8 Surprising Facts About Egg Donors

European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), typical ...

One of the more neglected purposes of this blog is to share information (and dispel myths) about makin’ gaybies.  I want to educate people about my family – and at the same time help prospective parents, gay or straight, who might be exploring their own fertility options.

A while back, I posted about some common misperceptions of surrogacy and why Drew and I chose that path, and now I want to share some information about the other part of the equation: the egg donor.

Admittedly, our situation is somewhat unique.  Our egg donor was my partner’s sister, Susie.  (Yes, I contributed the sperm.)  But before Susie made her offer, we were planning to use an anonymous egg donor, which is what most gay dads pursuing gestational surrogacy do – and understandably so.  Not everyone has as wonderful a sister-in-law as Susie, and for various reasons, not everyone wants to have such close ties to their egg donor (ahem, Modern Family characters).

If your fertility plans involve an egg donor or if you’re just curious about the process, here are a few facts I learned while Drew and I were exploring our options:

1. Egg donors are young.

The ideal donor is in her late teens to mid-20s.  Yes, late teens.  (OK, very late teens – I never saw anyone younger than 19.)  It came as a bit of a shock to me and Drew that our child could be getting half of his or her DNA from Gossip Girl.  When we saw their pictures, it reminded us just how young 19 actually is.  They had acne and awkward grins, wore baggy college sweatshirts and put their hair in pigtails.  Susie was 28 when she donated.  Compared to the women in the database, she was practically over the hill.

2. Your children will most likely never meet their egg donor.

If you’re adopting a child, you have the option of an “open” adoption, where the birth mother maintains some form of mutually agreed-upon contact with the child throughout his or her life.  Dan Savage recounts his open adoption wonderfully in his book The Kid, a must-read for all prospective gay dads or anyone considering adoption.

I loved the idea of open adoption.  There’s no shame, no secrecy and the kid never has to go through that pain of feeling like they don’t know where they really came from.  When we started to lean toward surrogacy, I was hoping we could do some kind of “open” surrogacy.

We learned pretty quickly that there’s no such thing.  When we asked our agency if we could stay in touch with the egg donor, they seemed startled.  It wasn’t something anyone – intended parents or egg donors – ever requested, and they were pretty sure no donor would agree to it.

These were young women, after all, most of whom wanted to have their own kids someday.  They didn’t want someone else’s kids tracking them down and calling them “Mommy”.  In fact, just to become egg donors they had to divorce themselves of any feeling of kinship with their eggs.  It was like donating blood.  You’re happy to know it went to good use, but you don’t need details from the people who received it.

3. Unlike sperm, eggs are only donated “on demand”.

Sperm donors make their deposits (and get paid) not knowing if anyone will ever use their sperm.  That’s because sperm is plentiful, easy to produce (fun, too!), and cheap to store.  Eggs are none of those things.  If you become an egg donor, you go through testing (both medical and psychological) to make sure you’re equipped to donate.  Then… you wait.  Your name, photo and vital info goes into a database, and someday, if someone picks you, you get a call that it’s go time.

You could sign up to donate eggs and never actually get picked by any prospective parents (which means you never get paid).  Anonymous egg donation is definitely not for anyone who’s afraid of rejection.

4. Egg donation is a big time commitment.

A sperm donor can start and finish his job in pretty much the amount of time it takes him to open a Victoria’s Secret catalogue or press “PLAY” on a DVD.  But egg donors don’t have dozens of eggs on hand at any given time that they can just drop off at a fertility clinic on a whim.  They need to prepare themselves physically. That means about six weeks of medication.

First, there’s birth control to synch her cycle up to the surrogate’s.  The only way a pregnancy can occur is if the surrogate’s body is prepared to take over right where the egg donor’s left off.

Next, the egg donor is required to take hormones to stimulate egg development.  These need to be self-injected.  To someone as squeamish as me, that sounds excruciating, but our fertility doctor assured us that he’d never had a donor drop out because of the medication.  The side effects are usually mild – bloating, moodiness, that sort of thing.

Then, there’s the actual procedure, which you do in a doctor’s office and which takes about 10-15 minutes.  It’s not anything too horrible, but it’s not like retrieving sperm, for sure.

5. There’s generally less anonymity for egg donors than sperm donors.  

Once eggs are donated, they’re fertilized immediately (extras are frozen for later attempts) and transferred to a surrogate 3-5 days later.  Most sperm donors never encounter their intended parents first-hand, but egg donors don’t have that luxury.  You’ll probably be bumping into each other at the fertility clinic anyway, so many agencies will let you meet and interview prospective egg donors before making your decision.

Even if you don’t meet them in person, the database tends to give you their first name, an extensive bio, pictures and a video of them talking, all of which you can later pass on to your kids if you choose.

6. The standard rate for egg donors is $8,000. 

Egg donors earn a lot more than sperm donors, because of all the extra trouble they have to go through.  Their standard rate is $8,000 per “harvest”.  (The cost to the intended parents is greater, because they’re also paying for all the medical fees and medication.)

Still, $8,000 isn’t a fortune, and unlike sperm donors, egg donors are limited in how often they can donate.  The whole process can take six months, which means you’d be lucky to donate twice a year.  People don’t donate eggs to get rich.  They usually do it to pay for a couple of credits at college and to help infertile couples in the process.

7. The world of egg donors is the Wild West of the fertility landscape.

Well, OK, maybe a few women are making big bucks on their eggs.  That’s because egg donation is not currently regulated by the government.  The $8,000 fee, although fairly standard, is only a suggested retail price.  Individual agencies and donors are free to mark up as they see fit.  One agency I found online advertised “premium” egg donors – ones with Ivy League degrees, high IQs, athletic awards, etc.  A couple of them had donated their eggs more than ten times.  They also charged premium rates – some as much as $30,000 per harvest.

This represents a very small minority of egg donors, but it happens.

8. The pool is limited. 

Anyone who thinks the process of egg donation is akin to genetic engineering or eugenics is vastly overestimating the amount of choice available.  It’s more like trying to find your future wife in a bar and having only the patrons of that particular bar at that time available to you.

Given the commitment required of donors, it’s no surprise that relatively few women volunteer.   Our agency’s database had about 40-70 donors at any given time.  Not a ton – and even worse if you’re looking for a certain race or ethnicity.  Our agency had 1-2 African-Americans, 1-2 Asians.  Sure, there are dozens of other agencies you can locate with a quick Google search, but once you find someone you like, you have to make sure she’s available.  She could be “on hold” for another couple or in the process of donating to someone else.  That could lock her up for six months or longer.

Meanwhile, your surrogate may not be very patient while you wait for your dream donor to appear.  In fact, Drew and I were turned down by a potential surrogate who was uncomfortable with how long it was taking us to find a donor.  (This was part of what ultimately led us to Susie, so it ended up being a good thing.)

If you’re interested in helping infertile couples and non-traditional families like mine, egg donation is a wonderful gift you can give someone.

You’ll need to be interested in more than just making money, though.  The cash you do make, you really have to earn.  It won’t be enough to change your life, because part of the reward is knowing how much you’ve changed someone else’s.