Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Young women in college will see the ad in their school newspapers and on the papers' Web sites: "SEEKING SPECIAL EGG DONORS. Red/Blonde/Brunette Hair. Blue/Green/Brown/Hazel Eyes. Young, Tall, Athletic. High Compensation!! Make a real difference!!"
The ad includes the toll-free number and Web address for Loving Donation, a Florida agency that matches couples who want babies with young women willing to provide the eggs to help make it happen. About 70 agencies provide similar services around the country, and some have offered $50,000 and more for eggs from women with specific physical attributes and intelligence criteria sought by couples trying to have babies.
But medical ethicists and women's health advocates say offers of high compensation can lead some women to make a decision without considering the possible health and psychological risks of egg donation.
Deana DeGroot, who operates Loving Donation, said most women are paid less than $10,000, usually in the $5,000 to $6,000 range.
"They're not being compensated for the eggs. The compensation is for the time and the effort she's gone through," said DeGroot, who during the past six years has matched about 1,500 donors with couples trying to have babies.
The time required to be a donor is four to six weeks. It involves extensive physical and psychological testing, as well as hormone shots that cause ovaries to produce many more eggs than they would produce during a regular monthly cycle. There is some discomfort, such as pre-menstrual syndrome symptoms, bloating and irritability. Retrieval of the eggs requires that the donor be sedated.
Such services have increased over the past decade to aid women who have postponed motherhood into their 40s. In 2003, the most recent year for which statistics are available, donor eggs were used in 14,323 attempts to become pregnant. About 12 percent of those used assisted reproductive technology, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's more than double the number who used donor eggs a decade ago. Of women older than 45, about 77 percent used donor eggs.
Once donor eggs are retrieved, they are inspected by an embryologist using a high-power microscope and typically fertilized with the husband's sperm. In three to five days, a fertility specialist deposits one or two of the fertilized eggs at the appropriate location in the uterus. Pregnancy rates are in the 50 percent range, according to the CDC.
"I truly feel this is women helping women," DeGroot said. "Young women aren't always given an opportunity to be a part of something that matters. It's not a decision they make lightly, or just for the dollars. There are women who do this for the right reason."
But specialists in the field say young women need to consider all the pros and cons.
"I think we have a pretty good idea about what the short-term risks are," said Kathy Hudson, director of the Johns Hopkins Genetics & Public Policy Center, citing a condition called ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which can cause enlargement of the ovaries and a buildup of fluid in the abdomen. A mild form occurs in 10 to 20 percent of women taking the drugs, and in 1 to 2 percent, the syndrome causes severe symptoms.
"There are good numbers on how frequent that is, standards for safeguarding against it, and rapidly treating it should it occur. What we don't know is the long-term risks," Hudson said.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which represents many of the 400 or so fertility clinics nationwide, has drafted ethics guidelines that suggest women go through the donation process no more than six times.
The society's Web site lists about 70 egg donor agencies that follow its guidelines.
Prospective parents can study the catalogs of available donors' photos posted on those agencies' Web sites for any resemblance to the prospective new mother or for physical traits that appeal to them. Some agencies also provide photos of the potential donor as a baby or young child.
"If everyone in your family has blond hair and blue eyes, then you want your child to fit in," DeGroot said.
But she recommends recipient parents go beyond the physical similarities to choose a donor with similar interests and values: "What type of music do you like? Did you play an instrument in high school? What are your favorite books? What's your favorite subject in school?"
DeGroot said some prospective parents base their decision on common backgrounds.
"One woman had a hard time deciding between two (prospective donors). It came down to a sample of the handwriting. She chose the one most like hers," DeGroot said.
DeGroot said she has 500 potential donors and can match most ethnic and religious backgrounds, as well as the physical and intelligence attributes desired by a couple.
Laura Hamilton, 31, of Boca Raton, decided to donate the first time nine years ago, when she was 23 and her son was 4.
"I saw an article in a parenting magazine (about) couples trying to have babies and seeking egg donations. So I called," said Hamilton, who works directly with IVF Florida. "I figured I wasn't planning on having any more kids. I was happy with my son. So I might as well let somebody else use my eggs."
The first time she donated, she received $2,500. The last time she donated it was $4,000 and the current cycle, the fifth time she has donated, she will receive $6,200.
All donors undergo extensive testing, both psychological and physical.
"You go through this pain-in-the-butt test. It's like 587 questions. It takes, like, two hours to do it. That's after they do their initial phone screening. They find out if you have any health problems, if your family has any health problems," Hamilton said.
After the initial screening, Hamilton said, she had to fill out a 35-page application before being called in for complete physical and psychological exams. She has no contact with the women who receive her eggs and she does not consider herself the mother of any children born as a result.
Hamilton has learned that at least one child has been born with an egg she donated.
"It's like wow! Someone out there has a baby because of me," she said. "I just helped bring a baby into the world, and they're happy."
(South Florida Sun-Sentinel correspondent Toni De Aztlan contributed to this report.)
AT A GLANCE
The first pregnancy achieved with egg donation was in 1984, and was originally intended to help women who had ovarian failure caused by early menopause, radiation or chemotherapy for cancer treatment, or women born without ovaries.
Assisted reproductive technology using either the patient's own eggs or donor eggs accounts for slightly more than 1 percent of total U.S. births, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The number of assisted reproductive technology attempts performed in the United States has almost doubled, from 64,681 cycles in 1996 to 122,872 in 2003, and the number of cycles using donor eggs has more than doubled, from 5,162 to 14,323.
Women at age 40 have only a 21 percent success rate getting pregnant with their own eggs, compared with a 51 percent success rate using fresh donor eggs, according to the CDC.
To reduce the possibility that two children born using donor eggs from the same woman might meet and marry, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommends limiting successful donations from a single donor to no more than 25 families per population of 800,000.
PROS AND CONS
-Help create a family for a couple who can't on their own.
-Get paid for your time and effort.
-All your expenses are covered.
-Extensive physical and psychological testing is required.
-You must take drugs for about four weeks to stimulate your ovaries to produce extra eggs.
-Common symptoms can include pain, discomfort and nausea.
-You must be sedated for egg retrieval, in which a needle is passed through the wall of the vagina into the ovary.
-In rare instances, you can develop a side effect called ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome, which requires hospitalization in severe cases.
-Long-term risks of donating several times are unknown.
For more information: www.asrm.org/Patients/topics/eggdonation.html, www.resolve.org/ and www.cdc.gov/ART/ART2003/index.htm
(c) 2006 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.