‘I Sold My Eggs for Cash’

South African stu­dents are find­ing new ways to fund their de­grees

Cosmopolitan (South Africa) - - CONTENTS -

‘I SOLD MY EGGS FOR CASH’

NINA*NINA WAS 21 AND MID­WAY THROUGH

N a BSc Hon­ours de­gree in ge­net­ics at the Univer­sity of Stel­len­bosch when she reg­is­tered as an egg donor. En­cour­aged by a friend who had pre­vi­ously do­nated her eggs for cash, she ac­com­pa­nied her on a visit to a fer­til­ity clinic and fi lled out an ap­pli­ca­tion her­self. The form de­tailed ev­ery­thing from her weight and height (all donors must be within a healthy BMI range) to her fam­ily’s med­i­cal his­tory. Was there any his­tory of men­tal ill­ness in the fam­ily? What about heart dis­ease? She also handed over baby pic­tures of her­self, which would be stored anony­mously with her fi le.

Over the next three weeks, she re­turned to the clinic for mul­ti­ple blood and urine tests to screen for drugs and ge­netic disorders, as well as psy­cho­log­i­cal as­sess­ments to en­sure she was men­tally and emo­tion­ally ready to do­nate. How would she feel about a child walk­ing around with her DNA? The de­ci­sion was not some­thing Nina took lightly.

‘I spoke to my par­ents and friends about the pro­ce­dure and al­though many said that they would not do it them­selves – some be­cause they just didn’t like the idea of it and oth­ers for re­li­gious rea­sons – their ar­gu­ments seemed brash and ir­rel­e­vant to me,’ Nina says. But with the in­cen­tive of the fi nan­cial com­pen­sa­tion – about R7 000 – ring­ing in her ears, Nina went ahead with the process.

Weeks on, Nina was matched with a sperm donor and she be­gan hav­ing daily hor­mone in­jec­tions in her ab­domen to sync her pe­riod with that of the re­cip­i­ent mother. For the first time in the process, Nina strug­gled: her dis­like of nee­dles made it dif­fi­cult for her to inject her­self. ‘I asked a nurse at a phar­macy to ad­min­is­ter them in­stead,’ Nina says. ‘The nurse made me feel for­tu­nate to be in the po­si­tion to do­nate my eggs, as she’d met many women who had strug­gled to con­ceive. I soon re­alised ev­ery­one has a per­sonal story to share.’ Buoyed by a sense she was do­ing the right thing, Nina had the pro­ce­dure just weeks later.

ABOUT EIGHT TO 10 EGGS WERE AB­STRACTED

vagi­nally via a suc­tion nee­dle. ‘On the day of the pro­ce­dure, I was given a lo­cal anaes­thetic, and woke up with noth­ing more than mild dis­com­fort,’ Nina says. ‘Be­fore leav­ing, the fer­til­ity spe­cial­ist said that the pro­ce­dure had gone well, and that I could ex­pect to be a lit­tle bloated and see some spot­ting for a cou­ple of days.’ With her com­pen­sa­tion cheque in her pocket, Nina was back on cam­pus the next day.

Nina is among a grow­ing num­ber of South African stu­dents who are earn­ing ex­tra money to help fund their tu­ition fees through egg do­na­tion. The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion claims there are about 60- to 80-mil­lion in­fer­til­ity cases around the world, and with the op­ti­mum age of healthy donors be­ing be­tween 18 and 34, it’s no sur­prise that stu­dents are top of the donor list for cou­ples strug­gling to con­ceive. Ac­cord­ing to Jenny Currie from Ba­by2­mom – an egg-do­na­tion agency in South Africa that has been run­ning for more than a decade – stu­dents of­ten make the per­fect egg donors. ‘Egg donors need to un­der­stand the process well to do their best as egg-donor par­tic­i­pants, there­fore some re­cip­i­ents pre­fer an ed­u­cated donor who is study­ing as a per­sonal pref­er­ence,’ says Currie. ‘Stu­dents also some­times have more time on their hands to par­tic­i­pate.’

The fi nan­cial in­cen­tive also plays a big role. The South African Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion Re­search Ethics Com­mit­tee rec­om­mends a fee of R7 000 to the egg donor per do­na­tion cy­cle, in­tended as ‘com­pen­sa­tion’ for their time and en­ergy. You can also do­nate as many times as you want – the only stip­u­la­tion is that you have at least one nor­mal cy­cle and pe­riod be­fore do­nat­ing again, and you are re­moved from the donor list af­ter your eggs re­sult in six live births.

SARAH PROUDFOOT, 34, DO­NATED TWICE IN HER 20S.

‘I went though an agency and they were fab­u­lous,’ she says. ‘I needed to an­swer a ques­tion­naire about my health his­tory and fam­ily. I was very hon­est about a few in­ci­dences of psy­chi­atric ill­ness in my fam­ily. I was asked to see their in-house psy­chol­o­gist for an assess­ment, I think in order to make sure I wasn’t go­ing to run into the delivery room scream­ing, “Give me my baby!” Once all that was done, I had a meet­ing with the gy­nae­col­o­gist, and was given a bunch of hor­mones to take on a very spe­cific cy­cle for a few weeks.

