When in college, everybody needs money. I remember the meatheads on the men's rugby team piling their sweaty bodies into the college van and driving down to the sperm and blood banks, where their donations earned them enough money to buy two kegs of Pabst. This second-hand experience was all I knew of donating genetic material before stumbling on to the website for Shelley Smith's Egg Donation Program. I knew that for a small amount of sperm and blood, the boys had earned roughly $50, so when I discovered that one could earn $5000 for donating a single, fertile, human egg, I knew I had hit the jackpot.
However, the dollar signs dancing in my eyes were momentarily silenced after I read the website's promise that egg donation would be also be a "morally fulfilling experience." I remember one particularly meaty rugby player telling me that he felt, physically, "like shit" after his donation (probably due more to the loss of plasma than the sperm). He never said anything about any "moral fulfillment."
"There is a large concentration of wonderful and accomplished young women in Southern California, who are willing and able to share their fertility with others," reads the website for Shelley Smith's Egg Donation Program, out of Beverly Hills. "Almost without exception, the donors who have participated in the program have reported having an excellent experience which has been deeply moving and rewarding for them."
Every month, 26-32 women apply to sell their eggs at Shelley Smith's Egg Donation Program by filling out a lengthy written application, sending photos of themselves, and answering extensive interview questions about every aspect of their lives: how their grandparents died, what kind of art they appreciate, how tall their siblings are, if cancer or alcoholism runs in their family. If accepted, they are placed in the "donor profile" database. Infertile couples who come to the program "shop" for a donor that best matches them. The egg is removed from the female donor's body, joined with the male recipient's sperm, and placed into the female recipient. For these people, egg donation is often the last resort. These are couples who have been through years of hormone therapy, counseling, and miscarriages.
Whether or not the donor actually meets the recipients of her eggs is up to the each donor/recipient pair, but the donor can be sure that someone will be looking at her picture, checking her against the recipient's family genetics. After the donor is selected, she undergoes a three-month hormonal treatment before being flown to one of Shelley Smith's partner clinics in Boston or Seattle. There, she and a friend are given $100 a day, a car, and a week's paid vacation before checking into the clinic, where her egg is surgically extracted in a half-hour session. The entire procedure takes less than a day, and apart from a little soreness, has almost no side effects. The donor then receives her check for $5000.
"Although the standards for the program are high, there are numerous donors on file," the text on the website reads. "A typical donor would be between 21-32 years of age, have an excellent health history and a very personal, humanitarian reason for wanting to donate. She would have some years of schooling or a master's degree, a career, and would range from attractive to strikingly beautiful."
In addition to the strange emphasis on moral fulfillment, I discovered a few other qualities that set Shelley Smith's program apart from others: Most programs simply want healthy, non-smoking young women, rather than beautiful, brilliant ones. The literature for the Center for Reproductive Medicine in Portland, for example, simply states they "are seeking healthy women between the ages of 21-32 years who are interested in helping other women by their participation in the program." It goes on to lay out some simple rules like requiring egg donors to be generally fit, but nowhere does it specify that they must look a certain way. Shelley Smith's program, however, wants both beauty and brains--they're breeding designer children, a concept I had trouble getting a grasp on. If a woman were a supermodel, why would she be fulfilled by donating her eggs? I mean, wouldn't her time be better spent on, say, a beach clean up? Because I was curious (and because they paid more--our local clinic's puny fee is $1000) I decided to choose this facility, and find out if my own morals, eggs, beauty, and brains would make the cut.
Two Eggs and My Brother Sperm
The application packet arrived on my desk in a thick manila envelope, and the cover letter read "Dear Katia" (my name had been written in the blank). "Thank you for your interest in the egg donor program, which helps infertile couples to conceive and bear their own child. It was established in 1991 and has since facilitated more than 1,000 donations." Along with the letter was a 10-page application form, another five pages of extensive medical explanation on the procedure of egg removal itself, and a few photocopied articles about Shelley Smith, the sole founder and president of the organization. "I know that it will be extremely gratifying to you to know that you were able to make someone's dream of having a child come true," she wrote before signing off.
