Memoirs of an egg cell donor

Ellie sold her eggs to pay for her journalism course at Columbia University: was it worth it? A live journey into the world of the human gamete trade
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by Ellie Houghtaling

My eyes look around. I am surrounded by four nurses holding me upside down. They shake me back and forth to send blood to my head. As I regain consciousness, I ask myself: is it worth it? Question from $ 10,000.

Seven months ago I have been admitted to the School of Journalism at Columbia University. I was absolutely stunned to be admitted, but even more shocked by the price of $ 116,000 - and it was just for the classes. The school, which is considered the gold standard in journalism, would provide me with unparalleled access in an area where I am currently stuck.

Fortunately, the vast majority of the cost would be covered by scholarships. For the remaining rent and cost of living, I looked for something else. I ended up in a fast-growing sector which offers people in need huge amounts of money in a relatively short time: egg cell donation.

It is very hot, on that June morning in New York City. My crumpled green satin skirt clings to my legs as I run into the main office of the egg donation clinic for another screening, a urine test.

In the last four months I lied to my family a bit conservative about where I went in the early hours of the morning: I would sneak in for examinations and psychological assessments to donate my eggs.

Outside my family I have more readily admitted that I am "selling my eggs". Donation is a term that should imply that it is a woman's time, and not the value of her eggs, that is paid for. But here there was an industry that offered me more per hour than I had ever earned in a normal job. To say that I sell them seems more honest.

In the clinic's main office, Amy Winehouse's deep voice echoes softly from nearby loudspeakers. As I look around the waiting room, with its lavender and grey accents on the walls, I quickly realise that I am in the midst of a new era. to be the only woman sitting alone. I share fleeting glances with giggling couples and wonder if any of them are considering me as a possible donor.

Some time after my arrival a nurse calls my name. The harmonies of Amy Winehouse fade away. She takes me to a chair in a corridor: a dozen vials clink on an attached tray. The space seems cold and sterile. The silence is oppressive. I try to remember if I have had breakfast, I haven't.

A nurse approaches and pulls my arm over the armrest of the chair.

"Beautiful veins'. says.

After it has filled about eight vials with my blood, I lie down and faint. When I wake up, semi-conscious and embarrassed, I make an excuse.

I am escorted to a gynaecological chair in an adjoining examination room and I am given a pineapple-flavoured lollipop. I lean my head back against the cold chair. Another nurse enters, showing more vials in his hand. I roll up my sleeve and extend my other arm. It's time for round two.

I first called the clinic for egg donation in March 2021a few moments to attend the Columbia Journalism School's presentation day. The first time I heard about donation was from a friend during my undergraduate studies. I knew I could not afford the distraction and stress of a job while studying full-time at Columbia. Moreover, the school administration told us openly that we should avoid working during our studies.

La Google search that led me to my new career choice was simple: "Donation agencies of egg cells in New York City". I am not the only one. Every year, thousands of donors are paid to provide eggs to future parents. In less than a decade in vitro fertilisation cycles using donated eggs have almost tripledfrom around 5,000 in 2007 to over 13,000 in 2016.

The woman on the phone was cheerful but meticulous when she described the process. In contrast, my first visit to the clinic's SoHo office was impersonal. During theultrasoundI was stunned as I looked at the contents of my ovaries and uterus, the doctor mentioned me to the nurse, but not to me.

In a traditional doctor-patient relationship, the way you relate to the doctor is crucial. In the US, where health care is privatised and people rate doctors as if their health is a business transaction, doctors' offices treat you well because they want you to come back. My first day in SoHo made me realise that This time I was not the patient. I was the product.

Le blood tests have been sent to a genetic testing facility, Sema4which tested 283 of my genes against hundreds of diseases, from cystic fibrosis and fragile X syndrome, which has been linked to autism, to maple syrup urine disease, a disorder in which the body is unable to process certain amino acids.

I tested positive as a carrier of three genetic conditions: epidermolysis dystrophic bullous, a condition that creates skin so fragile that it blisters and breaks easily, leaving severe scarring; leukodystrophy metachromatic - a rare genetic disease; and hypoacusis non-syndromic. I had a mixture of shock and morbid curiosity listening to the results, even though the clinic reassured me that it was normal to test positive for a small handful of genetic diseases.

Epidermolysis bullosa cannot be cured and people born with the condition are at increased risk of an extremely aggressive form of skin cancer. The Sema4 representative jokingly told me not to fall in love with Finns, who are more likely to have the same skin condition.

A window was opened on a different world where everyone is a carrier of disease, includinga. I was forced to confront the fact that I could pass on to my children complex disorders that I never thought I had.

The clinic was not only assessing my predisposition to genetic diseases, but was also assessing other attributes: my blond hairi, my blue eyes and mine fair skin. During screening calls, team members complimented and commented in detail on descriptions of my body, personality and Ivy League education. Overall, it felt like sterilised eugenics.. But through what other language did I expect them to build a relationship with me? I was paid $10,000 for my eggs.. The very nature of our activity revolved around my body.

