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Bioethics

ABC “News” Report On Egg Donation Panders To The Lowest Common Denominator

You do not need to read beyond the headline, “More Money for Blondes?”curiously appearing below the photograph of Diane Sawyer, to realize that this was going to be a hit piece:

Egg donation isn’t supposed to be a get-rich business for donors, but young women across the country are selling their eggs and cashing in big. A “World News” investigation into the growing industry found that not all eggs are made equal in donation agencies’ eyes. Women with favored traits, like blond hair or high intelligence, can earn a much heftier fee for donating.

Sarah Gwaltney, 25, began donating her eggs after hearing a comment from a friend. “A girl just happened to start talking about how someone had sent her something in the mail, saying she could earn a good deal of money doing egg donation,” Gwaltney recalled.

Gwaltney’s good looks allowed her to work as a model through college in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., but still, the bills were piling up, so she signed up. Gwaltney donated her eggs not once, but six times. In the two years she did it, she says, she made $100,000. Gwaltney found the business so lucrative that she is now starting her own egg donation agency.

The American Society of Reproductive Medicine, the group that oversees the field, suggests at $10,000 limit for donations, and they also say that women shouldn’t be paid more based on their looks or intelligence. But Lynn McDonnell, 45, whose twins came from donated eggs, makes no apologies for the amount of money she spent on the process or the way she picked her donor. She turned to donor eggs after attempts at IVF with her own eggs failed. “I basically picked me, but younger and prettier,” McDonnell said, laughing. “But everything else was like me — we read the same books, we both ran marathons, we had the some outlook on life.”

But which characteristics bring in the biggest money, overall? To find out, ABC News employees responded to advertisements for female egg donors. One employee, Rachel, was told that her eggs were worth more because she’s a blonde.

Another, Susan, responded to an ad for Asian donors and was told her degree from Wellesley made her eggs more valuable, to the tune of $25,000. That’s more than $15,000 over industry guidelines. A recent study from the Hastings Center looked at ads placed in college newspapers, finding that about a quarter required a minimum SAT score, and most contained appearance or ethnicity requirements. Some ads offered to pay more if you’re tall or thin, and about a quarter touted payments over $10,000. One ad even offered $50,000 to prospective egg donors.

Because the guidelines are from a private organization and not the government, the agencies’ practices aren’t illegal. In fact, there are no laws governing egg donation. Regulation has proven tough, because creating these kinds of laws would require a statement on the nature of the embryo and the origins of human life, which runs smack into the politically-sensitive abortion debate.

About 10,000 babies are born each year using donor eggs, a number that has doubled in just a few years. Dr. Roger Lobo, the president-elect of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, said that while he’s not surprised by these kinds of offers, he believes that most egg donation agencies do follow the guidelines. But when asked whether his organization had any power over an agency that’s not following the guidelines, Lobo admitted the simple answer, “No.”

Critics say that the situation creates a generation of so-called “designer” babies, whose characteristics have been carefully selected, right down to their hair or eye color. Lynn McDonnell said that the choice isn’t about cosmetics, it’s about fostering a connection between parent and child.

“You want the person to have some resemblance to you and your family, so they don’t stick out. They blend in,” said McDonnell. “And I think that a lot of people really pick something closer to home than designer.” She said handpicking the best donor is really just about giving your kids the best start. “If this person is an Ivy-educated person and they have really great genes, why wouldn’t you want to do that for your kids?” she said. “To have a fleeting chance at being intellectually superior to other people, and really providing themselves with a great life.”

I will not sit here and defend the advertisements soliciting egg donors on college campuses offering preposterous and indefensible amounts of money. I have condemned these types of advertisements for 15 years and routinely derided the practice as “EggBay”. They are wrong and ought to stop. However, this “news” story by ABC distorts the realities of the situation. The vast majority of egg donors receive less than $10,000 for their cycles.

