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Human egg donation is a unique experience that has received both praise and criticism in equal measure. There are those who will be forever grateful to their egg donor for the time, effort and risk incurred during the process, not to mention their donor’s willingness to share their genetics with, most often, someone they have never met. On the flip side, there are those who insist that young women who become egg donors are being taken advantage of by the billion-dollar fertility industry.
As a previous egg donor and now owner of an egg donation agency, I’ve worked with prospective parents for the last 13 years and feel I have a unique perspective. As a professional, I’ve seen the gratitude our intended parents feel toward their donor. As a donor, I’ve felt excitement and hope that the process culminates in a pregnancy. I’ve also seen photos of many, many children born from egg donation (including ones from my own donations), and it is truly a beautiful thing.
Don’t get me wrong: going through the donation process isn’t a walk in the park. As a donor, I personally experienced ovarian hyper-stimulation as well as the very rare side effect of minor ovarian torsion. So, while concerns that there are risks to this process are not unfounded, those risks are low and should be made extremely clear to the egg donor through several different channels: the agency, the clinic, the psychologist and even the attorney representing the donor. By the time an egg donor begins the actual medical process, she should be clear on all potential risks, so she can make an informed decision as to whether or not this is the right journey for her. As long as an egg donor is fully informed, it would be insulting to her to assume that she would continue even if she didn’t feel comfortable.
The process of egg donation includes a series of tests, both medical and psychological, to make sure the donor is healthy enough to undertake what’s involved. When a donor is initially chosen, she will receive a psychological evaluation (industry standard usually includes both a written and in-person evaluation/education appointment). She will also meet with a licensed geneticist who will go over her family’s medical background (to the best of her knowledge), to determine any genetic risk factors. Once these evaluations come back with a green light, the donor will go in for a medical screening which includes several tests, the most common of which are FDA-required drug and STD testing. There will also be a genetic panel required. This varies widely from clinic to clinic, as the FDA does not regulate genetic testing. The most common kinds of tests are for carrier genes (usually based on ethnic background) such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, SMA, Tay-Sachs and fragile X syndrome.
Once a donor has cleared her medical screening, a calendar for her cycle is drawn up by the fertility clinic. The most common egg donor cycle includes daily subcutaneous injections for approximately three weeks. During that time, the doctor’s office will have the donor come in for several appointments to check her hormone levels and follicle growth. The goal is to stimulate several follicles in the ovaries that will become viable eggs ready for fertilization. Most reproductive endocrinologists agree that 15 is considered the “magic number” for eggs retrieved, although, of course, sometimes there are more and sometimes less.
The retrieval process usually involves the donor going under a “twilight sleep” monitored by an anesthesiologist. The eggs are retrieved by using a long, thin needle that is inserted into the ovaries where the follicles are located. They are then aspirated into a test tube. This is an outpatient procedure and most donors are finished with the entire process and ready to go home within one to three hours.
Of the eggs retrieved, the mature ones will become fertilized. The hope is that there will be enough healthy embryos to have at least one fresh and one frozen cycle of embryos that can be transferred into the intended mother or surrogate. Approximately two to three weeks later, we are able to determine if the procedure was successful and if the intended parent is pregnant.
So, while my own the recovery wasn’t as easy as it is for most donors, and I did experience the most common complication as a result of egg donation (approximately 5 percent of donors experience ovarian hyperstimulation), I still feel strongly that it was worth it a thousand times over. As for myself, I went on to get pregnant with my first child at age 35, and at age 37 with my second, who is due this August.
I would suggest that any young women between the ages of 21 and 28 who are interested in becoming egg donors research the process for themselves and see if it’s something they would feel comfortable doing. While not a decision to be taken lightly, helping others achieve their dream of having a family is a hugely rewarding emotional experience.
Wendie Wilson-Miller is the co-author of “The Insiders Guide to Egg Donation: A Compassionate and Comprehensive Guide for all Parents-To-Be” and also the owner of Gifted Journeys, an egg donation and surrogacy agency located in Los Angeles, California. www.giftedjourneys.com.