August 12th, 2009
10:49 AM ET

Ivy League women get offers for their eggs

By Jennifer Adaeze Anyaegbunam
CNN Medical Intern

One night, during one of my late study sessions at Harvard, my two best friends were kidding about donating their eggs to raise money for a student organization. Over the years we have seen a number of ads on Facebook and in our school paper seeking students’ eggs in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars. Economically speaking, when times are hard, Harvard women can rely on an ovarian stimulus plan.

“Oh, the investment bank fell through? That’s okay; I’ll just donate a few eggs,” one of them joked. “Fantastic! We can use your unborn children as our platinum sponsors,” the other replied.

While they weren’t being serious, there are people out there willing pay for an educated woman’s eggs, and when lofty compensation is involved some students are eager to donate. In the decade of the “designer baby,” it seems fairly obvious why prospective parents prioritize intelligence on their genetic shopping lists. Depending on specific fertility needs, aspiring parents seek out smart genes through both egg and sperm donation. Men are not compensated nearly as much as much as women because sperm donation is relatively quick and simple. In fact, men get only about $50, but some lucky ones, with Ph.D.s and graduate degrees, can get up to $100. For women, the egg donation process requires a number of medical exams, weeks of hormone treatments and a surgical procedure for retrieval of oocytes, or eggs. The entire process takes a total of 60 hours and carries a number of risks, such as ovarian hyperstimulation, bruising or hemorrhaging, and even the risk of infertility.

Despite lucrative offers for eggs in college newspapers, compensation for egg donation should reflect the inconvenience and discomforts associated with the procedure, and not personal characteristics, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. The ASRM’s Ethics Committee Report, published in 2007, states that “Total payments to donors in excess of $5,000 require justification and sums above $10,000 are not appropriate”. According to a survey of Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology participating egg donation programs, the national average for compensation was $4,200.

A number of egg donor agencies across the country have signed agreements, promising to follow the ethical guidelines outlined by the ASRM. There are several, however, that have not. These agencies and prospective oocyte recipients often place private advertisements in college newspapers offering compensation far beyond the ASRM’s recommendations. In 1999, a California based company, A Perfect Match, placed a $50,000 advertisement in The Crimson, Harvard’s College newspaper. In 2007 Elite Donors ran a $100,000 advertisement in the Crimson as well, according to the paper’s staff.  More recently, similar agencies have taken advantage of Facebook advertising, which allows solicitors to target females attending specific colleges. Only those who meet specific profile criteria are “eligible” to see the ad. Imagine being targeted as a suitable candidate while taking the “What animal is your Patronus quiz” on Facebook — ironic, right?

As a Harvard undergrad “eligible” to see these sorts of advertisements, I do have a few concerns. First, large payments are quite seductive and could cause a potential egg donor to discount risks to her health. Financial inducement may cause potential donors to disregard the emotional and psychological effects of having a child somewhere out there. Secondly, ASRM guidelines function to eliminate the purchase and sale of biological products. Payments are strictly meant to compensate for the medical inconveniences of an altruistic act. Because I attend a certain school, is my genetic material really worth more than yours? Is it really altruism if I can “make it rain” after donating eggs?

Most people want smart babies, but intelligence is not simply inherited from one’s biological mother. Yes some people are born with inherent talents, but most experts agree that we are all products of nature and nurture. Ivy parents don’t always have Ivy babies and vice versa. Therefore, I encourage prospective parents willing to pay such high prices not to be too disappointed if little Sally or John doesn’t turn out to be the brightest crayon in the box. (No refunds, returns, or credit!) Neither of my parents went to Harvard, but they did teach me how to read and the importance of hard work…for free.

If this Harvard gig doesn’t work out for me, at least I have about 300,000 nest eggs to fall back on.

What do you think – is it right to offer women with certain characteristics so much money for their eggs? Where do you draw the line between positively selecting for these characteristics, and eugenics? Do you think the financial compensation of oocyte donors should be regulated?

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