“What’s a few eggs between friends?” Many egg donation advertisements, like the examples here, suggest that it’s nothing at all!
However, although the egg donation process is often advertised as simple and pleasant, it is usually the opposite. Advertisements selectively exclude the potential risks of the procedure and instead make the whole process seem appealing. The truth is that in the first week of the egg donation process, donors need to take medications to stop their normal cycles, which can cause side effects such as hot flashes, insomnia, and mood swings.
After that, women need to undergo painful fertility injections, which can lead to conditions like heart attacks, ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, and abdominal pain (no big deal!). Finally, donors go through an invasive procedure where the eggs are retrieved surgically, which can cause damage to pelvic organs. Some studies even suggest that the egg donation process puts donors at a higher risk for infertility and cancer!
Advertisements are able to lure young women, not only by downplaying the risks, but also by using specific rhetoric to appeal to the stereotypical altruistic qualities of women. In “Superdonor,” egg donor Katie O’Reilly explains that ads use words such as “donor angels” and “altruistic heroes” who give an “incredible gift” when referring to the donors. This makes the donors feel like they have something sacred to give and that they are actually doing this act out of compassion, instead of for monetary gain. The industry also inaccurately uses the word “donor” to make it seem like money isn’t involved, when in reality it is all a business.
Many young women, such as O’Reilly, are drawn into this misleading egg “donation” business because of debt, not altruism. In a BuzzFeed article, O’Reilly explains that after her 25th birthday party, she ended up in the emergency room. Uninsured, she accrued huge hospital bills. She searched for fast money and came across an egg donation advertisement. After she had already scheduled the procedure, her boyfriend tried convincing her to withdraw from the donation because he researched and discovered the potential risks involved. However, at that point, O’Reilly already felt tied to the donor organization and convinced by the whole concept of being an “angel.” The recipient family needed her. She had given into the deceitful rhetoric.
Unfortunately, O’Reilly’s “donation” came with a cost that she now regrets. After her eggs were retrieved, there were strange changes in her body: fibroid tumors in her breasts, an infected gallbladder, and abnormal Pap smears. Now older, O’Reilly wants to have children but is scared to try because she has developed inconsistent periods and may be infertile.
It is surprising that every time she asks her doctor whether her medical problems could be due to the fertility drug injections, the doctor “changes the subject,” saying that there is no definitive evidence about the long-term effects of egg donations. Isn’t it a crazy coincidence that O’Reilly, otherwise healthy all her life, began having health issues post-donation? No!!
O’Reilly is an example of thousands of women who “donate” eggs without knowing the risks and truth about the entire process. This problem stems from the policy, or rather lack thereof, which surrounds egg donation. According to the American Journal of Bioethics, egg donation started as a research project in 1984 that was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB). Donors were considered “human subjects,” so they were given consent forms and were compensated $50 per day for “their time and expenses.”
At the time, advertising for egg donations was illegal and considered unethical. However, by the 1990s, egg donation was introduced as an age-related treatment for infertility so women over forty began to offer lots of money to donors. Michelle Sargent explains that as the demand for donors went up, the US government decided to take a “laissez faire” approach to egg donation, allowing it to become the $80 million market that it is today. Advertisements became widespread, filling college campuses and women’s magazines.
To this day, the US doesn’t regulate reproductive technologies and doesn’t even require infertility clinics to be licensed by law! Why should an invasive and risky procedure like egg donation need to be regulated anyway? The US also lacks a standard law for proper egg donor recruitment and care procedures, allowing doctors to make their own rules on how to recruit and treat donors.
So far, New York is the only state to have taken real action towards regulating egg donation by forming the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law. In 1998, this group published a report showing that egg donors are often not sufficiently informed about egg donation risks and that egg donor consent forms vary in the type of risk information they include. Following this, the NY Task Force produced a guidebook for egg donors and helped NY proceed with an informed consent law, requiring that prospective donors be notified of all risks of egg donation before they are screened for the procedure.
Besides New York, the United States continues to stay unregulated in the egg business, allowing potential egg donors to remain subject to exploitation. National laws need to be established to ensure that all of the “Katies” in America are given proper informed consent and are educated about the life-long risks of egg donations before they sign up. The government also needs to fund long-term research so that more knowledge about the risks is revealed.
Furthermore, as internist Jennifer Schneider says, “right now, egg donors are treated like vendors, not as patients. Patients need to be followed up.” Donors should be given psychological and physical care post-donation. Additionally, college students are a very vulnerable population because of their financial status, so targeting them is exploitative. Therefore, egg donation ads should be removed from college campuses, and altruistic language should be reserved for real charity.
Finally, a last message for potential egg donors: please educate yourselves and be skeptical. As a former egg donor puts it, “before you jump, look very very hard.”
Anonymous, “What I Wish I Knew Before I Donated My Eggs,” We Are Egg Donors, November 13, 2015.
Catherine Elton, “As Egg Donations Mount, So Do Health Concerns,” Time, March 2009, 31.
Katie O’Reilly, “I Wish I Hadn’t Donated My Eggs,” BuzzFeed, June 2015.
Katie O’Reilly, “Superdonor,” Vela, September 2015.
Michelle Sargent, “Regulating Egg Donation: A Comparative Analysis of Reproductive Technologies in the United States and United Kingdom,” Michigan Journal of Public Affairs, 2007.
Mark V. Sauer, “Egg Donor Solicitation: Problems Exist, But Do Abuses?,” American Journal of Bioethics, 2001.
The New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, Thinking of Becoming an Egg Donor? (accessed 2016).
I was stunned to learn that informed consent isn’t required as a matter of course. Maybe I shouldn’t be, considering the short shrift that’s too often given to women’s health.