My Body’s Economies
The Financial, Personal and Social Implications of Egg Donation
What are women's bodies worth? How do college, privilege and egg donation intersect? How much risk I am willing to go through to pay off my student loans?
I am perfectly fine. My lungs are strong. My heart pumps with a cocksure regularity, insulin injections are a foreign concept to me. I’ve never even broken a bone. My body mass index is on the low end of healthy. I am not currently, nor have I ever been on psychoactive drugs. Both my parents are alive, I’ve read Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes and Virginia Woolf, and most importantly, I have not ingested marijuana in the previous year. This last one, they tell me, is especially valuable.
“That’s one of the requirements we have the hardest time meeting,” the agent tells me via email, “Recipient couples are willing to spend at least an extra 500 dollars for that.”
All in all, after reviewing my application and carefully considering my qualifications, someone seeking to have my biological child would have to shell out 6,000-7,000 dollars.
Welcome to the strange world of egg donation. In the US, women ages 20-28 can receive anywhere from 5,000-50,000 for “donating” their eggs, a process that involves injecting hormones that hyperstimulate the ovaries into producing many more viable eggs per cycle than they would regularly be capable of making. The eggs are removed in a minor surgery and implanted in the uterus of the recipient mother.
Through a commercial agency, infertile women can scroll through the profiles of hundreds of donors. She can decide whether she wants her baby to be half-Nepalese, have the legs of a Division I basketball player, or the talent of the pianist who went to Carnegie Hall, but now needs money to make tuition at Julliard. I imagine successful women in their late thirties hunched over their Macbooks late at night, trying to decide whether they want their child to have that girl from Harvard’s green eyes or blue, like her own.
Those nervous women are closer than I like to think. While I come from the kind of two parent, upper middle class family who could afford to take my sister and I on vacations to Washington DC and New York, drag us through museums of science and art and fill our house will books, college means that an extra thousand dollars would really be helpful. The yearly tuition to my small, liberal arts college costs more than a brand new luxury car. There’s all the standard questions here: yes, I have financial aid from my college, yes, I have applied for dozens of private scholarships, but I’m still facing a staggering amount of debt when I graduate.
A maelstrom of privilege has brought me to this level of debt. I’ve benefited from nice suburbs could afford to pay for my good, specialized high school, my dad’s job provided health insurance so I could get the occasional therapy I needed to get through high school, my parents let me do resume building volunteering and sports in high school instead of getting an afterschool job. But now, for the first time in my life, I feel poor.
I can’t impulse buy books, or the cute sequined oxfords from Forever 21 my friend posted on Facebook, or the terracotta pots of rosemary at the farmer’s market I’m currently coveting. I don’t have an off campus job that could pay for things I don’t need, or start making a dent in my loans. Instead, I’m taking five classes and two labs so I can graduate a semester early. I have an on campus job that provides work experience for my major, but it’s stipend/hours worked ratio leaves me with a hourly wage of 1.67 dollars.
So I am left in this odd flux of poverty and privilege. Looking at my taxes from last year, I learned that I made around 3,000 dollars to my name. I am left doing calculations like, how much would it be worth not to be able to do the sport I love for a month? Would I be willing to be incapacitated for 6,000 dollars? Would I do it for 5,000? If one of my ovaries twisted over on itself, would 7,000 cover the pain, or even the hospital bills? If someone offered me an extra 1,000, would that make it worth it? How much money (and I’m going to be honest, I suspect there is a sum of money that would tip the scales) would it take for me to have a biological child of mine out there in the world who I would never know?
Egg donation is skewed towards women of privilege like me. The examples abound. Most, if not all, agencies require that potential donors have a bachelor’s degree or at least be in college. Things that cost money help you be considered as a donor. One agencies’ page of sample donor profiles listed activities like “running marathons, my study abroad in London, pursuing my graduate degree in mathematics”. Agencies’ pages often calmly mention that donors sometimes have difficulty continuing their jobs or schoolwork during the month of hormones. Women who can’t afford to take a month off due to debilitating nausea aren’t going to donate. The day of the egg extraction requires that someone drive you home, necessitating a) you to take time off, b) someone else takes time off, and c) a car. All of those things cost money, and only women with a financial support system already in place are able to donate. While this may protect women whose desperate financial situation might encourage them to donate when they otherwise wouldn’t, it leads to a peculiar kind of self selection. One agency let me look at their pool of potential donors. The faces beaming out from my computer screen were overwhelmingly white (three out of fifty listed some kind of non-European ancestry from their mother or father) beautiful in the way of women who have time to spend on their beauty, long haired, classic. There was an awful lot of service jobs profiled there (nanny, esthetician, home maker, model, model, model) which inspired in me uneasy thoughts about eggs being just another service that broke women perform for others.
During the period where I was thinking about selling my eggs, every activity became an economic transaction. When I successfully completed a pull-up, I triumphantly imagined a couple paying extra for a child with rippling, awesome muscles. When my girlfriend stroked my hair and called me her Snow White, I imagined a pale little girl with my black hair somewhere out there in the world, and I imagined being okay with that. When I got a biology midterm back, I wondered why anyone would ever want to have a child with my stupid genes. Dark nights left me wondering about the fate of a child cursed with my massive self-doubt and inadequacies.
Does my queerness make me more or less valuable? Several agencies (I filled out the online application for around six agencies) asked deeply into my relationship status. One agency asked whether I was married, seeing someone or single, how I had met them and what I was looking for in a life partner. I left those sections blank, because I don’t think that expressions of desire are very deeply ingrained in our genes. My sister is dating an extremely sensible, extremely organized and exceptionally diligent boy, all qualities I’m not sure I would seek out in a partner. Even in these increasingly tolerant times, I couldn’t picture the couple who would pick a donor with a pretty good genome for having their prospective child beat up on the playground.
Ironically, my markers of privilege that are making me broke mean that someday, I will be the kind of woman who could afford to pay for a stranger’s genes. One day, I will finish college, one day I will pay off my student loans, one day I will get a job I love that will pay enough for me to live what I now hazily think of as a real adult life, with a craftsman house and big dogs, and organic groceries. And one day, given my partner’s inclination towards ballet flats and eyeliner over boxers and stubble, it’s very likely that I will find myself peering over an archive of sperm donors and asking myself, blue eyes or green?
Ultimately, I decided not to donate my eggs. As I filled my fourth, fifth, sixth application I started to remember details of family history that I had forgotten. Turns out that the one case of schizophrenia, the learning disorders, the alcoholism, and the dementia add up. As my email exchange with the agent I quoted in the beginning progressed, my price dropped to around 5,000 dollars for a month’s worth of life altering and potentially destructive work. Instead of hanging out in my college town this summer, bloated and acned out on hormones, I’ll be back in my hometown with my parents working as a rowing coach. And while that job pays minimum wage, at the end of the day, I can walk away with my heart and my body intact.