Egg donation is loosely regulated in the United States, making it difficult to know how many women donate eggs, why they do it and what their experiences are like. A study published in the current issue of the journal Fertility and Sterility shows that two-thirds of egg donors are satisfied with the process but the other third expressed some difficulties.
The study, from the University of Washington, examined 80 women from 20 states who had donated eggs from two to 15 years earlier. Participants, whose average age was 30, completed a detailed questionnaire. The researchers found that 16% of women complained of subsequent physical symptoms and 20% reported lasting psychological effects after donation. The physical complaints included bloating, pain, cramping, ovarian hyperstimulation, mood changes, weight gain or weight loss. Several women claimed the process damaged their ovaries, leading to a decrease or loss of fertility.
Psychological repercussions were feelings of attachment to the eggs or to the potential or resulting offspring, concern that a resulting child may want to have a relationship with them and stress resulting from the process. Some complained of being treated callously by clinic staff.
Egg donors are often college students, and they are paid an average of almost $4,000 for their services. The study showed that women who said they were motivated to donate for the money had less satisfying experiences compared with women who said they donated for altruistic reasons. About 19% said their motivations were purely financial and 32% said they just wanted to help others. The remainder of the women said both factors motivated them to donate.
"We were asking these women years later and a feeling of helping may last longer than money," said the study's lead author, psychologist Nancy Kenney, in a news release. "We know if clinics don't offer money, most women won't donate. Great Britain, where there is no paid egg donation program, for example, has a tremendous shortage of donors. But, as one of our donors said, 'If you do this just for money, you'll be sorry.' "
The study also found that a large number of women were not aware of the possible physical risks related to donation. Twenty percent said they did not recall being made aware of the physical risks at the time of their first donation. Young women, in particular, may not fully comprehend the risks, Kenney says. "Risks don't mean much to young women . . . If you are 25 and are told that something may cause cancer when you are 45 that may seem to be forever." More of the women reported being aware of the potential psychological risks.
The study seems particularly relevant during the current economic downturn, as more women might be considering egg donation as a way to make money. One Los Angeles infertility clinic employee I spoke with recently said the number of women enlisting as egg donors has quadrupled in recent months.
-- Shari Roan
Photo: Follicula fluid containing an egg. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times