NEWS

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May 13, 2005

Student donates eggs for a cause, and some extra cash

It was more than the money that motivated Jen Littlefield to donate her eggs. For Littlefield, a fourth-year in the College, undergoing the procedure was a way of "giving back."

Littlefield, whose biological father was a sperm donor, did not learn that she was a child of collaborative reproduction until she was 19. She decided the summer before her fourth-year that she would opt for the surgery to give an infertile woman a means of giving birth to a child.

Besides, the $5,000 compensation payment was nothing for a college student to scoff at. Egg donors, generally aged 21 to 32 years old, can fetch payments into the tens of thousands of dollars because of the time commitment, drug injections, and surgical process of retrieving the eggs, according to David Cohen, chief of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at the University of Chicago Hospitals.

Certain characteristics make donors more competitive on the egg donor market. "A U of C student—especially if she's tall, athletic, attractive, and white—can probably get a fair amount," said Mary Mahowald, an assistant director of the MacLean Center for Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago Hospitals.

The U of C Hospitals administer from 10 to 20 egg donation surgeries each year for women who are either prematurely or naturally menopausal, have failed several times to become pregnant, or—in some rare cases—possess a certain genetic trait that they do not want to pass on to a child, Cohen said.

The surgery, which generally only takes about 10 to 15 minutes, is "not major," Cohen said. A six-inch wand attached to a needle is inserted into the vagina, and a puncture is made through the peritoneal cavity and into each ovary to extract the eggs. Potential risks include long-term infertility, bleeding, infection, and damage to adjacent organs.

While her mother was worried about the surgery, Littlefield had a relaxed attitude. "She was always concerned for my safety because it is a minor surgical procedure, but I just said, ‘So is getting your wisdom teeth pulled,'" she said. "You don't feel a thing. It felt just like really bad cramps all day."

Littlefield, after researching last summer, chose to make arrangements with an agency in Chicago that paid the blanket anonymous agency fee of $5,000. To qualify for the process, she filled out a 14-page medical history form; sent in six pictures of herself, including one of her mother to show the recipients the family resemblance; took a three-hour psychological screening; and attended legal consultations.

Throughout the second half of fall quarter and all of winter quarter, she would arrive promptly at 7 a.m. appointments downtown where her hormones and egg production were monitored. Two weeks before her March surgery date, these appointments were daily.

Though Littlefield said the time commitment was manageable because the appointments were before classes, it was the hormonal drugs that created a bit of a headache. "You kind of get a mini-menopause," she said. Littlefield commiserated with her mother about experiencing hot flashes.

Self-administering daily injections of hormonal drugs into her leg was also something Littlefield had to get used to. "It only takes 15 minutes to do the injection—once you're not scared of the needle," she said.

The process of egg donation raises questions about what constitutes parenthood. "I think it's fair to say we have different kinds of moms," Cohen said, referring to genetic, gestational, and caretaking links that a woman can have with a child.

"To me, to emphasize as exclusively as we do the biological aspect of parenting is to offer an impoverished notion of what parenting is," said Mahowald, citing both genes and gestation as biological aspects.

Though Littlefield is genetically related to her sperm donor, she does not, as she said, "have any real ties to the donor." She viewed her own gamete donation in a similar way, saying, "You kind of separate yourself and know that, yes, your genes are going to be there, but it's not your child because you're not raising it. And genetics are a crap shoot anyway."

After the egg donation agency screens applicant donors, Cohen does another round of interviews, and generally refuses to approve about 10 percent of the donors. Rejected applicants are those who do not understand the risks of the surgery or "the concept of adopting out their genetic profile," Cohen said. He generally seeks people who choose to donate for altruistic as well as financial motives.

The hefty fees for donating eggs do not make the process available to everyone, sparking ethical questions about the method's possible inequity. "A lot of people talk about the socioeconomic gap between those who donate and those who receive," Mahowald said. "I do think injustices are perpetuated through some of these economic differences."

Egg donation is not the only option for an infertile woman. One of the latest innovations is embryo donation, which is performed at the U of C Hospitals. If a couple that reproduces through in vitro fertilization produces excess fertilized eggs, they have the option of donating an embryo to another woman. The embryo is then implanted inside her uterus. "It's a great option," Cohen said. "It's sort of like adoption except one step earlier."

Adoption is also an alternative that Cohen talks about with all of his patients. Though he said that society places the most emphasis on the genetic and gestational connections between a parent and child, he thinks that actually raising a child is what is most important in defining parenthood.

Mahowald also thinks that adoption should be encouraged. "I think everyone in society ought to agree that our obligations to children already born are greater than our obligations to children who have yet to be conceived," she said.

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