Will You Be My Baby’s Mama?

The egg donor market wants you, Harvard women, and it’ll pay

According to Baywatch standards, you’ve lucked out in the gene pool—you’re an athletic, thin, tall blonde with high cheekbones. Add that Harvard education and a higher SAT score—and now you’ve hit the jackpot, but not for the reasons you’d expect. Some infertile couples are willing to pay you up to $50,000 for those genes.

Egg donation agencies, which help infertile couples find egg donors, have recently barraged college and university newspapers with requests for donated eggs. Demand for donated eggs has driven up prices and caused a dramatic leap in compensation for Ivy League donors. Although no concrete numbers are available, Ivy League applicants are a small minority of all egg donors. Donor matching agencies say graduate students are much more likely to donate, making undergrad eggs all the more desired.

While most egg donors receive a few thousand dollars in compensation for the process (sperm donors only make a paltry hundred), Ivy League girls are the crème de la crème of the egg donation pool and routinely earn five-digit compensations.

An aspiring donor goes through an intensive screening process: agencies ask everything from favorite music, to how quickly one tans, to SAT scores, to the occurrence of asthma in the family. If a donor is paired with an infertile couple, she is treated with the drug Lupron to prime her body; the donor receives local anesthesia, and her eggs are “harvested” from the ovaries via needle, up to 40 at a time.

Although the process sounds relatively easy, the procedure is invasive and has some associated risk. As in-vitro fertilization and its associated procedures have only been popularly practiced for the last ten years, no long term analysis of the effect of egg harvesting or Lupron on the body is available.

Hilary Hanafin, a clinical psychologist with the Center for Surrogate Parenting and Egg Donation, commented on the process on the American Radio Network’s “Decision to Donate” series. She notes: “Being an egg donor is a big decision. It’s not like being a blood donor, and a 21- or 19-year-old undergraduate probably doesn’t have the capacity to understand what she’s getting into.”

And many students harbor questions over the process’ health, mental and ethical risks. “I’m worried about the type of drugs they’re putting in your body and the effect they might have,” says Rebecca E. Wexler ’05.

Donation agencies assure donors that the procedure, thus far, has been relatively painless and successful. Over ten thousand babies from donor eggs have been born in the last decade and the vast majority of donors suffer no bodily harm. But Visiting Professor of Public Policy and Women’s Studies lecturer Mary Ruggie warns, “there will be more legal and ethical issues that will come up that we can’t fathom.”

Most ethicists take issue with the marketplace created around Ivy League eggs, not with the donation process itself. A healthy, college-educated woman receives around $5,000 dollars for her egg donation; first-tier college students around twice that; Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Yale students up to ten times that amount.        

Tiny Treasures LLC, a Somerville-based donation agency, creates a pool of “Extraordinary Donors.” According to their website, a donor with either an SAT over 1250, an ACT over 28, a GPA over 3.5, or enrollment at an Ivy League school, qualifies as an “Extraordinary Donor” whose eggs are worth more than three times that of a first-time, well, normal donor. A Perfect Match, a California based donation agency, currently advertises in The Crimson and posted the infamous $50,000 offer for a tall, athletic, brunette.

In July 2002, the President’s Council on Bioethics (online at www.bioethnics.gov) released “Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry,” which raised questions about the morality of the egg donation-for-cash trade. “When the ‘products’ are human beings, the ‘market’ could become a profoundly dehumanizing force,” the committee concluded. The report went on to question the “prospect of a new eugenics” arising from developments in IVF technology.

Indeed, one donation website posted photographs of nearly 50 available egg donors. The average donor advertised an SAT score over 1300, a weight below 130 and height over five feet, eight inches. However, most egg donation agencies avoid such advertising and stress that they help match couples with suitable donors.

Egg donation agencies believe that the couple seeking donation has every legal right to, and should, investigate and decide upon their own egg donor. The agencies stress that egg donation allows couples to experience a nearly natural pregnancy, providing an alternative to adoption, which is often legally and emotionally complicated.

But Ruggie describes that a “market factor” has been created around donated eggs. “Some private insurances cover in vitro fertilization and assisted reproductive technology, but most don’t. It becomes a debate as to whether the phenomenon of infertility should be medicalized and the consequences of wealth.”

Ultimately, the issue remains complex. But one woman awaiting donated eggs who asked that she not be named said the complexities are overridden by the benefits. “This gives women the opportunity to have a child that is at least partially the genetic product of the couple,” she said. “It also allows some women to experience pregnancy who otherwise couldn’t.”