For better or worse, we live in a capitalistic society and while I do not embrace the libertarian philosophy as it relates to all personal freedoms, I also do not want to live in a country where there are a total of 384 sperm donors and 1,084 egg donors as there is for the entirety of the United Kingdom. Do the math — 1,100 egg donors for over 60 million people. The bottom line is that if you live in the United Kingdom, you either have to go to a foreign country that does not prohibit compensated egg donation or wait years for a donor to become available with no assurance you will ever be able to proceed with a donor egg cycle.

I also have a nit with Dr. Lobo of the ASRM. While technically the ASRM cannot impose its guidelines on egg donor programs, he can revoke the membership of any agency owner or operator who is a member of the ASRM and disregards their guidelines. But even more importantly, as I have outlined previously, the ASRM stands in a unique position as the one organization that can bring an end to these practices by policing their own membership. If the ASRM was serious about this issue, they could restrict physician membership in their organization to only those fertility specialists who pledge to adhere to the Egg Donation Guidelines. Doctors that perform egg retrievals on donors can condition their participation on receiving a written clearance letter from either the Recipient or Egg Donor’s attorney that all ASRM Guidelines, including compensation, have been satisfied.

Without the physician available to perform the procedure, there would be no excessive payments (and what constitutes excessive is subject for another discussion) to donors. It would also level the playing field among agencies as those that adhere to ASRM Guidelines are now at a competitive disadvantage. If the fertility clinics and the ASRM took this responsibility upon themselves, it would provide a sufficient disincentive to donor programs and effectively end the unethical solicitation and inducement of women to donate their eggs.

Discussion

5 comments for “ABC “News” Report On Egg Donation Panders To The Lowest Common Denominator”

  • http://www.prospectivefamilies.com Amy Demma

    Thanks, Andy..you got to this before I’ve even sat at my desk, this morning. The interesting thing is that when I spent time (a good deal of it) w/the producer of this segment, she was very clear that her position, w/respect to donor compensation, was “free-hand of the market” and that World News Tonight wanted to talk to me about the evolution of and commodification of the egg donation industry (“industry”…I hate using that reference), we talked about self-regulation, we talked about government intervention (I shared my perspective that I do think we can effectively self-regulate but that we have some distance to go before we get there), we talked about compassionate donation, truly altruistic donors and we talked about the fact that there are no barriers to entry, that anyone can hang a virtual shingle and how vulnerable the consumer is because of the, at best, soft standards of practices clinicians/physicians require of the agencies from whom they will accept donors. We NEVER spoke about “Blondes going fast”.

    • http://www.vmfirm.com Andrew

      Hi Amy,

      Of course they did not report anything you said as it isn’t sexy or sensational and will do nothing to improve their ratings. I learned the hard way and now am very cautious about any media interviews I do.

      It has been my experience with evening news episodes that they tend to be very superficial and they try to manufacture controversy. The print media is not much better unless it is a monthly magazine. Of late, the only interview requests I will accept are for documentaries as they have the time to fairly cover an issue. What we got from ABC News last night (and in their handling of you), was nothing more than tabloid journalism while they are in the middle of sweeps.

  • Pingback: The Spin Doctor | Do Blonde Egg Donors Have More Fun & Drive Nicer Cars?

  • Stephanie Carter

    Women make the choice to donate their eggs. Nobody forces them to do it. I also considered egg donation when I was younger, and needed money to pay off my credit card debt. I decided against it. Any of these women could do the same. They are not victims, no matter what anyone says. We have become a society of whiners and blamers, who don’t want to take responsibility for our own decisions.

  • Stephanie Carter

    Yes, people do prefer egg donors of the same race. That’s a big “duh”. Why should they choose a donor from a different race? I’ve heard whites called “racist” because they select an egg donor who is white. Of course they want their child to have similar characteristics to theirs. Why is this so horrible? Many infertile women choose a donor from their same race – whether African American, Hispanic, Asian, etc. Please quit calling them racist. Its not racist to choose an egg donor of your same race.

    Also, lets end the myth right now that people prefer blond, blue-eyed donors. Our egg donor was dark haired, brown-eyed – just like me. Also, she did not go to college. I don’t believe college always correlates with native intelligence. Many intelligent people I know never went to college. Most infertile couples aren’t trying to make some “super baby”. They just want a healthy baby to love.

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