When John first invited me to blog for PCWW, he suggested I write about being an egg donor. I tried to blog lightly about the experience–months later, many unpublished blog drafts turned into an almost 4,000 word essay, which will be published in the magazine I edit (Hawaii Women’s Journal). The Managing Editor, Mayumi Shimose Poe, read this piece and immediately began to write. In one sudden sitting, she composed a painful/beautiful creative nonfiction piece on her miscarriage. There are so many experiences women–even friends, especially family–keep from each other: we must give each other permission to voice all views on mothering, and the decision not to mother.
How to Sell your Body Parts and Still Respect Yourself in the Morning
Things I would do for $20,000:
- Chew .001 ounces of SPAM for 10 seconds and then spit it out and gargle with bleach. (Hi, I’m vegan.)
- Shave my head for a year, even though I have hacne (head acne).
- Murder something small.
- Vajazzle myself in a public performance art piece.
- Donate the entire $20K earned from public vajazzling to build an orphanage in Sri Lanka because I would never exploit my body unless it was to help the exploited.
- Don’t give me that look, feminists.
Things I have done for upwards of $10,000: Sell my eggs.
While I don’t have a literary agent, an editorial assistant, or even a sycophantic friend, I do have an egg agent who is responsible for negotiating a decent sale of the most profitable commodity of my twenties-my genes, prepackaged in follicular bundles. By acquiring my eggs, future parents hope they’ll end up with a me-like child: a Harvard graduate; Chinese and Caucasian; overachieving but existentially unsettled; athletic body type; passion for words; a history of social service and teaching professions; prefers the outdoors to the indoors; an introverted adventurer who loves travel; proficientish in music, artistic endeavors, and vegan baking. Thanks to egg donation, I no longer have to wonder, on the tops of isolated mountains, Buddhist temples, or in line at Target how much am I worth? I know exactly how much.
My egg agent works for an agency that specializes in Ivy League egg donors. We’ll call her Trixie, because no one in real life has that name. Trixie has been a surrogate, and many women I met who work in various fertility centers have been surrogates or donors themselves. It’s not just a day job-they are passionate about helping families who can’t have babies, passionate enough to lend their bodies and give from their bodies. There is nothing black market about the fertility centers (or Trixie)-these doctors have the swankiest medical spaces my naked patient ass has ever seen. One reproductive endocrinologist said they have the reputation of being reproduction cowboys, experimenting on the wild, wild frontiers of baby making. What used to be “gifts from [insert deity of choice here]” are now gifts from doctors, nurses, embryologists, Gestational Carrier X, and Donor 6259. It used to take a village to raise a child, now it takes a village to create one.
Seven Steps to Baby for the Rich and Infertile and/or Gay Male Couple:
- Family (”Intended Parents”) who can’t have baby chooses to compensate another woman for her ovum.
- Ovum-Donor woman’s cycle is synchronized with recipient’s cycle. If the Intended Parents will not be carrying the child, family may rent-a-womb from a third woman (”Gestational Carrier”). Meanwhile, the donor injects herself with hormones for a few weeks.
- Fertility specialists retrieve Donor’s eggs. Donor is sedated during retrieval, which is a short procedure with minimal recovery time. Donor receives check and Vicodin, sometimes placed together next to clinic bed in a gift bag. Donor wishes she were compensated similarly for corporate years spent selling her soul to the man.
- A few hours post-procedure, donor eggs meet either donor sperm or father’s sperm in a romantic five-star petri dish. Embryologists develop the burgeoning new life in a laboratory.
- A few days later, fertilized embryos are put into either the Gestational Carrier or the recipient mother. (”Put into her” is official in vitro medical terminology.)
- Provided embryo transfer is successful-recipient mother or Gestational Carrier is pregnant!
- Congratulations! Family who had financial means to purchase said baby-making services gets a baby.
It’s the miracle of life, sort of.
One reason the egg-donation market is lucrative for young, interested donors is because women are waiting until later in life to have children. Women are focusing on their careers before creating a family-and while we have made gains toward societal equality, apparently biology is still doing its best to keep the woman down, making it increasingly difficult and risky for her to have children after the age of 35:
Biological Clock: You can’t have it all.
Woman: For $50K and a prayer, I can.
Also, despite the lack of state-recognized equal rights, with the help of tolerant (and business-minded) fertility clinics, same-sex couples are also using the egg-donor and gestational-carrier market. Gay men are the demographic I am most interested in offering my body parts to, as they are usually the least interested in my body parts. While we are a never match made in biological reality, together, we create a family. A fabulous, fabulous family.
