Is Egg Donation Dangerous?

There are some frightening cracks in the do-good, feel-good industry — with some donors reporting infertility or the development of persistent health problems. Here's what donating your eggs can really do to your physical and mental health.

By Andrea Stanley, Redbook

A sick day wasn't an option for Maia B. — she was a medical student and didn't want to get behind in class. So she sat in the back of the lecture hall puking into a towel while trying to take notes, ironically, about how to care for people who weren't well. But she wasn't just ill — she was recovering from an emergency surgery as the result of donating her eggs.

"I donated because I really wanted to help someone struggling with infertility, but I had a horrible experience where I was treated like a human petri dish," says the 28-year-old from Thousand Oaks, CA. "The day of my donation I was put on so many hormones that I ended up getting really sick. I was vomiting blood and having difficulty breathing. Before the clinic even considered getting me medical attention, they did the egg retrieval. I ended up needing surgery to remove an ovary as a result of ovarian torsion [a condition where the ovary twists in the body]. I was never warned something like that could happen. It was pretty awful."

In online forums and support groups, like We Are Egg Donors, stories like Maia's are alarmingly common, where donor experiences read like dark, seedy horror stories and supposedly virtuous baby makers sound more like greedy egg snatchers. Donors also trade stories about the supposedly "rare" health risks so many of them end up suffering. So why is the blissfully-bright egg donation industry leaving so many women in the dark about the dangers of donating?

On what we don't know

If you look to the egg donation agencies as your should-I-do-it compass, the process seems seamless — it's all babies, happy families, test tubes full of hope, and impossible pregnancies suddenly becoming possible. All conceivable because of donors — like you.

However, a study published in The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics looked into how egg donor agencies market themselves online and found they often employed ethically questionable recruiting practices. Researchers discovered websites using phrases like "life-enriching and incredibly beautiful experience for young women" and "feel tremendous gratification" — one agency even tried to guilt trip women who "had a prior abortion they can't forgive themselves for" as an altruistic reason for donating — all while glossing over the potential health consequences, and being vague about the actual process itself. (Spoiler alert: Donating eggs is not as simple as giving blood — or semen! It involves giving yourself shots of hormones for weeks, and then undergoing a medical procedure that requires anesthesia.)

"One of the main misconceptions that women hear a lot is that the overall risk of complications is less than one percent," says Diane Tober, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco and medical anthropologist who has been conducting research on egg donor's decisions and experiences since 2014 (she's also the filmmaker behind The Perfect Donor). "There is no evidence to base that number on, and in my research, the number of women experiencing complications is much higher."

No one can say exactly what will happen if you donate your eggs because there's not much research into the long-term health risks egg donors may face, Tober says. There have been reported cases of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (which can be life threatening), ovarian torsion (as in Maia's case), blood clots, development of long-term health problems, infertility, and, according to some researchers, even cancer.

But that's just the physical. Mentally, not everyone who donates will feel "tremendous gratification," and in fact, may feel the exact opposite. "Women may find themselves feeling unexpectedly attached to the idea of their eggs as future children, and feel a sense of loss about 'giving them away' to be raised by someone else," says Alexandra Sacks, M.D., a reproductive psychiatrist in New York City. "You may worry about these future children being unloved or mad at you for abandoning them."

If that doesn't come into play for you — how you're treated might. "Women who provide eggs are not always given the same care and concern as people using donor eggs to create their families," Tober explains. "Many donors report feeling like they were treated as egg-making machines." That can leave you feeling low. "Some women have psychological responses to the demands of the procedure," Sacks says. "They may feel resentful towards the process if they had medical complications, or in general feel like the financial compensation or emotional inspiration was not worth their investment in time and physical and emotional energy."

Signs of exploitation

So why do women continue to line up to stick themselves with needles and agree to weather the somewhat hazy health hazards? For starters, behind the euphoric, good-intentioned vibes, egg donation is a for-profit industry. Agencies exist solely to supply fertility doctors with a steady supply of donors for their patients in need of eggs. If the donors dry up, so does the baby-making broker business. Agencies in turn offer lucrative paydays — you've likely seen the ads and thought about paying off a credit card or plumping up your bank account.

Compensation generally starts around $5,000 and can soar as high as $10,000 for Ivy-League, high-GPA, attractive candidates (the egg donation equivalent of Grade A, grass-fed, organic eggs). The same study mentioned above found an agency that claimed you could "be compensated up to $48,000" even though that would require multiple donations. (It's recommended women donate no more than six times — advice that's routinely ignored by donors in need of money and agencies in the market for eggs, Tober says).

Critics warn this creates a system that preys upon the penniless. "Financial compensation is one of the most significant motivators for women to donate their eggs," Sacks says. "And a typical population of egg donors are school-aged women saddled by loans and debt. Research shows that women who are donating eggs just for the money may be more likely to regret their experience."

In fact, the good Maia had done was the only thing that got her through her ordeal — not the cash. "It really broke my heart to be treated the way I was," she says. "But knowing that two children resulted in my donation helped me come to terms with what happened, and allowed me to get better, not bitter."

How things got so bad

The murky health risks and questionable payouts are the result of a bigger problem: "The federal government does not regulate this [egg donation]," says Michele Goodwin, director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy at the University of California, Irvine School of Law and author of Baby Markets. There are voluntary guidelines spelled out the by American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), but no one is actively policing the system. And there are currently no plans or laws in motion to change that.

That means if something goes wrong, there's no clear set of rules you can prove were broken, and your right to recourse may prove challenging. "Litigation is always an option," Goodwin says. "However, it's important to keep in mind the power differentials. Those who can afford to hire an egg donor tend to have sophisticated lawyers — on the other hand egg donors may be less informed. And the problem is that by the time one is considering a lawsuit, the harm has already been done and the injury sustained."

Still, some egg donation agencies caution that a few bad seeds have ruined it for everyone, and that many donors do have a positive experience. "Being an egg donor is a wonderful thing," says Martené Brits, a program director at Eggseptional, an egg donation agency. "It gives couples who suffer from infertility hope of having a child, as well as those in the LGBTQ community and prospective single parents. But it's important to find the right agency. A donor's life and well-being should be the most important thing."

That's advice you may not be able to cash in — but it certainly is priceless.
egg donation,egg donors,fertility,donating my eggs

See more at: Redbook
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Unplugged Magazine: Is Egg Donation Dangerous?
Is Egg Donation Dangerous?
Unplugged Magazine
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