My Adventures as an Egg Donor
I remember when I was a student teacher, I taught a lesson on the social construction of gender. A seventeen year old smarty pants wanted to argue that gender was not socially constructed. After all, a woman can’t get another woman pregnant! With a smile, I told him that I had, in fact, impregnated three women. He was taken aback by this and retreated from the argument (which to him was really was more about biology than the social construction of gender). The story of egg donation came up again tonight at Socialism and a Slice, a monthly meeting of local activists. The topic was again the social construction of gender, but also the promise that reproductive technologies can usurp some aspects of biological determinism in reproduction. Of course, reproductive technologies exist in a social context and I am not for the blind worship of science and technology. Yet, at the same time, I like to think that someday technology can be used to grant genders/biological arrangements access to parenthood.
In 2007 and 2008 I was really struggling. I had a large bill with St. Scholastica, was making less than minimum wage as an Americorps volunteer, worked two to four jobs, and was just beginning to pull myself out of the black hole that is depression. My long experience with depression is another story. But, to make that long story short, I spent a good portion of my 20s as a non-existent person. I hid from the world, didn’t pay my bills, and waited patiently for death. Needless to say, I had a lot of financial things to deal with once the clouds began to clear. One solution to this problem was working myself in a demoralizing frenzy of drudgery to climb out of the hole. Another solution, in addition to that one, was to donate eggs. I began to look into this option. The closest place to donate eggs was a hospital in Minneapolis. But, it paid around $3000 if successful. I filled out a long application. I believe it was over 25 pages long. The application was accepted and I was invited to the hospital to continue the process- which would include a mental health examination, health exam, and interview.
I believed that at any part of the process, I would be weeded out. But, I am generally a pretty healthy person. I have never smoked, drank alcohol, had a surgery, had a major illness, been hospitalized, tried an illegal drug, etc. On paper, I seemed like a good candidate, as I have many hobbies, was a healthy weight at the time (they had weight restrictions), intelligent, driven, etc. I even passed the mental health evaluation. So, despite some struggles with anxiety and depression in my early 20s (which I can talk about later), they were not red flags. I passed each barrier, which was great as I invested my meager resources at the time in traveling to Minneapolis for evaluations. Finally, they took my photo and told me that I would be put on the roster of possible egg donors. With a few weeks, I was told that I had been chosen to donate. It should be noted that it was an anonymous donation, so I would never know the recipient of the eggs nor would that person know me. I was simply donor number 306.
The donation process was involved. It first involved a visit to the hospital to go onto birth control pills so that my menstrual cycle would align with the recipient. I was told to begin them on a certain date. After which time, I would begin a series of injections. I was given a large amount of hormones, as the goal was to make my body produce a dozen or more mature eggs. I injected myself with Gonal-F once or twice a day, depending upon the stage in the process. Towards the end, it was more and in all, I spent about three weeks taking hormones. In addition to the Gonal-F injections, I also took injections of a medication that suppressed ovulation, simulating menopause (Lupron). Beyond this strict schedule of injections, the process also involved early morning drives to Minneapolis, as my blood was tested for its estrogen level and I was given ultrasounds to check on the progress in my ovaries. It was an intense time, as I would rush to the cities then drive back for work. At the same time, towards the end, my ovaries felt like bags of marbles. I felt heavy. I am sure it was imagined, but I felt droopy and weighed down. The first time that I donated was in November and I remember making a large Thanksgiving meal for my family. I remember them attributing this to my mega dose of estrogen. As if they believed that somehow I was magically domesticated by the hormones. I was deeply offended. Despite being pumped full of estrogen and in a fake state of menopause, I was not weepy, crabby, plagued by hot flashes, or somehow more feminine. Really, I just like cooking things from time to time…hormones or no hormones. I felt entirely like my self, just weighed down and worn out from the driving. In any event, after daily trips to the cities for a week…the time finally came to donate. I was given a dagger sized syringe and a date. I was told to impale myself on my butt then show up the following morning for the extraction. No eating. No drinking. The final injection was some sort of magic potion that would mature the follicles and release the eggs (HCG).
I made several dishes for Thanksgiving this past year. Not one of them was the outcome of my hormone level.
The extraction itself was uneventful. I was put to sleep, a needled was inserted into my vagina, and eggs were somehow sucked out from my ovaries (I believe?). The extraction process took less than an hour, but I was moved to another room to rest for an additional hour. In all, around 15 or 16 eggs were removed. Though, I believe that my second time donating, it may have been as many as 23. These eggs would go on to be fertilized. The most promising would then be implanted in the recipient. The failures and duds would be destroyed with the option of freezing some eggs for later use. Thus, I am responsible not only for three pregnancies (since I donated three times and each time resulted in a pregnancy), I am responsible for some abortions (depending upon how one defines such a thing). Because of the large number, I was told that I was a good donor. I also did not experience much pain or any complications after the first donation. Again, I handled it pretty well! I was given a check for my efforts as well as parting gifts from my recipient. The first time, the gift included a card and some gift cards. In all, it was pretty cool. I used the money earned from three donations to pay off my car loan, put money towards my St. Scholastica bill, and a little money towards a trip to Cuba.
