The case for egg donation: why it should be seen in a good light. By Tertia Albertyn
Some say it is tantamount to exploitation of women’s bodies. The uninformed accuse those who participate of ‘selling their bodies’. The activity that is evoking such harsh and often over emotional reactions has nothing to do with hooking, taking a life, pornography, posing naked, stripping, or even – believe it or not – beauty pageants.
Surprisingly and rather ironically, those old staples of dubious morality have temporarily been swept aside by critics in favour of what many regard to be one of the ultimate acts of compassion and kindness: Egg donation. And just so we’re clear; we’re not talking about giving your breakfast grub to a hungrier person here.
But just in case you were thinking that, here’s a quick primer: Egg donation is a process through which a young woman voluntarily donates some of her eggs (ova) to be used during third party fertility treatments. These donated eggs are eggs which would normally be discarded as part of a woman’s monthly cycle. Instead of being ‘flushed away’ each month, in an egg donation cycle these eggs are retrieved by a fertility specialist, fertilized in a laboratory with the intended father’s sperm (or donor sperm) and placed into the womb of the intended mother (or surrogate) a few days later. Recipients of these donated eggs are women who have lost their ovaries to cancer or who have suffered premature ovarian failure. Or same-sex male couples who obviously need an egg donor in order to have their family. The amount of women out there who need help to conceive is staggering. The World Health Organisation estimates that there are currently approximately 60-80 million infertility cases around the world.
Egg donation in South Africa is 100% legal and strictly regulated by the Policy Committee of the South African Society of Reproductive Science and Surgery. Suitable donors are healthy, young women over the age of 21 from[T1] any ethnicity and background. Unlike in many other countries, donors in South Africa remain anonymous, with merely her medical history, education, and description of physical features, characteristics, her interests, etc. being revealed to prospective donor egg recipients. She never meets or makes contact with the recipients. Only baby photographs of the donor are submitted. Although most recipient couples choose a donor that somewhat resembles the future mother, recipient couples make their final selection based on various criteria which could include a physical match, a personality match, an academic match or a combination of these factors. In South Africa, egg donors receive some money for their time and effort. This is often the cause for the stigma and misconceptions that surround egg donation. This is where the critics cry ‘exploitation!’ However, what the detractors fail to realise is that the amount paid (which is R5 000) has been carefully assessed and determined to essentially cover the incidentals that the donor will incur, such as getting to and from the clinic during her participation in the donor programme. Although the money certainly helps, it is definitely not the motivating factor, and egg donors donate out of sheer kindness and to make a genuine difference in someone else’s life. R5,000 is not exploitation, it is reasonable compensation for the time, effort and expense involved in this selfless act of generosity.
This is exactly what inspired Janet (not her real name) to become an egg donor. After she had filled out an application with Cape Town-based egg donor agency Grace Donors (gracedonors.co.za), she was accepted and registered to the agency and placed on their donor list. Two months later, she was thrilled by the news that she had been selected by recipients to be their donor: “I really, really wanted to be able to help someone achieve their most yearned for dream, and they chose ME.”
Donating eggs has no effect on a donor’s future ability to conceive, since those eggs would have gone to waste anyway during her menstrual cycle. This was another factor that prompted Janet to donate: “I am not using my eggs, they are literally flushed down the toilet now… I don’t see or think of them as babies, but as potentials. They are part of the ingredients needed to make a baby, but on their own, they are nothing.”
And what about the donor process itself? All the medical stuff? First off, the donor does not pay for any of the medical procedures or scans that the she has to go through relating to the donation. It is all funded by the recipients. The actual process of donation involves going on the pill for a month, followed by two weeks of hormonal treatment which culminates in the egg retrieval process.
One question that prospective donors always ask is whether there are any risks involved in egg donation. According to Grace Donors’s website, it carries some risk, just like all medical procedures do. The primary risk is a condition called Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome (OHSS), but it is extremely rare and occurs in less than 1% of all donations. It is caused by the ovary producing too many eggs as a result of the drug stimulation. OHSS can vary from mild to severe. Donors are closely monitored to check that everything is in order throughout the donation process and to prevent OHSS from happening.
The other misconception that abounds is that by donating eggs, these young woman are somehow ‘using up’ their supply of eggs, which means they will run out by the time they themselves want to have a child – not true! Each month the ovaries produce eggs, whether you donate them or not.
As for possible pain and discomfort: During the egg extraction procedure, the egg donor is placed under conscious sedation, which feels like a deep sleep. Janet said afterwards, when she woke up in recovery, she felt okay. “I was a bit dozy but otherwise felt pretty okay. After a while I felt some period type cramping, but nothing really more than that. It was most likely from the mirena anyway.” (Janet had used a mirena as birth control beforehand and had to have it removed during the donation process. Right after the extraction, while she was still under anaesthetics, it was replaced free of charge.)
“All in all, the experience has been far easier than I expected and not bad at all.”
Two weeks later, Grace Donors informed Janet that her donation had resulted in the ultimate gift, and that her donor recipient was pregnant. “I feel so honoured and privileged to have been allowed to be part of something so very special and important and life changing.”
For more information about becoming an egg donor, visit the Grace Donors website gracedonors.co.za
[T1]21 and over. Not over 21