‘Both the agency and the gy­nae­col­o­gist kept in reg­u­lar con­tact to check in on me, and I had no phys­i­cal side ef­fects. The re­trieval pro­ce­dure was very easy and I was back at home less than two hours later. I felt a bit sore for a cou­ple of days, but oth­er­wise I was fi ne. Emo­tion­ally, I was ex­cited. I know that the chances aren’t great that a re­cip­i­ent will con­ceive first time, but I was hold­ing thumbs for the mom all the way. Donors are in­formed if a re­cip­i­ent car­ries to term, as you are lim­ited to the num­ber of live births you can do­nate for. Both times I do­nated, the re­cip­i­ents con­ceived and car­ried to term, and two moms have lit­tle girls be­cause I was able to help. That’s a pretty awe­some feel­ing.’

HOW­EVER, NOT ALL DONORS HAVE SUCH A POS­I­TIVE EX­PE­RI­ENCE.

Dr Li­zle Oosthuizen, a gy­nae­col­o­gist at the Cape Fer­til­ity Clinic, warns of the in­crease in un­reg­u­lated agen­cies promis­ing fast cash for eggs. ‘There are some agen­cies that en­tice young women with large pay­ments and prom­ise a state-of-the-art med­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment,’ she says. ‘There have been many re­ports of women who were kept in un­san­i­tary con­di­tions and sub­jected to dan­ger­ous treat­ments with no med­i­cal sup­port when com­pli­ca­tions arise. Stick to lo­cal agen­cies that have been rec­om­mended by a rep­utable clinic. They’ll be ac­count­able to the law in this coun­try to look af­ter you.’ Check that your agency is ac­cred­ited by the South­ern African So­ci­ety of Re­pro­duc­tive Medicine and Gy­nae­co­log­i­cal En­doscopy, and make sure you’re aware of the risks be­fore you com­mit – some­thing Nina now wishes she had done more thor­oughly.

JUST A WEEK AF­TER NINA’S PRO­CE­DURE, SHE BE­GAN TO DE­VELOP COM­PLI­CA­TIONS.

‘I fainted at univer­sity and was sent home.’ she says. ‘My friends con­vinced me to phone the fer­til­ity spe­cial­ist,

‘TWO MOMS HAVE LIT­TLE GIRLS THANKS TO ME’

and he ad­vised me to “take a headache tablet”. I had no un­der­stand­ing of the sever­ity of the symp­toms. I had wo­ken up with short­ness of breath and was too bloated to fit into my jeans. The lack of con­cern from the spe­cial­ist made me be­lieve that the dis­com­fort would even­tu­ally go away.

‘I later learnt that I had de­vel­oped ovar­ian hy­per­stim­u­la­tion syn­drome, a con­di­tion that is fairly com­mon due to the over­load of hor­mones. Hav­ing re­fused to con­tact the ap­a­thetic fer­til­ity spe­cial­ist again, and no longer able to hide the dis­com­fort from my friends and fam­ily, my mom phoned a re­spected doc­tor and I was sent straight to hos­pi­tal. My ovaries were the size of rugby balls and the big­gest con­cern was that they could twist and cut off their own blood sup­ply. I was given a short round of an­tibi­otics to en­sure there was no sec­ondary in­fec­tion, fol­lowed by two ul­tra­sound checks to make sure there was no per­ma­nent dam­age. I spent an­other two weeks at home ly­ing hor­i­zon­tally to avoid any fur­ther swelling, and mon­i­tor­ing my urine to en­sure that the other in­ter­nal or­gans hadn’t been af­fected.

‘I was so naive and hon­estly didn’t think any­thing could go wrong prior to the pro­ce­dure. Af­ter­wards, I was up­set that I hadn’t con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity of los­ing an ovary, which could’ve had a huge im­pact on my own chances of fall­ing preg­nant one day. I’m still sur­prised that the risks were not dis­cussed in de­tail and that the fer­til­ity spe­cial­ist had been so un­pro­fes­sional af­ter the pro­ce­dure.’

IN FACT, FAR FROM A FAST-CASH SCHEME,

egg do­na­tion is a med­i­cal pro­ce­dure and one that needs to be treated as such. ‘Talk­ing about com­pli­ca­tions is al­ways very scary for the pa­tient,’ Oosthuizen says. ‘It is, how­ever, our duty to make sure she knows the worst-case sce­nar­ios and can make an in­formed de­ci­sion. Com­pli­ca­tions are rare but they can hap­pen, and our donor’s safety is al­ways our pri­or­ity.

