When Annie first moved to New York City, she was broke and jobless. She remembered an ad from her college newspaper that promised money for the eggs of young women. So she signed up with Reproductive Medicine Associates, a practice that helps infertile couples, and agreed to donate her eggs to a couple that would choose her from an anonymous profile.
"At first I thought it was a way to get some money, because I was having trouble finding a job. But once I started going through the process, I felt like I was really doing a good thing for a couple who would otherwise be childless. I would not have done it only for the money," explains Annie, who asked to remain anonymous.
Roughly 15 percent of American couples struggle with infertility. And when fertility drugs and other fertility technologies don't work, some couples turn to egg donors to help them start a family.
"When ovum donation is first suggested to an infertile couple, it may seem like a huge sucker punch. It can be really devastating," says Pamela Madsen, executive director of the American Infertility Association. "But it gives incredible gains to infertile couples."
3,629 pregnancies resulted from couples who used egg donors, and 42 percent of those pregnancies resulted in more than one birth, according to a Centers for Disease Control study of 384 fertility clinics around the country.
"No woman grows up thinking they're going to go to college, become a lawyer, get married, and then do egg donation," Madsen says. "Many women are caught off-guard by their own biological clocks. What egg donation allows women to do is to have the biological experience of pregnancy. They get to have their blood flowing through the baby's veins, carry the baby in their womb, and they know that the baby is getting good prenatal care."
Most frequently it is older women above the age of 39 who turn to egg donors when they cannot get pregnant. In fact, 76 percent of assisted reproductive procedures (like in-vitro fertilization) in women over 45 used donor eggs.
Kathy*, a mother of three in New Jersey, says she and her husband decided to use an egg donor for her last pregnancy because they wanted to have more children, but IVF wasn't working.
"We went through all the thought processes about adoption. But we were afraid of being promised that we were going to get a particular child and have it not happen. What also came into play was that, by doing adoption I would have been taking away my husband's option to have a genetic link to our child."
The success rates of egg donor pregnancies depend on the age of the egg donor. Madsen explains that younger women's eggs are fresher, and are therefore more likely to mature into a healthy, successful pregnancy. This explains why ads offering sums up to $10,000 for donor eggs are so prevalent in college newspapers. But critics say college students may be too young, and Madsen explains that many egg donation programs won't accept donors who are younger than 20, 21, or even 22.
"We have to be clear between what is compensation, and what is enticement. In the fertility treatment community, awareness of the donor as part of the team that creates this baby is very high. Everything around the creation of this baby has got to be carefully thought out, including the donor's feelings," says Madsen. "Are they really comfortable giving up their genetic materials? Is it an open donation, a closed donation? Are they comfortable having their picture shown?"