Not including the matches made in Weird and usage of multiple people’s parts to create one new life, there are all sorts of questionable practices surrounding the egg-donation business. Intended Parents who are willing to pay up to $50,000 to compensate a donor for her eggs can purchase “higher-quality” eggs of their choosing. What’s considered “higher quality”? I am, duh. “Higher-quality” eggs come from donors with: Ivy League educations and/or higher educations, high SAT scores, and success in their careers. As the website from my agency states:
Our focus is on providing the healthiest, the most talented and most educated egg donors for our intended parents. Our egg donors are exceptionally talented women who are also highly intelligent, as measured by high scholastic achievement/outstanding scores on standardized college and graduate-school entrance exams and tests. Each donor is required to provide transcripts and official test results, such as SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, MCAT, and GMAT.
The American Society of Reproductive Medicine frowns upon egg donors receiving more than $10,000 as compensation, but the market determines value, not a faceless/frowning medical group. My agent told me a typical family using her agency spends over $100,000 for all related fees. That seems like an outrageous amount until you do the addition of compensating an egg donor and often a gestational carrier, covering all medical expenses for said donor and gestational carrier, and paying traveling, hotel, food per diem, lawyers, psychologists, and agency fees. It’s an incredible process and an insane price. And it’s fucking weird.
For my first donation, I responded to a recruiting ad on the back of a local independent paper in Seattle, one of those little ads that no nondesperate person who didn’t need medical marijuana, a new herpes drug via clinical trials, or cash for eggs would ever respond to. Much to my amazement as a first-time donor, the clinic was part of an uber-modern hospital, and every woman from the clinic coordinator to nurse practitioner were incredibly professional, kind, and not likely to discreetly snatch a kidney along with my eggs. I looked forward to my visits, which is a little creepy, since our conversations usually took place while I was in some form of splayed-legged undress. It unexpectedly warmed and fuzzied my moral insides to help a stranger-family and provided me with cash to move home. However, even the women working at the clinic-which didn’t specialize in “Ivy League Eggs” and compensated every donor the same amount-told me I should get an agent for future donations because I was worth more than other people.
I knew it!
Before one can even start the medical process of donating, there’s a lot to go through. It’s like applying for a job, only you don’t get a job-you get your eggs sucked out of your body via your vaginal wall. You fill out preliminary-screening questionnaires for days and days, brimming with personal questions about your entire life history: everything from that cigarette you smoked when you were 16 to that crack pipe you hit when you were 22, how many people you’ve slept with “recently,” and the circumstances surrounding your grandmother’s miscarriage. And how developmentally disabled is Uncle Kimo exactly? Respectable agencies and clinics will also have you undergo review with a genetic counselor and evaluation by a psychologist. You’ll also have a physical, complete with full blood work-ups, and you’ll have to fill out “All about the Donor” information for an online profile. Intended Parents might choose you because their favorite book is your favorite book (One Hundred Years of Solitude), because you are prone to world saving, because you are sporty, vegetarian, and Turkey is their favorite country too! Intended Parents want to find a connection where there is none. It’s your DNA, your nonconfrontational personality, your hapa brown eyes that they’re buying into their family line, and most likely, they’ll never meet you. It’s like online dating, except you have to list your STDs.
Once all your paperwork clears, and Intended Parents choose you, you settle on a compensation amount and IVF center somewhere in the United States. Menstrual cycles are aligned faster than you can say “transvaginal ultrasound,” and the donation process begins.
Everyone’s medications are slightly different, but during Donation Month-or, as I like to call it, “DoMo”-the job starts out pretty easy. I wake up and inject a synthetic hormone called Lupron into my abdomen. Lupron’s the gateway hormone, which stops my ovaries from functioning. Scary? Yes. Profitable? You betcha.
After ten days on Lupron, the blood draws begin. Every few days, my blood is drawn and estradiol level checked until it is low enough to start taking the stimulation hormones. Throughout the entire egg-donation process, I’ll have had my blood drawn at least ten times, and I hate blood draws more than I hate being honest with myself.
In a normal menstrual cycle, a woman’s ovaries develop one follicle and mature egg. During DoMo, my count was 30. (Thirty!) I inject myself with the same hormones a woman who is having trouble conceiving would take. For me-as uberfertile as I already am-it causes the IVF doctor to say “HOLY GOD” every time he takes his condom-covered wand into vagina town for an ultrasound. Each hypersized follicle will be between 13 to 20 millimeters. How big is one follicle normally? 100 to 200 micrometers. Now I’m no math nerd, but even I get that that is really small. Like pollen particulates or my ambitions.
