“Make thousands a week working from home!” Everyone receives an email like that from time to time, and immediately discards it as junk. For healthy young women, though, a seemingly too-good-to-be-true offer can become a reality when they decide to sell their eggs. Though the procedure can be painful and invasive, compensation is as high as $8,000.
More than ever, women are using donor eggs through in-vitro fertilization (IVF) to conceive, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. From 2000–2010, the number of donor eggs used for IVF increased about 70 percent. With a growing demand for eggs, there follows, of course, a growing need for donors. To meet that need, Reproductive Biology Associates (RBA), Georgia’s first IVF center, has opened a monitoring clinic here in Athens on Sunset Drive, near the Health Sciences campus.
Despite the clinic’s opening in March, RBA has not witnessed a significant increase in the number of donors, especially younger donors. Debbie Mecerod, director of clinical operations for My Egg Bank, which was established by RBA, describes this as surprising. “You would typically think that we would have a lot of girls from the university, but I’m telling you, we don’t see many 21–22 year olds. We’re seeing more of the girls who are going to graduate school,” Mecerod says. “I’ll tell you why: A lot of them have graduate school costs. A lot of them are doing it for the money.”
Before you condemn these young women for selling their unborn offspring, consider that compensation for first-time donors is $7,000, increasing in $500 increments for the second and third cycles. RBA allows donors to cycle through six times, although most women average three times, according to Mecerod.
For many of these young women, ages 21–30, that is a huge amount of money. That’s student loan debt, or at least a chunk of it. That’s a study-abroad trip. That’s a semester’s tuition. For one young woman, it was a new MacBook.
Whitney Ridings, now 23 and an alumna of UGA, made the decision to sell her eggs when she was 21, during her senior year of school. Agreeing that the compensation was her biggest incentive, she says, “I paid off credit card bills. I had a computer stolen a couple months earlier, and that was kind of a big factor for why I wanted to, because I had to buy myself a new computer. I just paid off all my bills, which was a big sigh of relief.”
Since Ridings’ experience occurred before the clinic in Athens was open, she spent a lot of time and energy driving to and from Atlanta for all her appointments, and it was exhausting. “I would never recommend it, because I had classes, and work and a social life to manage,” she says. “It was just really, really hard. There were a couple times where I was like, ‘This is just too much; I need to not do this right now.’ But it ended up being worthwhile.”
Ridings was one of the few, the proud, the 21–22 year-old donors that Mecerod mentioned they don’t see as frequently. In fact, Mecerod says most of RBA’s donors are 24–25. Though some college is a requirement for donors, according to RBA's website, she acknowledges that they have “lowered that standard a little bit.” It was originally a prerequisite, because “it shows the commitment.” Also, if a donor’s sample lying in the egg bank is labeled as coming from someone with a GED, “they just sit there,” says Mecerod.
If you’re starting to see dollar signs, don’t get too excited, yet. The applicant-screening process is multifaceted, cutthroat and drawn-out. It begins with an online application covering general health, moves to an in-person meeting with a genetic counselor and a nurse to do some basic testing and then includes a meeting with a physician to go over the process in depth. Finally, if the candidate is still standing, she's subjected to an exam with a psychologist. “If a donor had narcissistic tendencies, that would come out on the extensive testing that we do. We really look at those things,” says Mecerod. “For every 100 applications we get, maybe 10 girls are accepted into the program.”
The approval process, start to finish, takes about six weeks. “We’re committed to making sure it’s something they really want to do. It gives them the opportunity to say, ‘You know what, I’m really not invested in this; I have reservations about this,’” continues Mecerod.
In addition to giving the women plenty of time to turn back, the RBA also offers free annual OBGYN exams to their donors until their 30th birthday, as well as free fertility preservation at their third donation cycle, which Mecerod notes, is gaining importance as a determining factor for donor women. “I have a lot of medical students, attorneys, you know, people who are selecting their careers as their life path right now,” she says. “But down the line they want a little bit of insurance for themselves.” The free freezing of their own eggs acts as that insurance.
Even if you make it through the screening process to the money and free egg preservation, there may still be complications. It’s a big commitment; donors have to go to the clinic often for monitoring and administer at-home hormone injections for 10 days before the actual egg-retrieval surgery. Mecerod proudly claims RBA hasn’t overstimulated a patient in seven years though she says about one in five donors suffers complications.
Even so, Ridings had one moment of regret during the process, which occurred a few days before the surgery was to take place. “Everything was swollen and all the eggs were inside me. I had a bowel movement and apparently that shifted everything, and I couldn’t get off the floor of the bathroom… because it was so painful," she says. "I had to lay in bed for about six hours,” she recalls, noting that everything else went smoothly.
If it’s egg donation horror stories you’re looking for, there’s no shortage of them on the Internet. The most terrifying scenarios involve ovarian hyper-stimulation from the injectable hormones, and most of the time, Mecerod says, this occurs when women go through agencies, rather than egg donor programs like RBA.
RBA cycles through about 200 donors a year, some being repeat donors. The program freezes the woman’s sample, and she is guaranteed compensation and structured care, regardless of whether or not her eggs are chosen. The new clinic in Athens also serves women who are recipients. The donation is completely confidential, according to Mercerod: Neither party will ever know the other.
They’re still hoping for more students. “We love our UGA girls, when they do come,” Mecerod says.