Debating the Ethics of Egg Donation

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

After we published a story from a reader who had ethical qualms about using a donated egg that became her daughter, a bunch of readers in the TAD discussion group debated the question, “Is egg donation unethical?”—especially since thousands of dollars are typically given to the donor. Below are some of the best comments and personal stories from those readers, edited for concision. Here’s Terri:

My only real concern is compensation. Selling to the highest bidder for significant profit is risky and unseemly. It has to be regulated in a manner that protects both parties.

Another reader takes a more libertarian approach:

As long as all parties consent and the child created is loved and taken care of, then all is good. What’s unethical is bad parenting.

Jim compares egg donation to adoption:

The financial aspect of donation is no more fraught, to my mind, than adoption fees. The stickler is setting a fair price for the not inconsiderable pain and discomfort the donor experiences, as well as screening donors to make sure they are psychologically secure with the process.

Egg donation, fertilization, and implantation is essentially a rich person’s ethical problem, if that. Many women and their partners beggar themselves financially in an effort to become pregnant. If they can afford it and they want to, why not?

This next reader complicates Jim’s characterization that it’s “a rich person’s ethical problem”:

I am part of an IVF support group, with 10,000-plus members, and I’ve undergone IVF myself. The large majority of us are not affluent.

Also, it’s not fair for people who have never struggled with infertility to imply/demand that those of us who suffer from infertility settle with adoption, as if it’s an easy solution. We just want the same chance fertile people have—a chance they didn’t have to fight for or pay for, or suffer from.

Another reader also isn’t troubled by egg donation:

Is it less creepy than adoption? Prospective parents are also given dossiers of babies/kids they would like to consider. It shouldn’t be creepy to “choose” a child. We choose our mates, after all, and the initial attraction is mostly superficial there too. Is a child that arises from such a pairing not “chosen” as well?

It’s not uncommon in egg and sperm donations for people to search for donors who bear some similarity to them. Since the child will not have a genetic connection to the replaced parent, isn’t it better that they at least have some physical similarities? This is supposed to make life easier for the young kid, so they are not wondering why they look different or being teased as school for looking different (young kids can be merciless to their peers).

Finding physical similarities and other preferences is a big part of Gail Sexton Anderson’s job. She runs Donor Concierge, a service that matches intended parents with egg donors and surrogates.

Race and ethnicity is a big part of that process, which Gail addresses in this blog post:

For many intended parents having a sense of continuity within the family blood lines helps them to come to terms with going forward with an egg donor. I have had many intended parents tell me that they would like to find a donor who is Irish, Welsh, Italian etc. so that they can share stories of their heritage with their child and not feel they are being false to their child who shares their family but may not have similar ethnic heritage.  ...

One problem that we run into over and over again as we search for our clients is how difficult it can to find the egg donor’s ethnic heritage. Too often egg donors and agencies confuse race with ethnic heritage and will just use race as a blanket answer to cover both. The trouble is they are not the same. One is a very broad category and the other defines the details of that category and for many intended parents it is an important distinction.

For example when I am looking for a Chinese donor I often find that all donors with any Asian heritage are listed as Asian. That is fine to a point if within the details of the egg donors profile her specific heritage is listed such as Chinese, Hmong, Japanese, Korean etc. Many programs have thought to include this information but many others still list the donor as just Asian. For a Chinese or Korean family this can be a real problem for many they feel strongly about their ethnic heritage and one is not interchangeable with the other.

Asian women, along with Jewish women, command the highest prices for their eggs—about $10,000 to $20,000 for Asian women, compared to about $6,000 for other ethnic groups:

Fertility industry experts say there are several reasons Asian eggs are in demand, including a cultural aversion to adoption. If a woman is infertile, they say, many Asian couples would prefer to use the husband’s sperm with a donor’s egg to conceive a child that carries at least half of the couple’s genetic identity than to adopt a baby from other parents.

Demand is also high among Jewish couples, many of whom put off having kids to pursue higher education or careers, clinic operators say. According to a report from the United Jewish Communities, half of Jewish American women have college degrees and 21% have graduate degrees. They tend to marry later, the survey says, and have lower fertility rates.  …

One reason for the lack of supply [of Asian eggs] is that Asian women are less likely to go through the discomfort of egg donations out of financial need. On average, Asian women earn higher salaries and are more likely to be college-educated than their counterparts in other racial groups, according to Labor Department statistics. Asian females out-earn white women by 13%, black women by 31% and Latinas by 52%, the agency said. “A lot of young women who elect to be egg donors do so for financial reasons,” Vorzimer said. “But many Asian and Jewish donors who are in such high demand are young ladies who do not need that financial compensation.”

Back to our readers:

I can see how the donation process could feel “designer baby” or “eugenics lite” and leave a bad taste in mouths, especially with the sadly inevitable preference for fair-complected donors. But it’s worth noting that 1) this has always been true of sperm donation and 2) the cost of entry, so to speak, for parents is too high for this to have a significant impact on population dynamics.

This next reader is on the same page:

I don’t think the eugenics comparison is fair at all. Even if every couple goes into the process looking for a baby that is similar in appearance to them, those are the babies they’d be conceiving naturally were they able/should they choose. Races are not being wiped out by egg donation and subsequent selection.

The eugenics angle isn’t just about aesthetics. As this reader illustrates, “My now-wife (we were dating at the time) looked into egg donation for financial reasons but was told she couldn’t due to some family medical history.” Another reader can relate:

My daughter looked into donating, to try to pay off student loans. She was turned down because her father is mentally ill and because she and both parents are nearsighted.

Setting aside the fact that I have reasons to believe that my ex-husband’s mental condition may be more a product of environment than heredity, can I just say I worry for the offspring of people who may come to believe that their high priced, perfect eggs will invariably yield perfect children.

This last reader can relate firsthand to donation:

As someone who has undergone IVF and has eight embryos waiting and who plans on donating any leftovers to a couple/person in need, I do not find it creepy in the slightest. I understand where people are coming from about adoption, and I have heard from so many people over the past eight years of TTC [trying to conceive]. And we do plan on adopting out of the foster program, which we have already been approved for, but not placed.

Unless you have gone through infertility, you just can’t possibly understand the heartache it causes. We have to watch over and over and over women have children who don’t appreciate the gift, or who abuse their child, abandon them and so much worse, so we cry and cry and wonder why me, why us. It’s awful. There is nothing wrong with a person/couple wanting a biological piece of them to exist in this world.