As I said, I donated three times. The first two times were uneventful and largely successful. But, I was kept on a pretty tight schedule. Not long after I had donated the first time, I was asked to donate again. And, once I had donated the second time, I was asked to donate a third time. This is a pretty intense process. It was a lot of driving. It was a lot of early mornings in addition to working over 60 hours a week. It was a lot of hormones. It was a lot of sedation. Plus, I was saving up for an expensive trip to Cuba. In order to afford the trip to Cuba, I worked from March to June without a day off. I have never worked that long of a stretch in my life. I hope to never do that again. Even with money from the donation process (which I mostly put to bills) I still had to save several thousand dollars for the Cuba trip. And, my third donation actually happened shortly after this trip, so I was taking hormone injections while on vacation. My third donation did not go as well.
When I awoke from sedation, I began having odd body spasms. My arms and legs shook. I felt nauseous. The nurse and doctor asked if I had taken any drugs, but I had not done anything unusual. Eventually this uncontrolled trembling stopped, though for the next week, whenever I was resting, I would spasm a little. Because of this reaction, I was told that I could no longer donate. I have no idea why this happened, but I felt angry at myself. I felt angry at my body for betraying me. Had I been a trooper…the kind of person who could soldier on through exhaustion and hormones…without complaint or complication, I could have donated my way out of debt. I felt so upset with myself. So, so, so upset! But, three times was an accomplishment. Perhaps it was hard on me. Perhaps I was overly tired. Maybe I was anxious. Maybe I hadn’t been taking care of myself. Why did the third time go awry? I will never know. But, that was the end of my short lived career as an egg donor.
Having gone through that experience, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I feel great. It helped me pay off some debt and go on a trip to Cuba. I also feel like I cheated evolution, gender, and biology. In terms of evolution, success is passing on your genes. I am not sure if the three recipients had successful pregnancies, but supposing that they did, this means that I may have three offspring in the world. I may have more because of the high incidence of twins from IVF and the possibility that some eggs may have been frozen. I cheated biology, since as a person who was born female, reproduction requires a lot of effort. Raising a child requires a huge amount of resources and labor. Thus, I feel that I am the equivalent of a brood parasite, such as a catbird. I laid my eggs in some other bird’s nest and got to fly away, without effort or consequence. Egg donation is a bit of biological trickery on my part. Finally, I have suffered some gender dysphoria in the past. It is not something I am particularly open about nor is it immediately obvious because of my feminine gender presentation. In this regard, I feel that I transcended some of the limits of my gender and biology. I was able to express both my gender and biology in a non-conventional way. I’ve impregnated multiple women who I don’t even know. I kind of felt like a stud.
On the other hand, there is a darker side to all of this. Egg donation was hard on my body. After the third donation, I actually developed wrinkles around my eyes. The skin on my face became like crepe paper…very fragile and wrinkled. It was an odd reaction that went away over the months following the donation (thus I know it was correlated with egg donation rather than with natural aging). I also woke up convulsing on a hospital bed. Then, I felt that I was blamed for this reaction (as I was barred from donating again and accused of taking drugs). The reason why I donated was because I was in debt. I was overworking myself. My debt was related to my depression and the high cost of education. In the context of capitalism, those who donate will always mostly be lower income women. The cost of IVF is extremely expensive. Thus, the recipients will always be women with access to money. Of course, both women in the situation are oppressed. Why do women feel that they must spend tens of thousands of dollars on reproductive technologies? Why not adopt? Why is going through the process of pregnancy so important? I don’t blame the women for their choices nor do I look down upon these choices. However, choice exists in social context and our society does tell women that motherhood and pregnancy give value and meaning to life. Women who choose not to have children are seen as deviant, selfish, or of lesser character. To make matters more complex, there are plenty of women with infertility issues who can’t afford IVF or adoption (which itself costs tens of thousands of dollars). For instance, now that I am older and my fertility is waning, I know that would never be able to afford to have children through adoption or IVF. It is plainly too expensive. Additionally, why was I considered a “good donor?” Partially because of supply and demand. The demand is for young, educated, talented WHITE women, as most recipients are professional white women. So, while I support reproductive technologies, in the context of capitalism and patriarchy, there is inherent exploitation involved. I was so miserably poor I really didn’t care if there were medical complications. I wanted a better life. I became upset when my own body became a barrier to a better life.
Despite the negatives, I mostly draw a positive balance sheet from the experience. I needed to pay off a bill with St. Scholastica so that I could further my education. I have…furthered my education a bit too much…but it certainly opened a door for me. I feel proud of my unique gender experience. I feel smug about my place in evolutionary history. I traveled to Cuba, which was a wonderful and educational experience. I paid of my car early, improving my credit score and freeing up more spending money. In all, I have little to complain about. As for the exploitative nature of the situation, that could be mitigated by free higher education, living wages, universal medical care, etc. It was certainly odd that I used money from the donation process to travel to Cuba, where education and health care are free, despite a much smaller GDP to work with and embargo. As for the recipients, I am thankful that I was selected and hope that they have a happy family. I hope that their children turned out to be smart, talented, well-behaved, thoughtful, independent, creative, angelic little creatures. I hope that donor 306 was a blessing in their life and a mystery to puzzle, rather than an accursed brood parasite.