You may have seen the ads on college campuses or social media: beaming faces on glossy paper promising thousands of dollars to young women willing to donate their eggs to couples having difficulties conceiving. The egg-retrieving procedure appears to be relatively non-invasive. Besides, women have approximately 300,000 eggs by the time they reach puberty, only 300 to 400 of which will likely be ovulated during their reproductive lifetime. For many, the decision is a no-brainer.
However, an in-depth look at the risks linked to donating eggs may lead one to think twice before signing up. Rely on testimonials from clinics and agencies and it may seem the side effects, both long- and short-term, are minimal if existent at all. But statements from previous donors paint a different picture.
The short-term effects of donating eggs
Unlike donating sperm, donating eggs is an invasive process, requiring weeks of screening and daily injections of fertility drugs to achieve expected results. The egg retrieval itself is a surgical procedure under anesthesia. The donor has to deal with the aftermath of these actions, which can range from mild, temporary discomfort and bloating, to more severe repercussions.
The main culprit is the risk of Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS), a condition in which the ovaries over stimulate and fluid accumulates in the abdomen. Symptoms include bloating, nausea, vomiting, abdominal distention and fluid retention, which puts pressure on major organs, potentially leading to a stroke or difficulty breathing.
According to most fertility clinics, the risk for the donor of contracting OHSS is extremely low, hovering around 1%. However, the risk may be significantly higher for mild to moderate cases where the donor recovers but experiences debilitating symptoms for days or weeks after the procedure.
What are the consequences of donating eggs in the long term?
Another concern is the lack of formal studies regarding the long-term effects of donating eggs. The consequences of using fertility drugs like the ones injected by egg donors are mostly researched using samples of women using them while undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF). Although the procedure is similar, the population studied and the potential consequences are not. Women undergoing IVF typically do so because they have fertility issues. Egg donors are specifically chosen because they don’t.
There’s no medical follow-up with donors once their eggs are retrieved, which contributes to the lack of data. Besides, although the medical procedures during the egg retrieval process are covered by the intended parents (IPs), the egg donor is on her own should there be any long-term issues. Women have come forward in the past couple of years, attributing health issues ranging from cancer to concerns such as ovarian cysts, endometriosis, fibroids and infertility issues that may be linked to fertility treatments they underwent as donors.
Dr. Aimee Eyvazzadeh, a reproductive endocrinologist in the San Ramon, California has seen several patients faced with the same dilemma. “When I started my practice 10 years ago, one of my first patients was a 40-year-old woman who’d done over five years of IVF treatment before seeing me and now needed donor eggs,” she tells Parentology. “My heart broke when she shared that she was an egg donor when she was 22 years old.”
Eyvazzadeh continues, “Egg donation is literally giving someone the gift of life, and now this woman had to use an egg donor after she donated her eggs to six other families. This felt so incredibly unfair to me. She wasn’t the only patient. I’ve had others who’ve asked me to call the clinics they donated to hoping to see if any leftover eggs were frozen for them. The answer has always been no.”
The psychological after-effect of egg donation
Donating eggs may affect women not only physically, but also psychologically. Although most clinics provide a mental evaluation of the donor, many find themselves unprepared when confronted with the realities of the experience and how invasive the procedure can be.
Egg donors are also emotionally involved. Research clearly indicates they’re motivated by both monetary compensation and altruism, and most care deeply about the outcome.
With the ease of access to information that the Internet provides and the growing popularity of DNA testing kits such as 23andMe, donating anonymously is not a given. For Eyvazzadeh, “there’s absolutely no such thing as DNA privacy anymore. Anonymous donations are a thing of the past.”
Eyvazzadeh says, “I found it incredibly unfair donors would give photos of themselves and non-consenting family members without ever knowing a thing about where their eggs were going. And I continue to hear story-after-story of egg donors ‘wondering for 18 years’ who would come knocking at their doors once their files were unsealed.”
What to know before donating eggs
The lack of study regarding the consequences of egg retrieval for the donor is undoubtedly concerning. Women who are targeted in egg donation ads are young, often in college, and may not have started or completed their family. Some may not consider having children in the future at the time of the donation. However, the absence of research on the long-term side effects, such as infertility, is something to keep in mind, especially if you think you may want to add to your family in the future.
If open to maintaining a relationship with IPs, some programs, like Dr. Eyvazzadeh’s Freeze and Share, allow donors to freeze eggs for their own future use at the time of the donation if fertility concerns arise in the future.
Donors should be prepared to face physical consequences, including the potential of children born from donating eggs making contact later in life. Donating eggs is a beautiful and generous thing, but the rosy picture clinics depict is often a far shot from reality.