The ins and outs of egg donation

The Assisted Human Reproduction Act of 2004 put many of our science fiction nightmares to rest: thanks to the act, Canada will never legally create an army of clones; you will never give birth to the offspring of another species; and there will never be any goldfish-humans swimming in your pond, or tomato-humans growing in your garden. No one’s protesting the ban on transplating “a sperm, ovum, embryo or foetus of a non-human life form into a human being.” People are generally just fine with the prohibition on creating “a human clone by using any technique.” But other clauses are more contentious. One particularly thorny clause criminalizes monetary compensation for egg donors, sperm donors or surrogates. It’s not gone unnoticed; in fact, it’s caused quite an uproar.

One year after the bill was enacted, the number of egg donors at the McGill Reproductive Centre had already dropped by 70 per cent, Dr. Seang Lin Tan, the director of the centre and chair of McGill’s Obstetrics and Gynecology Department told The McGill Daily in 2005. It’s not a surprising drop. Egg donation demands considerable amounts of time and invasive procedures; to comply with the new laws, egg donation must be motivated purely by a sense of altruism. Anna-Maria Henderson, Manager of the McGill Reproductive Centre, understands that this is a lot to ask: “We have seen a decrease in egg donors since 2004,” Henderson laments. Egg donation “is a lot to go through; it means taking fertility drugs and getting blood tests, and it takes a lot of time. With the law that prevents us from reimbursing donors, the process is often too much for someone to want to do for a stranger,” she notes.

Children have rights

While some consider these laws to be an unnecessarily stringent barrier for infertile couples, others are calling for harsher regulation – or the abolition of reproductive technologies altogether. A few take these views to the extreme, like Veronica Thomas, creator of the blog Children Have Rights – Say No To Repro Tech. One entry reads, “Yes, it is a baby trade, like the slave trade of old. Babies have become consumer products, accessories to our lifestyles. They are like pets, those cute and cuddly babies. And like pets, they can be made to your liking. Just buy the sperm at your nearest sperm bank, purchase an egg from your local egg dealer, and rent a surrogate womb. And in nine months, bring home a baby without a pregnancy, without even a dent in your schedule!”

She claims that processes like in vitro fertilization ignore the rights of unborn children in favour of parents’ right to pass on their genes.

Thomas is not alone in her views. In 2006, the Commission on Parenthood’s Future, a self-proclaimed “independent, nonpartisan group of scholars and leaders,” came out with a report denouncing reproductive technologies. Entitled “The Revolution in Parenthood,” the report accuses these technologies of being the product of a legal system that “increasingly seeks to administer parenthood, often giving far greater attention to adult rights than to children’s needs.” The authors claim that the intervention of science in reproduction is in part responsible for the destruction of the nuclear family, because it ignores children’s need to be raised by biological parents. The report opposes the use of the term “legal” or “psychological parent,” rather than “natural” or “biological,” because they upset traditional notions of parenthood. It also finds fault with incongruities in Canadian laws that allow egg and sperm donors to remain anonymous, while making it an adoptive child’s right to know the identity of their biological parents.

Some among the first generation of donor-conceived children who have come of age are expressing anger at their origins. It is the anonymity of their biological fathers that spark their discontent. In an article for The Washington Post Katrina Clark, one such donor-conceived adult, writes, “I was angry at the idea that, where donor conception is concerned, everyone focuses on the parents – the adults who can make choices about their own lives. The recipient gets sympathy for wanting to have a child. The donor gets a guarantee of anonymity and absolution from any responsibility for the offspring of his ‘donation.’ The children born of these transactions are people, too.”

Black-market gametes

Despite the government’s intervention in reproductive technologies, the gamete trade continues underground. Black-market egg donors are not hard to find; one need not look further than the McGill Classifieds. Last year, Brianna Hersey, a U3 McGill student and former Daily columnist, posted an ad reading, “Egg donor seeking couple in need,” although she assured me that she wasn’t necessarily looking for a couple.

“I was coming out of a period of serious illness, out of a time of being really at odds with my body, and I saw egg donation as something positive that I could do with my body. It seemed really rewarding.”

Janet Takefman, director of psychological services at the McGill Reproduction Centre, says that it’s common for people who have had negative experiences with their bodies, such as illness or an abortion, to want to do something that will psychologically reestablish their bodies as positive entities.

The number of responses Hersey received was indicative of the country’s serious need for egg donors. “Although it’s really illegal in Canada, I knew that I could be reimbursed a few thousand dollars for the experience.”

Hersey disagrees with those who see the exchange of money for gametes as exploitation, but does understand it as a social issue: “If you don’t pay donors, then you’re pandering to upper class people who can afford to take this time out of their working day to go through the many visits that are required to donate an egg, but if you do pay people for their eggs then you’re luring lower-class people, who really need the money to sell their bodies and be guinea pigs for science.”

Although Hersey did put a price on her eggs, she said she would have done it for free, if her financial situation allowed it. Tafekman lauds the women she has encountered with Hersey’s sentiment, women who will donate their eggs out of the desire to help another woman. “Often, compensation occurs under the table simply because the donor needs money to pay tuition, not because they’re looking to get rich,” she says.

Many egg donors are already parents who are grateful for their own children and wish to give that opportunity to others. “It’s like paying it forward,” Tafekman says. “They’re heartbroken to hear that others can’t share their experience of having children.”

Unfortunately, Hersey was unable to donate eggs due to negative interactions between the prescribed hormones and a medication, but her experience showed her how desperate some couples are to have children. Initially, she was opposed to reproductive technologies, thinking, “There are so many children in need, it’s fucked up not to even consider adoption just because you want your children to look like you.” In an effort to adopt, however, couples encounter long waiting lists, prohibitively high costs, and strict regulation. Often, a couple’s interest in in vitro fertilization is not driven by a stubborn and narcissistic urge to pass on their genes; most simply cast as many lines as possible into the sea of options, and wait to see which will be the first to bite.