In Mayat the beginning of the process, the clinic organised for me a interview with their psychologist. Lying in the hammock on my balcony, I was exposed to the philosophy of the clinic. My eggs were not "mine", and "my eggs" were certainly not synonymous with "my child". Rather, they saw my eggs as part of a larger gene poolspanning generations and geographical locations.

I was worried that the psychologist was assessing my mental health, trying to remove me from the process, but as our conversation progressed I realised that was actually trying to ascertain whether I was intelligent enough to make the decision to give my eggs away. He made me a IQ test. It was the regulation of the State of New York.

The idea that my ovules not were "mine' but rather a genetic link with the pastIt seemed strange and uncomfortable to me at first, but over time I began to prefer that way of looking at things to my own. I was not giving up "my" child - I was giving up another time. This would help struggling parents conceive their children. There was something healthy about that.

The idea that a small child who looked like me would wander the world while I was in my early twenties never troubled me. The thought really warmed my heart.

I realised that one day I would want children of my own, and a part of me longed for the experience I was offering to someone else. I imagined the mother who would take my eggs.

Was it fun? What kind of school lunch would he prepare? Was he compassionate and patient? Would he often hold the child's hand? Did his moral values reflect mine? I would never have known. My donation was anonymous, end-to-end.

One summer morning, when I went to the clinic to pick up a bag of beige pills, the nurse who gave them to me apologised, saying she couldn't understand why it was taking so long to match me with a family.

"You are a hot commodity"he said.

We stopped for a moment, looking at each other. My hair was covering my eyes. I pushed back the dirty blonde locks behind my ear before bursting into an embarrassed giggle. We both knew what he meant.

A few days after theappointment for egg retrieval I was sitting on the edge of the bed feeling really restless. It was late and I felt the calm leave me as I opened one of the last packages of medication on the table, one 250 microgram syringe of Ganirelix.

It took a bit of mental gymnastics to learn how to injecting myself with hormones twice a day. Each drug had a different ritual. In the morninga yellow and blue plastic pen was dispensing 225 ml of Follistimclicking as I pushed the pen down to dispense the chilled serum. Evening I would have mixed one ampoule of Menopur. In combination, these two drugs worked to stimulate the follicles in my ovaries, with the aim of releasing between 10-20 eggs when normally only one egg is released during ovulation.

Days before surgery Ganirelix would have prevented me from ovulatinggiving the eggs a chance to mature before they descended into my uterus to be removed.

This final phase has numbed meThe merry-go-round of daily injections and ultrasounds at 7 a.m. had worn me down, and I was tired. On the horizon, I still had another obstacle: the withdrawal. I ran my hand over my stomach, feeling the delicate sting of the needle and the swelling underneath, not wanting to undergo the procedure any more but knowing that it was too late to turn back. I took my first syringe of Ganirelix and took a deep breath.

I interviewed a dozen women of different ages and backgrounds on the lopersonal experiences of donation. Unlike infertility forums for people undergoing IVF or surrogacy, there was no clear online place where donors could support each other during the egg donation process. I found them scattered among private Facebook groups, WhatsApp and Reddit chats.

Most had donated in their early twenties and all of them participated in the compensation, at least originally. There was a pay scalelargely determined by geographical location and time of donation, ranging from $ 3,000 to $ 20,000Women used the money to pay bills, student loans or holidays..

Some donors met parents or agencies through ads placed on Facebook or Instagram. Others found their matches on Craigslist, responding to generic ads worded not unlike those selling a bicycle, a flat or a car.

"EBREE WOMEN --- Earn $ 10,000 with egg donation".

'Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Asian egg donors earn $ 10,000'

"I am looking for a very smart egg donor! Compensation up to $ 40,000"

Since listings are sometimes published directly by intended parents, the initial selection processes may be shorter or less thorough and the fees significantly higher than those of agencies or clinics. But unverified listings carry obvious risks. In 2011, a woman from Idaho was accused of fraud for having stole eggs from donors via Craigslistwithout ever paying the agreed amounts after receiving them.

Attempting, in part, to make the process safer, organisations have started to associate donors and parents designated through their controlled databases. Parents-to-be can now browse the profiles of thousands of potential donorsnot unlike a dating site. Circle Surrogacy offers non-anonymous matches, where the donor has the opportunity to meet and interact with the families.

The profile of Jordan Whaley Finnerty presents an image of her five-year-old daughter, all smiles next to her mother. Whaley created it when she was 27 years old.

It was the 2018, after a high wine evening with a friend who had just undergone a donation, Finnerty was intrigued, particularly by the lump sum of $ 9,000. She was not starving, but that amount would have allowed her to live better from paycheck to paycheck. She applied that night and forgot about it.

