Big business of egg donation sparks controversy over pricing

(NEW YORK) — Wendy Gerrish walked into an exam room at the California Fertility Partners in Los Angeles to prepare for her 11th-day ultrasound. She had been going there almost every day for the previous week.

Gerrish, a 33-year-old acupuncturist with a master’s degree in integrative medicine, is not pregnant. She is donating her eggs for the seventh time. She said a couple overseas is paying her $20,000 for her donation.

To date, Gerrish’s donated eggs have resulted in 10 biological children all over the world and she has a son of her own.

More and more women are delaying childbirth into their 40s, and when their own eggs are no longer viable, some shop for donors like Gerrish through egg agencies.

Egg agencies pair desperate couples with young women willing to help them create a baby — for a price. It’s become a highly competitive and lucrative marketplace.

Shelley Smith runs a Los Angeles-based egg agency called the Egg Donor Program and boasts a catalog of what she says are the most beautiful and accomplished donors, what Smith calls “premier donors.”

“Premier donors get a little bit higher fee, and it’s usually based on higher education, great SAT scores,” Smith said. “When we put up a really beautiful donor who is also probably smart and has other qualities, we get calls immediately. I call it the ‘feeding frenzy.’”

She has added around six new donors to her site every week and only accepts five percent of donors who apply, Smith said.

“No one ever comes in and says, ‘I really want a dumb, ugly donor,’” she said.

When asked if what her agency is doing is unethical or if it’s just serving to create “designer babies,” Smith denies that’s the case.

“I don’t think these are ‘designer babies,’” she said. “If you think about it, when you pick someone to marry, you are picking the genetics for your child as well. … Why can’t you kind of look for those qualities in an egg donor who is going to help you build your family?”

Some donors demand as much as $50,000 for their eggs — Smith said the highest price any of her donors had received was $100,000.

“I will admit that I’ve had a couple of donors do it just for the money, but I felt like they weren’t going to feel badly afterwards,” Smith said. “You really want it to be both, because that’s what makes somebody feel good later in life.”

Ethical guidelines set by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) say compensating a donor over $10,000 is not appropriate. Dr. Eric Widra, a fertility specialist in Washington, D.C., agrees and believes a cap on compensation is needed because otherwise it can create “inappropriate incentives for women to donate where perhaps they’re not really donating for altruistic reasons.”

“When you start to have women doing it just because the price is so attractive, we worry that they’re exposing themselves to risks that they might not otherwise be comfortable with, however small, just because the price is right,” Widra said. “And we worry that creates additional incentives to be untruthful or unrealistic. … Untruthful about their history or unrealistic about the expectations of going through treatment.”

Two donors in California have filed a federal lawsuit, claiming the guidelines amount to price fixing and deprive women a free market in which to sell their eggs. The ASRM’s lawyer said in a statement to ABC News that the lawsuit is “entirely without merit” and that the issue “is not a price-fixing agreement, but rather a recommendation … not followed by all clinics” that still assures “women will be reasonably compensated.”

Smith’s agency, and many like hers, choose not to follow the society’s guidelines.

“Doctors don’t have a cap to what they get paid. They can charge whatever they want. … Agencies certainly make money at it,” Smith said. “Why do the donors have to have a certain amount that’s right for them to get paid, when nobody else has any kind of cap?”

For the donors, it can be a long, painful and risky process. For 15 days, Wendy Gerrish has to take a cocktail of medications designed to boost the number of eggs that the doctor can extract at one time. She also visits her doctor almost daily to ensure she doesn’t have a bad reaction to the medication, and when it’s time to remove the eggs, she goes under general anesthesia.

“One of the things that I always get with fertility medications is migraine headaches,” she said. “It’s really kind of debilitating.”

And to avoid injuring her ovaries, she has to take it easy. “No running, no jumping, no exercising, no swimming, no lifting,” she said.

“It’s not like you’re just like, ‘Okay, yeah, I’m going to take my eggs out, and give them to you,’” Gerrish said. “You’re dedicating months of your time to these people … sacrificing part of your, yourself, your body. You are doing injections every night. You have to be on-task with all these things.”

For some women, egg donation is often their only shot at getting pregnant. Michelle Bader got married at 43 and immediately started trying for children. She visited multiple fertility doctors and tried in-vitro fertilization with her own eggs, but still wasn’t able to conceive.

“I was depressed,” Bader said. “I have the support of my family and friends, but I feel like they didn’t necessarily understand where I’m coming from. A lot of my friends got married when they were early 30s, and they had their kids … and I kind of probably just turned inward.”

Bader said she didn’t realize that getting pregnant at her age would be so hard. Some women in their mid- to late-40s only have a two- to five-percent chance of conceiving naturally.

“At some point you’re just like, ‘I want a baby more than I want my own DNA. I want to be a mom,’ and that’s when you say, ‘I think I need to do the egg donor route,’” she said.

For some, the reality that you won’t be able to have your own biological children is difficult, and some feel the need to keep the fact that they’re using an egg donor a secret.

“I waited a long time to get married,” Bader said. “For other people it could be that they were younger, and they had fertility issues. … It’s nothing to be ashamed of. … It doesn’t need to be taboo.”

Once she accepted it, Bader said looking for a donor consumed her and she tried to find one who looked similar to her and had an excellent medical history. She said she eventually found a donor through another Beverly Hills-based egg agency.

“It’s like I was dating online,’ Bader said. “And really early on I saw a girl that spoke to me. She looked like an angel to me. Like, she just had these angelic, beautiful features. And I’m like, ‘That’s her.’”

Bader finally got pregnant and gave birth to twins, a boy named Asher and a girl named Rosie, at age 45. She said she paid $7,000 to the donor and another $7,500 to the agency who matched them. Adding in doctor and legal fees, Bader said she spent over $20,000, but said it was worth “every cent.”

“I feel for those people that money is an issue for this,” she said. “Because this isn’t a cheap endeavor, and if that’s the only road that they can take, this is a huge hardship to take on.”

The moment the nurse brought the babies over to her, Bader said she felt like a mom.

“I’m finally a mom,” she said. “It happened. Somebody is going to call me ‘mom.’ I am going to say, ‘That’s my son. That’s my daughter.’”

She said she considers her egg donor as her “angel,” the person who made her babies possible.

“The dream of me being a mom has exceeded anything that I ever thought of, or even could’ve dreamed myself,” she said. “Reality is better than my imagination of it, with its challenges, with everything, I’d take it over and over and over in a heartbeat. And this was my path. It may not have been the path that I set out to take, but it’s the journey that I’m on.”

Copyright © 2015, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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