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With the fertility industry pumping out more than 20,000 babies each year, it's no longer odd to see ads offering women thousands of dollars for their eggs. What's strange is seeing such ads in movie theaters. Yet, slip into the Loew's theaters at Broadway and 19th Street, Third Avenue and 11th Street, or Kips Bay Plaza a few minutes before showtime and that's just what you'll find.
Mixed in with the screen scramblers and trivia questions is a slide advising female viewers interested in donating their reproductive cells (and collecting enough cash to buy a truckload of popcorn along the way) to call 1-877-BABYMAKERS. The ad, run by the Offices for Fertility and Reproductive Medicine, a private practice in the East Village, features three babies' backsides one black, one white, and another of a tannish hue.
That such messages have made it to the big screen reflect and maybe foster a certain comfort with the growing egg trade. But far-reaching calls for egg donors, which have also sprung up on the Internet, signal the expansion of an already troubling industry. Egg donation has spawned a new economy, and on the sleaziest end of this barely regulated market, desirable genes can cost up to $50,000. Above-board fertility programs are forced to advertise far and wide to keep up with less scrupulous competition.
Despite the rainbow of pudgy flesh onscreen, the egg business is taking place mostly among wealthy whites, who are more likely to be able to come up with the roughly $20,000 to finance the test-tube-baby-making process with a donor egg. Note that you won't find such ads in the outer boroughs, only in select Manhattan locations. Indeed OFRM like most egg donations nationwide is primarily in search of white donors.
You wouldn't have seen such an ad 15 years ago, when the first baby created with a donated egg was born. But somewhere along the way, egg donation has mutated from a freakish, technological what-if into an option routinely offered to women who lack working eggs or ovaries. There were 5162 egg transfers done in 1996 (the year of the most recent data), and the "take-home baby rate," or chances that the procedure will produce a real, live person, has climbed to almost 40 percent.
The problem is how to come up with enough eggs. And that is where the movie theaters and magazines and Web sites come in. Sensitive to charges that they are selling body parts, the industry has suggested limits on payments to donors, oxymoronically referred to as "donation fees." That means that, despite the fact that a few renegade individuals have offered as much as $50,000 for the right egg, compensation from aboveboard egg donation programs in New York hovers around $5000. It's a hefty sum when compared to the $50 sperm donors earn, though not so hefty when you consider the month of doctors' appointments, physical and psychological tests, and drug-taking donors have to undergo, not to mention the possibility that the drugs involved could increase the risk of ovarian cancer and other medical complications.
Most programs insist that donors be under 30, tattoo- and piercing-free, healthy, and, of course, fertile. After they make the first cut, donors are subjected to genetic screening, psychological testing, and questions about their education and personal life. Some programs even do a criminal background check.
So unappealing is the donor experience and so rigorous the screening process that the vast majority of women who call about the ads never end up donating. Dr. Alan Copperman, director of Mt. Sinai's reproductive endocrinology program, says the last 1100 phone calls the program received from potential candidates yielded a mere 12 donors.
So fertility specialists are casting the net wide. Mt. Sinai advertises in Back Stage and New York Press. The St. Barnabas Medical Center advertises regularly in New York. OFRM has run ads in the Voice, as well as in the theaters. And many programs have set up sites on the Web.
Among independent donors and recipients (who, since they're not businesses, have no need to abide by the fertility industry's voluntary guidelines), the advertising gets even creepier. Take the student who says she is studying for her law degree and Ph.D. at an Ivy League law school and boasts "my SAT score was 1410, ACT 34, GRE 2260, and LSAT 171. . . . I am an accomplished writer and have published in my field. . . . I compose and arrange music. I also act, speak in public, draw, paint, and make jewelry. . . . I hold a third degree brown belt in karate and am training for my black belt. . . . I have a dimple in each cheek, but no birthmarks."
Then there's the "High-IQ Egg Donor Wanted" ad, encountered on www.donador.com/info: "You should have or be working on a university degree from a world-class university, you should have high standardized test scores, and preferably some outstanding achievements and awards."
Established fertility doctors tend to look down on such Wild West approaches to procuring eggs. "We would never participate in that," says OFRM's Dr. Cecilia Schmidt-Sarosi. "That's counterproductive to the whole spirit of those of us who do egg donation." Instead, they're considering running their ads in more theaters.