The information accompanying Shelley Smith's application painted Shelley Smith as a compassionate woman, a woman who "wanted to make something positive out of her own pain." A grainy photo was attached, featuring a tall, boringly beautiful woman clasping two 3-foot children--twins. The article tells the story of Shelley Smith, the lovely blond model, who went from the pages of Vogue and Marie Claire to two failed TV series before she awoke in 1991 "from a dream knowing her mission: to start an egg-donor program." It was during this time that Smith also found success with her own infertility problems. After countless miscarriages, Smith used donor eggs and her own brother's sperm to carry a full-term, twin pregnancy in 1995. The personal rewards motivated her to continue facilitating the program. "I wanted to make the process personal and gentle and rewarding for both sides," says Smith in the article.
Aside from the following sentence: "The donor fee is $5000," the application packet made no reference to the financial rewards that the program guarantees each donor. It did, however, continue to play the moral enrichment card, with dozens of letters from previous recipients. All of them read something like this: "Dear (name blanked out): What you are doing for us is the purest act of unconditional kindness and selflessness that either of us have personally experienced in our lifetime. For us, you are a true testimony of goodness in this world." There were letters from donors as well, that read with equal conviction and dedication.
Climbing Into My Genes
I resolved to fill out the application form with complete sincerity. Under the category "general information," I told them my height (5'3"), eye color (brown), bust size (medium) religion (none), ethnic origin (Irish), number of children (0), number of abortions (0) and occupation (editor/writer). They wanted to know my academic background, the number of siblings, the number of deceased relatives and their cause of death, and things I didn't even know (my blood type, how many people in my extended family had died of cancer).
Though somewhat daunting, these genetic inquires made sense--in the donation, I would be passing along my genetic material, so they obviously needed to know as much about my DNA as possible. Yet, the deeper I delved into the application, the more the questions deviated from my genetic hardwiring to my personality.
"Do you have any plans on furthering your education? Please give details," was the first question. But they were just getting warmed up. "Questions 74-91 are a variety of general questions that will assist us in knowing who you are and how we can fulfill your expectations. Please answer these questions as truthfully and completely as possible. It is better to write down what comes to mind immediately rather than pondering your answers," read the heading. "Please describe your personality and character," went the first question, which was followed by "What is your philosophy on life" and "What is your favorite book, song, and TV program?"
From the time I was born, my parents told me I would go to college. In fact, I remember having the incredulous realization, at the age of 15, that college was not--like high school--a mandatory, state-funded requirement. By the time I was 18, it wasn't a question of if I would go, but where. When I was jotting down my favorite book, song, and TV program, I couldn't help but wonder what the hell my artistic tastes had to do with my genetics. Isn't it a given that the reason I went to college is that my parents assumed I would? And the reason my favorite book is Salinger's Franny and Zooey is that my father gave me a copy of the book when I was 12?
But then again, there's the issue of my parents, who grew up in the Midwest--Gary, Indiana, to be specific. My mom had five brothers and sisters and was stuck at home cooking green beans out of a can, taking care of her youngest brother while her parents went to work in the steel mills. When she was 19, she decided she had to change her life. She and my dad were barely able to pay their way through college--their first apartment had astro-turf instead of carpet. Why they're the only members of their family to leave the Midwest and go to college and is, I guess, unknown. Was it a matter of genetic programming? Or did their environment drive them to it?
This is, obviously, a question scientists and anthropologists have been debating for years. Is gender determined by genetics? Or is it hormonal? Are gay people born gay?
Shelley Smith's program fell squarely on the side of nature, as every one of my interests and decisions seemed to have an effect on my application. I started to get extremely paranoid about my answers. What would an ideal egg recipient be like? Should I try to be smart, or funny? Impressive or humble? I felt like I was filling out a personal ad. By the time I finished the application, I wanted to become an egg donor more than I cared to admit. I wanted to be worthy.
What Is This? Therapy?
The final stage of my application was the interview, which I did over the phone with a woman from Shelley Smith's office.
Courtney, who had a chipper, baby-sweet kind of voice, introduced herself as Shelley's nurse. We started off with some of the same questions I'd answered in the written application--What would I like the recipients of my eggs to know about me? Would it be okay if they kept in touch? How could my recipient parents be sure I wouldn't try to contact them later in life? Did I have regular menstrual cycles? How many sexual partners had I had in the last year? After some basic questions, I was passed on to Wendy, the other nurse, who wanted answers to basically the same application questions, except in even more detail. She wanted to know what my relationship with my father was like. Was I closer to him or my mother? What was my family dynamic like, growing up? "I feel like I'm in therapy," I told her at one point.
