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Grace was just beginning her third semester of graduate school at Sarah Lawrence and drowning in student loans when she got an email with the subject line "Give the Gift of Life."
"When I read the posting," Grace says, "I figured, 'Men sell sperm all the time. All they have to do is fist their mister into a plastic cup and their rent is paid.'" Last fall, when Grace learned that she could help infertile couples conceive and make money doing what she assumed was next to nothing, she promptly responded to the ad. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, Grace had created a separate bank account for her $8,000 check, and hadn't told her parents.
According to fertilization clinics in the New England area, donor applications have more than doubled since the start of the recession. Waiting rooms look like the DMV, or worse — employment agencies. "The economy seems to have inspired more people to look at alternative ways of earning money," Sanford M. Bernardo, president of Northeast Assisted Fertility Group, told the Boston Globe back in April. "We're seeing people who might not otherwise do this but for their economic condition." No surprise: ads have offered up to $50,000 for donors with high SAT scores.
For many women, donating eggs sounds like easy money, but it's not as simple as the plastic-cup-nudie-magazine routine presented to men. Even before the market crash, agencies could only accept a fraction of the applicants: healthy women no younger than twenty-one and not a day over thirty, without genetic disorders, sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis, diabetes, cancer, and depression. Tattoos and piercings will also disqualify you, as will residence in various foreign countries between 1980 and 1996 (to guard against possible contact with mad-cow disease). Once you pass these requirements, you're checked for normal levels of FSH, the hormone that stimulates egg production. Then you sign a contract, and the harvest can commence.
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"I come from a long line of fertile women."
Nita, a twenty-three-year-old writer and high-school teacher living in San Diego, donated her eggs last year. "People always joke they can get secondhand pregnancy from being around the women in my family. My grandmother had sixteen kids. I myself have twins. So I knew I was a good candidate." Nita had no moral qualms about donating. In fact, she found it a surprisingly rewarding experience. "I didn't expect to have a real emotional response, but on the drive home, I was filled with such a great feeling, like I did something that would matter to someone forever. Almost like saving a life."
The only negative aspect of Nita's experience was the needles — she has a fear of them. "I felt guilty because it's a completely irrational phobia, so I decided to get over it and do something good. The first time [the self-injection] wasn't bad; it made me feel hardcore." Daily self-injections are a major part of the egg-donation process. In the first phase of the procedure, the donor must give herself daily shots of GnRH agonists to synchronize her menstrual cycle with the recipient's. In addition to the GnRH injections, the donor takes birth-control pills and undergoes routine blood tests and vaginal ultrasound examinations to monitor her progress.
Once her cycle is in sync with the recipient's, the donor begins "ovarian stimulation" — more hormones to stimulate the release of multiple mature eggs. In nature, a woman releases one egg per month, but these injections allow her to produce up to fifteen. After a final injection to help the eggs separate from the ovarian walls for retrieval, the donor undergoes anesthesia, and an ultrasound-guided needle collects the eggs. Collection typically takes under an hour. When she awakes, the donor can go home that very day, as long as she doesn't drive herself.
When Nita donated her eggs, she made $6,000, which she used to pay off her student loans. And like Grace, she did not tell her parents.