I also take antibiotics and a low-dose steriod. Don’t ask me why-I’m a cynic, not a doctor. I imagine antibiotics help anti possible infections one could incur during the egg retrieval, and I imagine the steroids give you the strength to kick the ass of any manfriend who may try to get intimate during your “celibacy month” even though you’ve been wearing a magazine cutout Octomom mask as a reminder to never have sex for the rest of your life.
Three injections and three pills a day-a pretty intense regimen considering I won’t eat white food because it has no nutritional personality. (Except tofu, obviously.) If I were a heroin user or a meat eater, it would probably be easier to abuse my body, but I keep my eye on the money, as my slowly bloating abdomen becomes dotted with small bruises. “This is better than a cubicle,” I tell myself, as a pep talk. I also tell myself: “It’s the journey, not the destination,” but in this case, this statement is bullshit.
DoMo is long-it feels like it lasts longer than a month. It feels more like a month and a few days. I am always tired, which I blame on the fact that I can’t have caffeine. Or cocaine. There are few experiences in life I treasure as much as reviewing my contract with a lawyer, where one of the clauses explicitly states I cannot take it up the butt, and if I do take it up the butt, I can be sued. Indeed, while my ovaries are being stimulated, there’s an extensive list of Do Nots:
Do not have sex. Do not have oral sex. Do not have anal sex. Do not use illegal drugs. Do not have sex with a man who’s used heroin and had relations with a Mad Cow (without protection). Do not go swimming. Do not jump on trampolines. Whatever you are thinking-do not do that.
Sometimes I get confused, because the list doesn’t say no to doing it Mormon-style or no watching New Moon while naked inside a wolf suit. So I do those things, but they’re not the same as swimming and swallowing, if you know what I mean.
Point is, the things that hold me together-rock climbing, postclimbing Coronas, an evening jog, a morning joe-I trade all of it to shoot up with more of the hormones that make me crazy in low doses. I don’t drink milk, even if it is hormone and antibiotic free, but for a quick buck I’ll skip the middle cow and go straight for the drugs. Fortunately, during DoMo I am usually too tired to be Claire-on-Lost insane; instead, I watch Dancer in the Dark and cry my soul out.
Throughout the entire process, while one’s ovaries are intentionally overstimulated, the greatest known risk is Ovarian Hyperstimulation. Apparently I was at high risk for overstimulation-something about the combination of my small size, uberawesome fertility, and the script of my life being a streaming FAIL blog. Ovarian Hyperstimulation could result in extreme bloating, severe abdominal pain, and rare but possible death. Also, there are no long-term studies of the effects of stimulation hormones, but much like all excessive things-from too much red meat to licking too much napalm-exposing your body to high doses of hormones could result in cancer. One Reproductive Endocrinologist spent an hour explaining all the risks in gory detail-from my abdomen filling with blood to losing an ovary, to being anesthetized only to never wake up and spending the rest of my life in a coma. In the last scenario, I imagine lying there, comatose, and my brain actually develops into the most ubergenius brain ever, such that I actually find a cure for cancer, but then I’m in a coma so I can’t ever tell anyone.
Here are a few examples from a “Potential Risks of Ovum Donation” form I signed, agreeing that I accept such risks:
Potential risks to ovum donor from ovum donation process:
- Infection, requiring hospitalization or surgery or loss of fertility.
- Bleeding, requiring hospitalization or surgery or loss of fertility.
- Ovarian torsion, requiring surgery and possible loss of fertility.
- Ovarian follicle rupture, requiring hospitalization or surgery and possible loss of fertility.
- Potential, but as yet unknown, increased risks of ovarian or other types of cancer.
Because I am already here, in existence, I am given the choice to sign this form, to accept the risks associated with egg donation. We bring babies into the world, without giving their little nonexistent, nonthinking, non-pain-experiencing selves the option of accepting the risks of living-risks much scarier than ovarian torsion. So: the risks of egg donation don’t feel any greater than the risk I feel every day by existing. My friend’s father dies “suddenly” within two months after being diagnosed cancer-when the etymology was exposure to asbestos 50 years ago. My sister’s 26-year-old girlfriend slips in a river while hiking in Costa Rica and dies. Planes intentionally hit towers and we keep going. Tsunami wipe out cities and we keep going. Immediate friends and family have their worlds dismantled by suicide. Some of the most amazing girls I spent a month with in Sri Lanka are sexually assaulted by the school principal. Some of the most beautiful Roma (gypsy) girls I met in Bulgaria will never be seen as anything but stupid, dirty, and less than human.