Wendy was actually very nice, telling me all about her own experiences donating eggs (almost all of the nurses who work for Shelley are donors themselves). Wendy and her recipient had, remarkably, the very same favorite movie--Raising Arizona, and according to Wendy, the two had looked a lot alike as well. When I asked her why my philosophy on life was relevant, she seemed not to have thought about it much. "Well, we just like to match people with similar interests," she told me. When I pointed out that my decision to go to college had more to do with my class affiliation than my genetics, she didn't seem to understand. "Well," she said. "Of course, it's not necessary that you've been to college. We do take women who have been to trade school."
Having My Baby
Recently, I was having breakfast with two friends of mine, a couple. It was a nice morning in Portland, cold and clear, and I was having my usual two fried eggs and toast. "Well," my friend said after we'd ordered. "We might need you to take care of the dogs again in May." Though the subject was mundane, I could sense something foreign and fantastic between them, something totally exclusive. "Because we're going to be in the hospital, having a baby," he said, breaking into a broad smile he had been trying to hold in. And though I was happy for them, I was no more moved than if he'd told me they were going on a trip to Guatemala. Kids are just one of those things older people do, I thought. Everyone has them sooner or later.
But when I walked into the hospital the day after Malaki was born, I found myself nearly in tears just looking at his little hand. It was his size that really killed me. I never knew humans could be that tiny and still be real. There was a calm satisfaction about Malaki's parents that I'd never seen in them. They'd been awake for two days in labor, the mom was barely stitched together after a caesarian, and all they'd eaten was applesauce and crappy hospital pasta. But they were completely content just to stare at their baby for hours. And I was so ecstatic and overcome I could only stand there and stare alongside them, barely able to say a few cliché lines of congratulations.
Growing up, I was always the only little girl who never wanted kids and never wanted to get married. All my friends wanted to play house--I wanted to play tag in the street. There was nothing more depressing to me than the sight of a mother with three crying kids, in line for swimming lessons. What I wanted instead, was a job. In sixth grade, after I learned there had never been a woman president, I hoped there still wouldn't be when I was grown, so I could be the first.
But looking at Malaki that day, I had a rush of understanding. Maybe, if what was most important to me was the value of someone else's life, then having a child would be a kind of humanitarian cause--much more so than having some job. If this was true, then I'd know why my parents had freaked out when I got into that car accident when I was 16, and why my dad always hated my boyfriends, and why, as cheesy as it sounds, every child, no matter how ugly or bratty or lazy, would always be important to someone. What a relief it was, I realized, to know someone was so much more important than you. "I just look at him in amazement sometimes," Malaki's father told me a few weeks after the birth. "I think about all the mistakes I've made, and I can't believe he's got his whole life in front of him. He's got so much opportunity. He can do anything he wants."
My Child: JD Salinger or Jeffrey Dahmer?
Since egg donation is such a new medical phenomenon, there's no telling what will happen in the future. "What if I get a knock on my door in 18 years, and it's someone who looks just like me?" I asked Wendy. "Well," she said, "we really don't know. The first children to ever come from egg donation are still only 13."
Legally, there's absolutely no way for women to reclaim her eggs after they've been donated. But what if, 18 years from now, I meet someone who looks just like me, and maybe they're the world's next JD Salinger, or Madonna, or some other prodigy I'd feel equally proud to have spawned? I would probably never be able to give a child up for adoption. However, if I could find a way to get over any legal or moral responsibility, and still know I had a child out there, I think I'd have an amazing sense of accomplishment--ego, even. Shelley Smith's program, I realized, was just giving people the ability to feel part of something great. And by assuming you could actually give someone the gift of being, say, a beauty queen, or a valedictorian, then you'd be all the more important.
My application now sits in a file with thousands of other applications. It's incomplete, because I started to feel guilty about exploiting the program for money, rather than acting on a sincere desire to donate. And I started realizing I'm not sure if I want to risk the regret. What if I saw the kid on the news someday--a serial killer or rapist?
If I do, one day, decide to sign the forms and enter the next stage, I'll have to wait for a family to choose me--probably a family who has already tried everything, a family who also likes JD Salinger or has an Irish background. As for the financial incentive, "the money is just enough to convince people who might do it anyway, and not enough to have people do it for the wrong reasons," Wendy told me. I guess those rugby boys would've donated their sperm for a keg of Pabst, but putting this kind of premium on a woman's eggs makes the woman feel all the more responsible and valuable. I certainly did.
Shelley's Smith's program can be accessed at www.eggdonation.com