I will never forget sitting around a senior seminar table at Tufts University and hearing a fellow student casually remark that she was considering selling her eggs for money. I had seen the ads in the student paper, and the sums they offered were staggering to my broke, undergraduate self. But it never occurred to me that fellow students actually considered it as an alternative to typical undergraduate jobs like being a teacher’s assistant or working in a coffee shop. The price for a smart and attractive woman’s eggs was double what one female friend earned with a prestigious teacher’s assistant role for an entire year. This was nearly ten years ago, when egg harvesting was a wild new frontier. Now it’s become somewhat mainstream. But the price paid by women who have undergone egg harvesting is beginning to come to light.
Selling one’s eggs to infertile couples is increasingly pushed on women as a smart move during tough economic times, and freezing one’s eggs for personal use down the road is framed as a way to achieve career success early on while becoming a mother much later. Sarah Richards made waves when she called egg freezing “the most powerful gender equalizer” in a widely shared piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why I Froze My Eggs (And You Should Too).” Anne-Marie Slaughter mentions the procedure as a good option for women who want to “have it all” in her viral 2012 Atlantic article. Silicon Valley companies like Apple and Facebook now cover the expense of harvesting and freezing eggs for female employees. Meanwhile, my Pandora (which has figured out that I am a educated, young woman) runs an incessant stream of ads touting the huge financial rewards I could reap—and the happiness I could bring another couple—were I to sell my eggs.
Until recently, few mainstream media outlets have raised questions about whether egg harvesting is actually a good option for cash-strapped and career-oriented women. In just the last two months, ABC News did two specials on egg harvesting, featuring Katie O’Reilly. O’Reilly’s piece for Buzzfeed, “I Wish I Hadn’t Donated My Eggs,” details her horrifying experience during the process itself and the major medical issues she suffers years later, including fibroid tumors in her breasts, a distended and infected gallbladder, irregular Pap smears, and endometrial scar tissue—which can cause infertility—throughout her fallopian tubes. The response of her doctors? “One of those things that can just happen.”
O’Reilly is not the only woman who has come forward with scary stories about egg harvesting. Nikki Yeager told her story at xojane.com. She sold her eggs for $6,000, and the side effects of the procedure landed her in the intensive care unit and cost her an ovary, and almost her life. Jennifer Billock, a cash-strapped recent college graduate like the O’Reilly and Yeager, detailed for Marie Claire magazine the way egg harvesting for donation “destroyed [her] body.”
Doctors and the medical community are under scrutiny for downplaying or not properly disclosing the risks, short- and long-term, to women like these who allow doctors to harvest and sell their eggs. The process is very invasive and involves altering one’s menstrual cycles to match those of the woman or couple purchasing one’s eggs, enduring a stream of injections of huge doses of hormones, and then undergoing the actual extraction, which is surgical in nature and involves anesthesia.
The risks to women of this process range from severe bloating to kidney failure, clotting problems, and ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which is the body’s natural process for stimulating and releasing an egg “gone haywire,” according to one doctor. One donor who suffered from it describes gaining 17 pounds in three days.
And yet finding scientific information on these risks from the medical community is not easy. The website of the elite Johns Hopkins Fertility Center has a page on egg donation that contains no information about the potential risks to women in its section on frequently asked questions (besides an assurance that egg donation will not lead to early menopause), or anywhere else that I could find. Asked by ABC News about the potentially adverse effects of donating eggs on women’s fertility, one fertility doctor answered, “[There is] no evidence that there is, but no guaranteed proof that there isn’t… Large studies need to be done.”
If doctors agree that little is known about the potential long-term effects on women of this relatively new but increasingly common procedure, why are we promoting it? And why aren’t we as a society asking hard questions about the ethics that surround a practice that instrumentalizes the female body for profit? While wanting to help others create a family is a good thing, doing so at the potential risk of losing one’s own fertility—or life—is not.
The risks of egg donation in particular go beyond the physical. As one doctor put it for ABC, the act of giving one’s eggs in exchange for money is “not like getting your nails done.” Rather, it can bring “mood swings, anxiety, stress, fear, guilt, and remorse, weeks, months, or even years later”—effects no doubt related to having given away one’s own genetic material for the creation of a child that one will never know.
One woman who sold her eggs now “obsesses over how the child has turned out, if he or she is happy and healthy, and if the child knows he’s a product of egg donation.” She wondered on her blog, “What happens if my daughter ends up going to the same college and dates this person? These are things I did not consider as a 20-year-old in need of extra money.” In her Buzzfeed article Katie O’Reilly describes feeling devastated upon learning that the woman who bought her eggs became pregnant with triplets but miscarried two of the three babies. The fertility industry is making money by turning cash-hungry young women like O’Reilly into mothers, while depriving them of actual motherhood.
Egg harvesting, whether for personal use or for sale to someone else, is a practice that clearly has risks, the extent of which we do not fully know. At the end of one ABC special on the practice of egg harvesting and selling, a host queried whether brokering human eggs might “open the door to desperate women selling their eggs to the highest bidder or maybe even putting their health at risk to make money from their genetic material.” We are long past that point, and many of these “desperate women” are average millennials, looking to pay off enormous debt from school, where fertility clinics concentrate their advertising. The industry needs to be held to much tougher standards when it comes to studying and disclosing risks—and the women pondering egg harvesting for the sake of quick cash or delayed motherhood should reconsider.