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4 women on the emotional (and financial) reasons for becoming egg donors

Four women talk about their experiences, including what convinced them to donate and how they spent their money.

4 women on the emotional (and financial) reasons for becoming egg donors
[Photo: kzenon/iStock]

When Gina-Marie Madow started working for a surrogacy and egg donation agency, she felt the pull to donate her own eggs. While she considered the decision, Madow’s dad posed a question: Was it really about the money? “The financial component was there, of course, but it wasn’t my primary motivator in any way,” Madow says. “When I told my dad about the compensation, he said, ‘Okay, what if I just gave you that amount of money right now—just handed over a check to you so you wouldn’t do it? What would you say?’ And my response was ‘Dad, I’m not doing it for the money.'”

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For Madow, becoming a donor was more about helping the families she worked with day in and day out. But the hefty compensation does drive many women who donate their eggs, most of whom are in their twenties and looking for a way to make money fast. The act of egg donation is frequently advertised as an altruistic act that can also earn you a few thousand dollars. Notably excluded from those ads are the potential risks or side effects of an invasive medical procedure. Egg donors fetch a high price because they have to take injectable hormones that stimulate egg growth, thicken the uterine lining, and trigger ovulation. The egg retrieval itself is a transvaginal procedure during which donors are sedated.

That helps explain why for one round of donation, egg donors can earn anywhere from $3,000 and $10,000. For donors that are rarer to come by, such as Asian or Jewish women, the rate can be even higher. “I don’t think you can dangle thousands of dollars in front of somebody and then say that’s not, at least in part, a motivation or factor,” Madow says. For some, egg donation can be a means to fund an education or pay off student loans; for others, a way to supplement their income or help support family. Three women—two of whom donated more than once—told us how they spent their compensation and how they feel about the experience of egg donation now.

I donated my eggs to help pay for school

Shani Le Roux Bell, 21, admits the initial allure of egg donation was the money. “I always knew about egg donation,” she says. “I thought it would probably be something I would do to help out with college or school.” Bell knew her parents wouldn’t be able to help support her after high school, so when she decided she wanted to be a pilot, donating her eggs seemed like a quick way to help fund her schooling. The pay from her existing job just wasn’t going to cut it.

“There’s not really many ways to get money for flight training other than taking out a loan, and that’s something I really wanted to avoid doing,” Bell says. “So that’s what ultimately pushed me to [donate].” Bell was 19 when she filled out an application for egg donation, and she was matched with an intended parent just a month later. She was offered $5,500 to donate her eggs—about half of what she had to pay for two years of flight school, which cost around $11,000.

Without that money, Bell wouldn’t have been able to afford flight school at the time. “I was pretty much just flying paycheck to paycheck,” she says. “Every time I got a paycheck, I would go to a fly lesson. So if I hadn’t donated, my plan was to just not fly and save my money—then maybe a year or two down the line, pick it up again with some money I had saved. So it helped me get there faster.”

After actually going through the process, Bell found she was invested in the outcome—so much so that she wanted to donate again and not just for the money. She also isn’t keen on having children of her own. “I felt like I would have no connection to what was going on, but I got very invested,” she says. “It was a lot for my body to handle, but I definitely wanted to do it again.” But because her body didn’t react as well to medication as the clinic wanted, Bell was told she couldn’t go undergo the process again.

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Even now, a few years later, she says she would still donate if she could, and that despite not having the smoothest experience, she doesn’t think the act merits compensation any higher than what she received. “People just want a child,” she says. “I’m not that greedy.”

I donated my eggs to help pay off debt

Kelli Miller, 43, was first introduced to egg donation through a public relations gig at a hospital, through which she worked for a fertility clinic. “I was the right age and demographic,” she says. “And the stories that the director of the clinic had to tell about the families made from people that donated eggs kind of spoke to me. It was more about heart strings than purse strings.”

Miller only found out about the compensation after she decided she was willing to donate, but it ended up helping her pay for her wedding. “I was in my late twenties,” she says. “Any extra income was going to be helpful.” She donated her eggs twice, each time for about $3,000. But she admits the money was more of the appeal the second time around. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t do it the second time because of the compensation benefits,” she says. “It was more just trying to dig myself out of college debt. It barely made a dent, but it made it a little easier for a little while.”