"Four months later I was donating.Finnerty said. Since then, Finnerty has donated four times.

"It wasn't until I was matched with a family, met them and talked to them that I realised the impact," Finnerty said. "You don't realise the long journeys couples have to go through to have children." She kept in touch with all the families she donated to. Seeing her parents' gratitude made her change her mind. Now it is the good climate, not the money, that she prefers: she is going to giving six timesthe maximum advisable .

However, it recognises some problems in the sector.

"Talking to future parents, they tell you how strange it is to look at girls' profiles and their health history, basing their choice of hair colour or eye colour"Finnerty told me on Facebook.

But he also knows that people always make these choices with their partners.

To prevent people from donating repeatedly (with the risks of dealing with strangers) or not giving all the information to make themselves more attractive to donors, ethical guidelines suggest offering less money.

In a recent opinion published by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine - which discourages agencies from compensating more than $ 10,000 - the company found that 88% of donors had up to $ 5,000 for their eggsand in a self-assessment questionnaire they explained that "being able to help someone' was their greatest motivation.

"I think people think there is a sense of coercion out there, but in reality there is none of that," he said. Deborah Mecerod who manages MyEggBank, the largest network of egg donation banks in the United States. Their policy is to offer a fixed fee as payment, with a ceiling of $ 10,000. Mecerod believes that the experience is very rewarding for potential donors, thanks to the education and free genetic testing, even if they ultimately choose not to complete the donation. "There is always the possibility of leaving the process"he said.

While many women admit that they were attracted by the amount they could earn from their eggs, most of those I spoke with sees it as a choice.

"The first and second time around I was unemployed or barely employed, so in a sense I had bidream of money, but I wasn't desperate," explains Dolan Wells Gallagher who donated her eggs three times. The first and second time she used money to cover the rent in between jobs, the third time for pay tuition fees.

The data and long-term research on egg donation is scarce. In 2016one new research has suggested that the fertility drugs may be linked to the development of uterine tumours. A 2017 report of The Donor Sibling Registry detected suspected cases of breast cancer in young donors otherwise healthy who showed no genetic predisposition to the disease, citing hormone therapy during donation as a possible cause. "Lack of information can be misleadingly interpreted as absence of risk," the report warns.

Four years later there is still no semblance of a long-term database to monitor the health of donors. Moreover, while health data are monitored for organ donors, the same information is not required for egg donation: It is up to the donor agencies to request medical information on donors, and even then they are at the mercy of the donors who do it voluntarily and tell the truth when they want to. Most of the information is unsolicited and does not report medical changes after the start of the process.

Meanwhile, Thousands of young donors each year undergo egg removal and hormone treatment without any of them fully understanding the consequences.

"A donor registry would be a great tool for so many reasons, because you could collect data from the donor, understand how she is doing and follow up in the years to come," explains Mecerod, who believes that legislation and federal government intervention could help solve this problem.

But most of the women I interviewed did not seem too concerned about the possible complications long-term health. Most of them needed money. When the cycle ends, donors leave with and future impacts remain a mystery.

Until the end of my first donation I lived my experience positively. Despite passing out, feeling like objects and despite the laborious injections, I still enjoyed it. It was comfortable and satisfying to know that I had helped people realise their dreams.

But in the last few days, before my surgery, I felt a slew of emotions that muddled what I thought would be a rewarding outcome.

I felt at the mercy of the clinic. Appointments were made in places I had asked not to go because they were out of the way. Some days I was not receiving updates on how much medication I should be takingleaving me in the dark about the dosage. I didn't know when my surgery would be until two days before.

The day before, I asked a nurse point-blank why they scheduled surgeries so early. She did not know. I felt disrespected and angry. The company was inconsiderate in the use of my timeand in a hurry I had to make sure that someone could pick me up the day after surgery.

... As the week goes by, my enlarged ovariesayou sat heavy in my abdomen as a dense and uncomfortable reminder.

After my last appointment on Tuesday, I wrote in my diary: "At this stage I really feel left in the dark and I don't want to deal with these people anymore.. I wonder if the woman who receives my eggs is better informed than me.

However I was looking forward to the $10,000 cheque.. Life in New York, one of the most expensive cities in the world, put a daily strain on my wallet. The arrival of this cheque would calm my anxiety for a handful of months, allowing me to return to my studies without stress - studies that would offer me stability and confidence heading towards my dream job. Each piece was a stepping stone towards a future I desperately wanted.

My intervention lasted a total of seven minutes. and kept me in bed forr a day and a half at home, as my stomach clenched and twisted. The clinic did not offer me any painkillers, so I lived with a cocktail of Tylenol and Advil. Fortunately the pain was not too strong. Reflecting on the procedure as a whole, I jotted down a couple of lines in my diary: ".I would consider doing it againo. I worry about the possible impact on my body, but the impact on my life would be so significant. I don't know if I could say no.

original article here, translation by Marina Terragni

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