and doctorates, the New England Cryogenic Center isn’t convinced Ivy League sperm is all that valuable. “The best example,” he says, “is our president, George W. Bush. He went to Yale and he was a C student.”

Others are less blasé about the value of a solid Harvard (or Princeton or Yale) education. Fertility Alternatives Incorporated, based in Murrieta, Calif., designates Exceptional Donors as attractive women under 30 who either have a college degree or are currently attending college. They must have at least a 3.5 GPA and SAT scores over 1400. These women are able to name their own fee—from $5,000 to $15,000. The company even maintains a waiting list for Ivy League egg donations for parents who “as a general rule believe that intelligence is genetic.”

But Cook dismisses this idea of isolating Ivy League donors as silly, citing the Nobel Laureate sperm bank as a poorly conceived idea. “I don’t think there’s ever been a situation where the offspring of a Nobel Laureate has won a Nobel Prize,” he says. “People don’t quite understand genetics,” he says with slight frustration.

Cook says his intentions in writing Shock were twofold. “I wanted to underline the fact that this monetary economy is emerging for female eggs,” he says, “and I wanted people to know something about embryonic stem cell technology and the basics of therapeutic cloning.” The book does just that, at times relishing the details of the scientific minutia so lovingly that a non-biology concentrator can become a bit confounded. But the main idea is one anyone can grasp: The egg donation process is dangerous—so beware. Egg donors should steer clear of any clinic that used to be a tuberculosis sanatorium/mental institution. And they should avoid sneaking back into the clinic after already pilfering sensitive documents—especially when the head security guard looks strangely like a rabid G.I. Joe.

When informed of the basics of the plot, Arnone laughs out loud. “What is this, Nancy Drew?” he asks. Cook’s take on his characters is slightly different. “When you’ve written a few [books]—I think Shock is my 23rd—you begin to create your characters for the story,” he says. “What I try to do, and what I think sets my books apart from, if you will, the best-selling genre, is that the stories tend to be quite character-driven. I create the personalities to make the story happen.”

Another issue Cook addresses in his novel is that infertility clinics operate with what he considers insufficient government oversight. “Nobody seems to be doing anything about it,” Cook explains, “because something that touches, or even perceives to touch, the abortion issue, becomes very highly politicized.” As a result, Cook says, clinics have fallen through the cracks. “There’s also the problem that infertility specialists are the highest-paid physicians today,” he adds. “It’s kind of absurd—they really don’t have to produce anything. They’re supposed to produce babies but they don’t even have to do that. They just have to make people think it’s a possibility.”

But Cook says that with new advances in stem cell research, it may not be long before there is a cure for infertility—so long as the politicization of the issue doesn’t hamper researchers.

“It’s exciting but the last thing we need is a handful of senators and representatives in Washington beating the drum for their own ends,” he says. “I’m very fearful of it being politicized this much because if it falls in the hands of demagogic politicians, they’ll use it to inflame, to increase their own popularity.” For this reason, Cook says he isn’t ready to move on to a different subject. “The whole reason I got into writing fiction is that I got this idea that fiction could not only entertain but also carry some information that could hopefully help people make up their minds on some sort of public policy,” he says.

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