I’m barely scratching the surface; we keep going.
Life is like a rollercoaster, a fucking scary rollercoaster with chopsticks for safety bars and a sociopath on the speed controls. I take one glance at the news and the only mantra I have is: What the hell. What the hell. What the hell. Perhaps you bring a child into the world and call it hope. Perhaps you toss a drowning person in an ocean full of sharks a life jacket and call it hope. Perhaps you hand someone hyperaware of her own hyperawareness (me) some organic herbal Xanax and call it hope. All I know is: how strong the urge must be to have children, stronger than level orange terror alerts, stronger than the existence of the word genocide, stronger than natural disasters, disease, and the germs my best friend tries to kill as she disinfects everything with which her baby might come in contact.
Sorry, honey, you can’t Purell the world.
Besides the minor discomforts of blood draws and injections and a month of Sybil-like behavior, egg donation and Jenn Hee were meant to be. I’m the friend who balks at the existence of baby showers because I don’t understand what we’re celebrating, and I can never find a Congratulations, your child might get raped one day! card. I’m 30-my desktop is cluttered with icons from downloaded photos of my friends’ babies. Here’s the zygotic sonogram! Negative five months! One month! Four! Eight! 48 months! Wow! Can you believe it’s been 48 months already? I can’t tell which baby/embryo belongs to whom, and I’m tempted to e-mail back photos of a dead rat with the message, Can you believe it’s been 48 months already? But I don’t, because I don’t have a photo of a dead rat.
I am a bad person. The inner innerness of my head is dark and lonely.
If you are my friend, I will hold your baby and say cute baby, but inside I feel sad, and I do not judge you at all, nor do I feel superior-because you can’t help wanting children with as much biological voracity as I do not want children, even though once they are here, I love them. I loved the kids whose happiness glowed through their malnourished yellow eyes in Sri Lanka. I love my six-year-old nephew, who cries when he surprise-attack kicks me in the crotch. He is full of small grievings; he doesn’t mean to hurt. It’s not the child’s fault, but we yell at them anyway, try to make sure they know everything they cannot do. Welcome to life, the answer is no.
I have a few offspring in the world, who have perhaps already learned their bodies can break, who’ll one day learn that love can fill and empty you faster than panic, who will feel the tight grasp of happiness and sadness arm wrestling in their hearts, the tension a reminder that every day is a game we can never win, not for long. So yes: I think having kids is wrong, but selling my eggs so that someone else can have kids and I can afford to go travel and hang out with orphans in the third world is my own kind of selfish survival.
I’m a pacifist who happens to be particularly gifted at constructing weapons, a factory farmer who doesn’t eat meat. We don’t always do the things that make us proud; we lock the doors of our dissonance so we can sleep at night. I realize it’s not “sustainable” to stop having babies, but the sustainability of our kind is the least of my concerns.
List of my concerns:
- If I leave my laptop at the table to use the bathroom while in Starbucks, will someone steal it?
- Can one die of sleep deprivation?
- But I really have to urinate.
- The survival of mankind for the next googleplex infinity years.
I want my glass to be half full with babies, extra cute ones, with rainbows coming out of their heads. With one hand I make the international stop having babies gesture, but I’m not an activist, I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind. I’m just trying to understand-to understand everyone else who doesn’t look at a baby and immediately think, how cruel. With the other hand I accept thousands of dollars and do the exact thing that goes against what I believe.
I wish I had a baby bump so that I could turn sideways and fit into the Escher drawing of my breeder friends. It is isolating, there is so much white space around the puzzle piece of my head. I’ve ended relationships because I can’t date a man who wants to have a child-we just don’t see sperm to ovum. I feel the strain of my own cognitive dissonance: my greatest guilt is knowing because of me, my selfish need for fast cash in order to escape, to avoid cubicles, to avoid committing to life-there is someone who will have to spend a lifetime avoiding pain.
In the end, what I learned from donating my eggs is how little I know my own body. The monitoring of hormone levels, counting and measuring of follicles, and gross manipulation of your reproductive system really gets you in touch with your inner innerness. My choices are surreal. I could: (a) take these little gobs and make a little me, (b) sell these little gobs and a stranger can make a little me, or (c) have my tubes tied, saving these little gobs from ever becoming a living thing that could know suffering.
The last thought in my head during the egg retrieval, before the prick of the IV sends me into a peaceful nowhere, is always: sorry, baby.