‘I Sold My Eggs for Cash’
South African students are finding new ways to fund their degrees
‘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