‘The ma­jor risk to egg do­na­tion is hy­per­stim­u­la­tion – when an ovary over-re­sponds to the med­i­ca­tion and pro­duces a large num­ber of fol­li­cles (the lit­tle black pock­ets of fluid that should con­tain an egg). The hor­mone over­drive that re­sults from this can cause ma­jor fluid shifts in the body, re­sult­ing in se­ri­ous clot­ting of veins, kid­ney prob­lems, fluid col­lec­tion in the ab­domen or lungs, and po­ten­tially or­gan fail­ure.’ While hy­per­stim­u­la­tion can usu­ally be treated with drugs, the real con­cern is that the donor could get preg­nant her­self – with a higher chance of a mul­ti­ple preg­nancy. For this rea­son, it’s rec­om­mended that a donor ab­stain from sex dur­ing the do­na­tion process. (Though egg do­na­tion shouldn’t af­fect your chances of con­ceiv­ing in the fu­ture – ev­ery woman is born with ap­prox­i­mately two-mil­lion eggs.)

AN­OTHER COMPLICATION IS TORSION.

‘Torsion can re­sult if the ovary twists on it­self and stran­gu­lates the blood sup­ply,’ says Oosthuizen. ‘A good clinic should be able to de­tect this early and man­age it ex­pe­di­ently. We ad­vo­cate un­twist­ing of the ovary sur­gi­cally where pos­si­ble, in­stead of the older prac­tice of re­mov­ing the ovary.’ There is also a risk of complication from the anaes­thetic dur­ing egg re­trieval, and a risk of in­fec­tion. ‘There is a small risk of in­tro­duc­ing in­fec­tion into the ab­domen when re­triev­ing the eggs,’ she adds. ‘Re­trieval is al­ways done un­der asep­tic con­di­tions, but the vagina can never be 100% ster­ile. In­fec­tion can re­sult in dam­age to the Fal­lop­ian tubes, ovaries and uterus. Se­vere pelvic in­fec­tion can re­sult in the re­moval of tubes, ovaries or the uterus [hys­terec­tomy]. Se­vere in­fec­tion can also re­sult in or­gan fail­ure and pro­longed hos­pi­tal ad­mis­sion. In order to re­duce the rare risk of pelvic in­fec­tion, the anaes­thetist will usu­ally ad­min­is­ter an an­tibi­otic in­tra­venously dur­ing the egg-col­lec­tion pro­ce­dure. There is also a risk of al­ler­gic re­ac­tions to an­tibi­otics and the donor needs to make her doc­tors aware of any al­ler­gies she may have.’

WHEN YOU CON­SIDER THE AS­SO­CI­ATED RISKS

– not to men­tion the hours of med­i­cal prob­ing, nee­dles, hor­moneal­ter­ing drugs, and time out of lec­tures at­tend­ing ap­point­ments – suc­cess­ful stu­dent donors are rarely mo­ti­vated solely by the money. ‘Peo­ple are al­ways very quick to judge donors and ac­cuse them of only do­ing it for the money,’ says Anna*, a stu­dent who do­nated twice in her early 20s. ‘But I think they for­get ex­actly how much of an in­tense back-and-forth process do­nat­ing eggs is. Yes, the money is a bonus, and I’ve heard of many stu­dents who man­aged to pay off debt and put de­posits down thanks to their egg do­na­tions. But more than that, I felt that I’d been able to give the gift of life to some­one out there who was strug­gling to have a baby. I’m not re­li­gious, so I felt like I ac­tu­ally had a pur­pose. It would be in­sin­cere of me to say the money isn’t a motivating fac­tor, but if I have man­aged to help some­one have a child, and I get some com­pen­sa­tion for it, is it re­ally such a big deal?’

PROUDFOOT’S REA­SONS FOR DO­NAT­ING ARE FAR MORE COM­PLEX

than earn­ing a quick buck. She has al­ways known she didn’t want chil­dren of her own, but wanted to help other women who are strug­gling to con­ceive. ‘In my mid20s, I had ac­ci­den­tally fallen preg­nant twice while on the Pill, and had mis­car­ried early in the preg­nancy both times. I’d al­ready de­cided that I didn’t want to have chil­dren – a po­si­tion I still hold at 34. Even though I didn’t want kids, I grieved the mis­car­riages ter­ri­bly, and I gained a lit­tle in­sight into what it must be like for peo­ple who re­ally want chil­dren. I de­cided I wanted to do­nate eggs – partly be­cause I wanted to help an­other woman be­come a mom, and partly be­cause it felt like rec­ti­fy­ing the bal­ance of the two lit­tle lives I lost.’

For Nina, who ad­mits she was ini­tially en­ticed by the prom­ise of R7 000, it be­came about much more than that. ‘My cousin lost her baby be­cause of ovar­ian can­cer, and I was struck by how sad it is that some women are un­able to fall preg­nant,’ she says. ‘I knew that I’d re­ceive com­pen­sa­tion for the do­na­tion, but the events af­ter the pro­ce­dure over­shadow my mem­o­ries of any fi­nan­cial motivation. I learnt so much from the ex­pe­ri­ence – and I do re­ally hope the re­cip­i­ent’s IVF treat­ment was suc­cess­ful, which would make it all worth­while.’

THE SOUTH AFRICAN MED­I­CAL AS­SO­CI­A­TION RE­SEARCH ETHICS COM­MIT­TEE REC­OM­MENDS A FEE OF R7 000 TO THE EGG DONOR PER CY­CLE

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