Fertility clinics or agencies recruit young women to become egg donors for individuals or couples who want to use in vitro fertilization (IVF). Egg providers play a key role in international commercial surrogacy: While intended mothers may provide the eggs, third-party eggs are also commonly used with gestational surrogacy. However, the stories and experiences of egg providers are rarely discussed.
Who Is Targeted?
In the United States, ads geared toward college-age students appear in campus newspapers, on public transportation, and on social media carrying messages such as: “Donate your eggs and give the gift of life.” Most egg providers are in their 20s; many of them need money for tuition or to pay off debt.
Providing eggs is a significant process that can have both short-term and long-term health effects, yet clinics or agencies rarely offer or explain the comprehensive information needed for egg providers to make fully informed medical decisions.
Egg Retrieval Process
The egg retrieval process spans several weeks of injections and frequent clinic visits for ultrasounds and blood tests. The injections include one hormonal drug to suppress normal ovarian functioning (often Lupron, which was initially approved to treat prostate cancer), another to hyper-stimulate the ovaries to produce more eggs than usual, and a third to finalize the maturation of eggs and trigger ovulation. The eggs are then surgically retrieved using ultrasound aspiration or laparoscopy.
Few people are aware of the risks to egg providers or that very little research has been conducted on the long-term safety of the hormonal stimulation process involved.
Known and Unknown Risks
While there has been very little systematic study of the long-term risks associated with the drugs used in egg — retrieval despite repeated calls for such research — a number of concerning side effects have been reported. These include skin rashes and non-inflammatory joint pain, hypertension, and liver function abnormality. A large number of serious long-term health problems have been reported to the US Food and Drug Administration by individuals who believe the adverse effects are associated with Lupron. Insufficient research has been conducted to determine whether egg provision is associated with certain cancers such as uterine, colon, breast, ovarian, or endometrial cancers.
Short-term risks associated with egg retrieval include infection, bleeding, and anesthesia complications. Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS) is another risk, which causes the ovaries to become swollen and painful. The effects of OHSS depend on whether it’s a mild, moderate or severe case, and may include rapid weight gain, abdominal pain, vomiting, shortness of breath and, in rare cases, death.
Groups Tracking the Health and Experiences of Egg Donors
Infertility Family Research Registry
The Infertility Family Research Registry (IFRR) based at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, New Hampshire, is a voluntary national registry that tracks the health of egg providers who choose to enroll. The IFRR also tracks the health of sperm donors and women undergoing in vitro fertilization. Yet most fertility clinics do not provide information about the IFRR to clients. As a result, most people using fertility services do not know it exists.
We Are Egg Donors
We Are Egg Donors is the first advocacy group for egg providers created by egg providers. The group calls for more research and greater participation in the IFRR, conducts interviews with egg providers, and collects information about their experiences.
Watch co-founder Raquel Cool and members of the network share their experiences and concerns related to egg retrieval, from the risks associated with high numbers of eggs produced to the absence of data on health outcomes.
In a personal account, co-founder Raquel Cool describes the organization’s commitment to ensuring that egg providers are informed, supported, safe, and connected to agencies that will advocate for them. In a candid photo essay, Christine, a first-time egg donor, walks us through every step of her egg retrieval journey. In an interview describing efforts to access her medical records from the clinic, Rae cautions that egg providers may not be protected by HIPAA (the United States legislation that provides data privacy and security provisions for safeguarding medical information). Lauren shares their experience of stigma, as a queer egg provider navigating a heteronormative medical space, while Carter shares hers as an egg provider for someone in her family.
For more information on risks to egg donors, informed consent, and egg donation practices, see:
- The incidence of both serious and minor complications in young women undergoing oocyte donation
- Risk disclosure and the recruitment of oocyte donors: Are advertisers telling the full story?
- Conflicts of interest and effective oversight of assisted reproduction using donated oocytes
- Experts call for greater scrutiny of egg donation practices