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Women paid to donate eggs to infertile couples see win-win

By Camille C. Spencer
St. Petersburg, Florida (AP) 12-07

Rebekah Ferrari used her $21,000 to pay for her kids to go to private school.

Jaclyn Baker paid off $10,000 in debt.

And Mandy Lawson hopes to bank a few thousand bucks.

These three women are among thousands ages 21 to 30 profiting from the business of donating eggs to infertile couples eager to have a child.

“Point blank, it’s the issue of money,” said Baker, a three-time egg donor. “When you’re not in the position to have children, why not help somebody else out? I’m not going to use these eggs.”

Prospective donors place online profiles with fertility agencies, disclosing childhood photos, IQ scores, weight and SATs.

The goal: to be smart and pretty enough to be chosen. That’s because young, attractive, college-educated women with a history of successful donations are often paid thousands more than the $3,000 basic fee for a 15-minute procedure.

It’s fertility’s version of Let’s Make a Deal.

About 10,000 babies a year are born from donated eggs, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

But the business has opened itself to criticism. Religious leaders say egg donors are playing God. Other critics wonder about the potential for incestuous relationships when children born from the eggs begin to date and marry.

Five-time egg donor Ferrari argues that the money she has made has benefited infertile families in addition to her bank account.

“I really needed the money, so I looked into it,” said Ferrari, 33. “I thought, ‘I’ve got a gazillion eggs I’m never going to use that someone else can.”’

Women in their 20s, with high fertility rates and healthy eggs, are often recruited in college newspaper ads or courted by fertility agencies.

Sarasota-based Open Arms Consultants has about 200 donors, said Souad Dreyfus, one of the owners. In the past three years, she said, the agency has seen the number of donors increase, surpassing its number of surrogate clients.

“It’s the quick in and out, as opposed to being committed for a year,” she said. “With donors, it’s like shopping for the perfect genetics for your child. You want someone smart, with a high IQ, tall and beautiful.”

The women willing to undergo this process are as different as their DNA. Just look at some of the profiles.

One is German and Italian, with long brown hair and a bright smile. She is 5 feet 4, weighs 138 pounds and is 24 years old, with a degree in management information systems.

Then there’s the petite 25-year-old who is pursuing a master’s degree in sports management. She is black and American Indian, with dark brown hair and a welcoming grin.

Look further to find the blue-eyed, blond Texan. She is 23 and an experienced donor. She is 5 feet 4 and weighs 115 pounds. She is American Indian, German, Irish and Russian, pursuing an advanced degree in psychology.

Methods vary, but most donors follow an involved process.

First, the potential donor fills out a questionnaire that asks her age, weight, height, medical problems and whether she has donated before. Psychological screenings and blood work follow.

Once approved, the agency places her profile into an online database. It includes a childhood photo, a recent photo, and information on her education and ethnicity.

Once chosen, the donor and the infertile couple sign a contract that makes the couple responsible for paying for the donor’s medications and doctor’s appointments.

The donor takes a month of birth control to regulate her menstrual cycle. The purpose is to coordinate the egg donor’s cycle with the recipient of her eggs, increasing the likelihood of pregnancy.

Then come a few weeks of injecting a drug called Lupron to stimulate the eggs, and ultrasounds to see how many can be retrieved.

The day she donates, at the agency or a clinic chosen by the infertile couple, the egg donor is sedated during the retrieval. Using a thin needle, a doctor removes about 15 eggs, freezing them to use later.

Donors say there’s minimal discomfort or side effects.

By day’s end, the check is in the mail.

Five donations - the maximum set by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine to avoid overexposure to fertility medications - earned Ferrari enough cash to help put a down payment on a house and pay for her kids’ book fees and uniforms.

In 2003, Ferrari was a single mother of four working for a marketing company when she decided to become an egg donor.

A few months after placing her profile on a popular egg donor and surrogate site called www.surromomsonline.com, Ferrari - petite and pretty, with long dark hair and an IQ of 142 - was chosen.

Ferrari, who also was once a surrogate mother, estimates she’s donated about 60 eggs in all.

That number causes her to wonder about the next few years, when her kids start dating someone who could be related to them.

“The odds are low, but it’s something to be aware of,” said Ferrari, 33, who keeps records of when she donated eggs. “That’s why they have limitations and built-in protocols, for ethical reasons. But that wasn’t a motivation not to do it.”

Now, Ferrari of Port Richey is too old to donate. But the experience led her to start a company, www.familyfertilityoptions.com, pairing egg donors with infertile couples.

“Some people get turned off that it’s a business,” Ferrari said, “but it can be from the heart and benefit both parties.”

Not everyone agrees.

For starters, Rabbi David Bleich of Yeshiva University in New York wonders about incest.

“Who knows who this child will marry?” Bleich said. “It could contribute to incestuous relationships down the road.”

The process also raises questions about how women cope with the emotional aftermath of donating eggs, an area less researched than more common infertility methods.

Kimberly Shaw, clinical associate professor at the University of Florida, said some women may mourn for the child they helped create.

“I might even label it a grieving process,” she said. “I am sure the anxiety component is, ‘Have I made the right decision?”’

Concerns are also raised about the way egg donation is solicited.

Case in point: the University of Central Florida’s online classifieds.

Tucked between an ad for a doggy day care worker and a sushi chef, this jumps off the screen:

“There’s an objectification, a eugenic attitude that we can control the outcome of procreation,” said Deirdre McQuade, spokeswoman for the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. “That it’s a good thing not just to have healthy children, but beautiful and smart children.”

For Jaclyn Baker, who donated to earn some cash after a stint in the military, constipation and weight gain deterred her from another donation.

Even so, Baker, 29, stands by her decision.

“I was in a difficult situation,” said the Orlando woman, “so this was an honest way to get money instead of going and doing other things.”

A TV commercial stoked Mandy Lawson’s interest in donating eggs.

“I thought, I can do that,” said the 23-year-old Orlando flight attendant.

Lawson searched online for egg donor agencies and found the Center for Reproductive Medicine nearby.

She went through the usual protocol. In October, the center placed her into its files. About a week later, someone called to say she had been chosen.

Now she’s taking daily Lupron injections to prepare for her Dec. 6 donation.

Lawson said she isn’t nervous. She plans to use the $4,000 she will be paid to erase about half of her credit card debt.

And she hopes those who are skeptical of donating eggs see the benefits of what she and other women are doing to help those who can’t have children.

“For the couple,” she said, “it’s making their dreams come true.”
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