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In the ASRM guidelines, issued in 2007, the organization’s ethics committee considered—and then rejected—a pricing structure based on an outright comparison to sperm donation. If the average payment for sperm donation was $75 for an hour’s worth of work, the committee members reasoned, then a woman paid the same hourly rate should get $4,200 for the 56 hours it typically takes to donate eggs—but “because oocyte donation entails more discomfort, risk, and physical intrusion than sperm donation,” they wrote, “sperm-donor reimbursement rates are reasonably considered to underestimate the amount that is appropriate for women providing oocytes.”
The committee members also argued, however, that the space between too little money and too much is a narrow one. The ideal payment is up to $5,000, the ASRM believes; higher fees “require justification,” while more than $10,000 is always inappropriate. The possibility of more money, the guidelines say, could create an opportunity for donor exploitation in the egg market: Women may provide eggs “in response to financial need,” leading them “to conceal medical information relevant to their own health or that of their biological offspring.”
But according to Wendie Wilson-Miller, the president of an egg-donation agency in Pasadena, California, the price for eggs hasn’t budged in decades. In her experience, she said, donors offered $5,000 to $10,000 rarely protest or ask for more. There are certainly more young women who want to donate than intended parents, she explained, “so that has kept the fees for the majority of egg donors within the suggested cap.”
Nevertheless, there are examples of women who try to bid themselves up in the market, and of donor eggs going for much more than $10,000 (including a handful of anecdotal reports of women earning six figures for their ova)—often a play to entice donors with “desirable” traits. There’s some evidence that Asian women, for example, command a higher price in the U.S. egg market, and agencies may try to recruit college-educated donors by advertising in campus newspapers. In a 2002 essay for The Atlantic, Jessica Cohen described how she responded to an offer for $25,000 in the Yale Daily News, for “a young woman over five feet five, of Jewish heritage, athletic, with a combined SAT score of 1500, and attractive.” (Ultimately, she wrote, the mother-to-be rejected her for looking too “ho-hum.”)
Critics of the current system argue that such tactics prey upon financially strained young women, who may often have too little information about what they’re taking on. Unlike sperm donation, the process of donating eggs is lengthy and highly involved. The transaction typically begins by signing a contract with a donor agency, whose mission is to find young women whose traits—height, hair color, education, athleticism, religion—will match a prospective parent’s criteria. Once a donor is selected from the agency’s database, her medical regimen starts with self-administered daily shots of a drug to suppress her natural cycle, followed by a hormone to stimulate her ovaries. When an in-office ultrasound visit confirms that her eggs are ready, a donor injects herself with another second hormone to trigger ovulation. Several days later, a physician places her under general anesthesia and uses an aspiration needle to retrieve her eggs.