Donor Eggs & Sperm: How Does That Fit In?

Before you read this particular post, check out my first post on reproductive technology and the one about surrogacy. They will help you get a sense of where I'm coming from and what the values are that guide my thoughts and opinions.

This one is about the use of donor eggs and sperm to conceive a child. Because we have already covered surrogacy I won't review using donor eggs and sperm to conceive a child using a surrogate mother. It's enough to say that using donor eggs or sperm in addition to using a surrogate mother further distances the intended parents from the child. It also adds another level of ethical difficulty if the child is abandoned. The child then has no connection at all to his/her/their biological parents or birth mother - who do they belong to? In the case of twins or triplets they have each other, but a singleton would be completely alone. I can't even tell you how sad that makes me.

The child then has no connection at all to his/her/their biological parents or birth mother - who do they belong to?

There are essentially two problems that would cause someone to use donor material to conceive. In one, a single woman wants to become a mother but has nobody in her life that is interested in becoming a father. Perhaps she is in a lesbian relationship, not in a relationship at all, or is dating someone who isn't "dad material." In a more extreme case, she may be unable to conceive naturally so instead of using donor sperm and her own egg she uses a donated embryo to have a child.

In another case, a married couple (or dating couple) wants to conceive but there is some problem with one or both of them. Perhaps they have a genetic disorder they don't want to pass along, maybe the intended father has a low or nonexistent sperm count or the intended mother doesn't ovulate. So, they are unable to conceive on their own and have turned to a donor to make their dreams of parenthood possible.

In some scenarios, the mother is ovulating and able to conceive but the father isn't (or there is no father in the picture). This may cause the doctors to artificially inseminate her with the sperm of a man who has no intention of fathering the child. In other scenarios, the mother can't ovulate or become pregnant so they take her husband's sperm and create a child outside the womb with another woman's egg. The donor, again, has no intention of mothering or raising the child. In the third scenario the intended parents use donor egg and sperm to create a child outside the womb and then insert them into the intended mother's body.

We'll discuss in vitro fertilization (IVF) and the ethical problems with the IVF process in depth in the next blog post. So, for now let's leave that alone and focus entirely on the problems associated with using donor eggs and/or sperm.

First, let's look at the donation process. Donating an egg is not easy. In some cases an egg donor and surrogate mother are one and the same, i.e. the surrogate mother is conceiving a child within her body with the intention of turning that child over to another set of parents. More commonly, egg donors are merely providing an egg. To do this, an egg donor will need to go through some pretty extensive medical procedures.

In an egg donation cycle, you're first given hormone shots for 8-12 days. They do this to force your ovaries to produce as many eggs as possible. Typically (when unassisted by medication) a woman produces one or two eggs a month. The cost associated with egg retrieval is too high for a retrieval of one or two eggs to be "worth it" so the doctors want to make sure they can get as many as possible. These shots aren't harmless. According to one egg bank's website the side effects are most commonly "bloating, moodiness, cramping, aching, headaches, nausea, hot flashes, and breast tenderness." There are also the risks of being under anesthesia, blood draws, and the insertion of the needle into the uterus. Finally, there are some studies that show that certain drugs increase the risk of ovarian cancer. The more serious potential side effects include ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome and ovarian torsion.

Those last two? They can cause extreme pain, infertility, and in some cases death.

The day of the retrieval the donor is typically sedated and the eggs are removed through her vagina. If everything goes well, the donor can return to her normal activities the next day. If it doesn't? Well, that can be a mess. The side effects, listed above, can be very painful and have long-lasting consequences.

The side effects, listed above, can be very painful and have long-lasting consequences.

The egg donation cycle, once complete, usually comes with monetary compensation for the donor. She can be paid anywhere from a few thousand dollars all the way up to $100,000. The compensation varies depending on the "quality" of the donor, the number of eggs retrieved, and the egg bank she chooses to use.

One note, a woman may not be compensated if her egg cycle is incomplete or if she fails to produce "enough" eggs. In that case she may only receive some of her compensation or none at all. Also, the process and compensation reflects the general practice in the United States and could look very different for a woman in another country.

Sperm donation is somewhat simpler. I am sure all of us are aware that it is much easier to get sperm out of a man than eggs out of a woman. Partly because of that, sperm donors are paid much less than egg donors. A sperm donor can often earn $100-$125 per donation. Donors can be expected to donate frequently, especially if they're in high demand, up to three or more times per week.

Don't forget, there are less-medical ways a man can donate sperm. There is the descriptively named "turkey baster method" where the woman inserts the semen on her own and there is also the more traditional method where the man and woman engage in intercourse to produce a child but the man plans to have no rights or responsibilities related to the child. These last two methods put the mother at risk of STDs and also have a fair amount of legal ambiguity to them.

So, what's the problem? The donor is compensated, the parents get what they want, and a baby is born. Right?

First, some of the same issues we have in surrogacy are present here. A child is conceived that has no (or very little) connection to the adults involved in conception. Their biological father or mother has no right to see them, know they exist, or have any say in how they're raised. Further, because of the amount of times a donor can donate, the child could have family out there that they are completely unaware of. This can cause problems when the child grows up and decides to date and/or marry. How can they be 100% sure they're not involved with a biological relative?