Like many women, Miller didn’t feel like she could really prepare herself for the experience during her first donation. When she opted into donating a second time, it was with an acceptance of what the process was like the first time around. “It’s easy to go into something when you’re kind of naive as to how it’s going to affect you, and that was certainly the case, although it was a relatively easy process for me the first time,” she says. “The second time around, I went into it with eyes wide open, knowing what to expect. It’s not unlike pregnancy, I guess, having given birth now twice. The second time around, it’s easier to know what you’re getting yourself into.”

What she couldn’t predict was that her body would respond differently to the treatment—specifically after the eggs were extracted, which typically causes cramping and other symptoms associated with PMS. In some cases, the reaction is more extreme. “My understanding is it doesn’t happen very often, and I don’t know if it was a reaction to the extraction or the medications,” she says. “But there was a lot of cramping and pain, and I had to get on some heavy duty painkillers.”

At that point, Miller was 29, which meant she was “right on the edge of not being an ideal candidate,” though she likely wouldn’t have donated again regardless. But more than a decade later, she has also realized just how many unknowns there are—that there are no comprehensive studies on egg donors and the potential long-term effects of pumping hormones into their bodies.

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“I feel like they did not really inform me of the risks very well,” she says. “And recently I found out it’s because they really don’t know. There aren’t a lot of studies out there on the short-term and long-term effects on egg donors.” Over the past few years, Miller has dealt with a number of hormonal issues, including polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and had miscarriages both times that she was trying to get pregnant.

A number of egg donors report facing similar issues, though there isn’t enough data on the risks of egg donation to prove causation one way or the other. In terms of short-term risks, some egg donors are prone to ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, the result of taking injectable hormones to stimulate egg growth. (It’s a potential side effect of fertility treatments, as well.) “They’re adding all of this compensation for these girls to come in and [donate],” Miller says. “They need to understand the risks.”

I donated my eggs to help support my mom

Liz Scheier, who now works with We Are Egg Donors—an advocacy organization and community for egg donors—donated her eggs three times while living in New York and working in publishing. “The compensation was 100% my motivation,” she says. “I was working a full-time job and four part time jobs and just barely covering the bills—and then my mother got sick. I had kind of run out of ideas for how else to drum up money.” She looked into egg donation after seeing what she describes as “one of those soft-focus” advertisements with copy like “give a gift” and “be an angel.” “At the time, although I had some qualms, I definitely accepted that view of what the results would be,” she says.

Scheier made $8,000 each time she donated, which she says came to about $5,000 after taxes. (Many donors are now paid less per donation, Scheier says—more like $3,000 on average—because more women are willing to donate.) At the time, Scheier says, donors were really encouraged to remain anonymous. That anonymity is harder to maintain now, when donor-conceived kids can turn to any number of DNA testing services to find their biological parents—or unintentionally find out they are donor children.

“After the first time I did it, I was very secretive about it and ashamed, so I didn’t tell anyone,” Scheier says. “Until a colleague of mine told me her daughter was the result of an egg donation—I came clean about it, and she burst into tears and threw her arms around my neck and started thanking me. And at the time, I did not have any interest in having children and didn’t have a strong sense of the pain of infertility. That humanized it a little bit for me.” And so Scheier went into the second and third donations feeling like it was a win-win: She could pay her mother’s rent, and somebody who wanted a baby could have a baby.

Now, she says, the stigma is less pronounced, as more people discuss egg donation openly and as organizations like We Are Egg Donors shed light on the lived experience—good and the bad—for many egg donors. But like Miller, she worries there is still scarce information on the toll egg donation can take on women’s bodies. “It is definitely a great thing that the stigma of infertility is being addressed in some way,” she says. “But there’s still a lot of misinformation around egg donation and a lot of obscuring of the facts.” Scheier also points to the dearth of longitudinal studies of egg donor health. “What every single egg donor hears from a doctor is, ‘There are no known risks to egg donation,'” she says. “There are no known risks because no one has looked.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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