Egg donation organizations know that the price tag of a Barnard or Columbia degree threatens students’ financial futures. They advertise all over campus—on bulletin boards in Hamilton and Butler, and frequently in the classifieds section of Spectator.
Their ads seek to draw in student donors with alluring sums of money and the chance to give another woman a child, invoking a sense of altruistic sisterhood. But unlike drug advertisements, which are legally required to list side effects, ads in this largely unregulated industry omit the wide array of possible medical dangers of donating eggs.
What the posters plastered across campus fail to advertise is the physically taxing, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous process egg donors undergo. Should you answer an advertisement, you go through a rigorous selection process with a psychological evaluation, and if chosen, you receive an intense series of hormone injections to stimulate your ovaries to release a surplus of eggs. A woman normally ovulates only one matured egg per cycle, but with these hormones, her ovary will release about a dozen. The resultant surfeit of eggs is then surgically extracted by inserting a needle through the vaginal wall.
The whole process lasts about two months, according to MyDonor.net (the website to which the ad in Spec’s Feb. 14 classifieds section directs you) but may take longer, especially if you require recovery time from complications. Unpleasant side effects may arise during or after the procedure. The heavy hormone doses are likely to take a physical and psychological toll—much like extreme PMS—on many donors. Some women will suffer from Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome, which in its mildest form may cause abdominal fluid buildup and nausea. In its severest form, it can lead to difficulty breathing, kidney failure, and severe blood clotting. Like other surgical procedures, the extraction of the eggs also poses a small but undeniable risk of reaction to anesthesia or bleeding out.
A poster is only a poster, but even the information given at a clinic is not necessarily reliable, objective, or comprehensive. Clinics are trying to draw donors in, and thus have a financial incentive to downplay the risks of side effects like OHSS. For example, the advertisement in Spec’s classifieds for MyDonor.net assesses OHSS as “relatively rare (1-3% of IVF cases).” This statistic, however, is an oversimplification and underestimation. While severe OHSS is estimated to have a frequency of 0.1 to 2 percent, moderate cases occur in 3 to 6 percent and mild in 20 to 33 percent of IVF cycles. Out of 155 respondents to a survey organized by the Donor Sibling Registry, “30.3% of egg donors reported some degree of OHSS, which in 11.6% required hospitalization.”
MyDonor.net brushes OHSS off as an insignificant rarity, and denies the possibility of future infertility, despite the fact that the Donor Sibling Registry report had 9.6 percent of respondents reporting an infertility problem. And MyDonor.net never mentions the uncertainties regarding cancer, which, as a long-term risk of egg donation, has yet to be fully researched. Egg donation has only existed for about 30 years, and while the short-term effects are being researched, it’s difficult to gauge the long-term danger of something that is fairly new on the medical scene.
Although there have been only isolated reports suggesting a connection to cancer, no large-scale, long-term study has been attempted. This is partly due to the absence of official routes for systematically following up on donors for decades. Without government regulation and research, these waters will probably remain uncharted for some time to come, and therefore risky for Columbia students to navigate.
None of this is to say that egg donors will be hospitalized for OHSS, get ovarian cancer 30 years from now, or be unable to bear children. But clinics have a financial interest in underplaying potential risks, and no incentive to follow up with their donors to track their health. This is not limited to websites like MyDonor.net; others, like RMA of New York and New England Egg Donor also provide incomplete health risk information. We just do not know all of the medical ramifications of this relatively new technology, and the field of knowledge is a lot murkier and messier than an advertisement to a cash-strapped Columbia student might suggest.
The prescription: Get second opinions. Read as much on the subject as you can. Speak to OB-GYNs who have no financial involvement in the field of egg donation. Should you answer one of the advertisements around campus, don’t rely on the information the clinic gives you, but find sources you trust and realize that even their information, without the backup of significant long-term epidemiological studies, is limited. Carefully consider it: Is $8,000 worth risking your health and your own future fertility?
Rachel Hainline is a Columbia College junior majoring in biology. Rebecca Meyer is a Columbia College junior majoring in biology and history.
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