HERALD TRIBUNE: The Cost of Life
By Justine Griffin
I have always been the wimp in my family, the first to cry or complain at any sign of pain or discomfort.
My parents and younger brother have taken great pleasure in reenacting all my greatest “near-death” experiences and illnesses at the dinner table over the years. Like the time I fell off the back of a golf cart and was convinced I’d broken my collar bone. (I didn’t.)
Or the time I thought I had meningitis. (It was just a cold.)
So the idea of donating eggs – injecting myself with hormones and undergoing an invasive surgery, all for someone else to have a baby — seemed a little far-fetched to my family.
A couple who lived half a world away plucked me out of an online library of hundreds of women who were willing to donate their sex cells to strangers. Each of us had been broken down by our general attributes. My specifications, a fertility agency would later tell me, were desirable: 25 years old, green eyes, 5-feet, 10-inches tall, blond hair, a 3.6 university grade point average and a burgeoning new career.
Those same specifications are what make my parents beam with pride.
One night last summer at my parent’s dinner table, I told my mom and dad that I wanted to help somebody have a baby. The usual lively suppertime conversation and laughter died down, and my parents lost their appetites. They didn’t want to joke about that time I drove my brother’s four-wheeler into a tree anymore.
I told them I am like the thousands of other women — the daughters, sisters, girlfriends or wives at someone else’s dinner table — who donate their eggs to couples who cannot conceive a child on their own.
With an estimated 7.3 million people experiencing infertility in the United States, or one out of eight couples, the demand for young women like me who voluntarily undergo hormone drug treatment and egg retrieval surgery is high. And with the average compensation for this kind of donation at about $5,000 in Florida, the allure of this relatively new medical procedure is attracting more and more young women, despite the many unknowns.
The eggs in my ovaries made me valuable. Without them, there is no in vitro fertilization, no surrogate mothers, no baby making business. As it unfolded, I began to feel like a commodity rather than a human being, a means to an end on the infant assembly line.
As I came to learn, the $3 billion fertility industry is the Wild West of American medicine. The industry is mostly unregulated in the United States, especially in Florida. Egg donation is outlawed in Louisiana and in countries like Germany, Austria and Italy. A medical society sets unenforceable guidelines for doctors to follow in the U.S.
Businesses have sprouted up, too — agencies across the country that facilitate relationships among donors, surrogate mothers, couples and doctors, cashing in on a piece of the fertility pie.
Few medical studies have been done on the long-term effects of egg retrievals on healthy, 20-something donors, despite some women suffering from stroke, early menopause and cancer diagnosis. Doctors and researchers say there’s not enough information to confirm if the hormones used in in vitro fertilization treatments lead to infertility or other health issues.
One of the most commonly prescribed IVF drugs, Lupron, is used off label, or not for its intended purpose. The drug was developed to treat men with prostate issues and has been used for chemical castration.
Universities with medical school programs often host reproductive endocrinology departments that make enough money from IVF treatments to fund entire schools within the university. Generally, fertility doctors are among the highest-paid employees at private universities.
College campuses around the country are ground zero for doctors and agencies looking to recruit donors. Agencies target young women on Facebook, Craigslist and in college newspaper advertisements, offering them cash and the idea that they’re helping start a family, but don’t explain the risks.
This began as a way for me to honor a childhood friend who passed away and a hopeful account of my experience with the fertility industry. But it devolved into a tangle of broken promises, scary science and questionable experiences — ending with a ruptured cyst on my ovary and a fear that my future reproductive health may be in jeopardy.
The doctors were there for my eggs and not for me. But I would never tell my parents that.
I wouldn’t tell my mom and dad that I woke up to tumbleweeds of my own blond hair on my pillows, and that it would fall out in clumps for months. Or about the number of times I vomited from nausea and migraines, induced by the high levels of hormones I was pumping through my body. I wouldn’t tell them that no one knew if the effects of these hormones would haunt me later in life.
It is a common, modern arrangement. Though this couple would never know me, I would help give them a child once the hormones had sufficiently ballooned my eggs for the surgical plucking and placement in another woman’s uterus. They would get what they paid for, the gift of a life, a baby that is at least half like me. But the couple would decline to get to know me, the woman whose attributes caught their attention via the distant comfort of a computer screen.
Along the way, I would rely on my family to support me through a procedure they never really agreed with in the first place.
“My first grandchild is going to live halfway around the world from me,” my mother said.
I may be paranoid about a runny nose, but this was different. It wouldn’t be something we’d ever joke about at the dinner table.
Most donors do it for cash. Compensation can be anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 for your average donor. But a woman with model good looks or an Ivy League degree stands to make $50,000 or more for her eggs. I made $5,000.
Some do it not so much for the money, but rather to help others, friends, family members, even strangers. I donated in memory of Ariel.
On May 15, 2001, I packed a duffel bag full of clothes and hair accessories that I’d brought with me to school, already anxious for the last bell to ring. That night, Ariel and I were going to see the Backstreet Boys at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. It was all we could talk about for weeks.
But Ariel wasn’t at school that day.
I walked to class, but my teacher redirected me toward the gymnasium for an announcement. The entire student population of our small private school in New Port Richey was 200. We fit neatly into one section of bleachers.
We looked out across the basketball court at the wooden stage with the stained carpet stapled to its floors, waiting for the administrators to address us. Ariel and I had spent the years prior sneaking under that stage through a misplaced panel in the girls’ locker room.
We would emerge draped in dust and cobwebs, feeling as cool as the popular high school girls we saw in movies, the types that smoked cigarettes under the bleachers with boys.
The assistant principal approached the lectern and asked us to quiet down.
“Our school has suffered a great loss,” he began. “Ariel died last night.”
A burst blood vessel in her brain killed her. Her father found her crumpled on the floor of her bedroom that morning.
Students erupted into tears, the older girls wiping away mascara that left dark smears down their cheeks. Teachers passed around boxes of tissues and I collected a few in my hands, burying my face in the softness as my heart beat loudly in my ears.
I saw Ariel’s mother later that day – she was wailing, her body limp in a dining room chair at a friend’s home. She was surrounded by other mothers, each one holding her up in the chair as her shrill shrieks gave way to muted whimpers over time.
I couldn’t begin to understand. How was I, a 12-year-old girl who had lived the definition of a privileged life, supposed to feel about this? I was the girl who got a fat little pony for Christmas and vacationed at the mountains and the beaches with my parents multiple times a year. I had never experienced death, or heartbreak, before.
My mom picked me up early that day. She’d hidden my sleepover bag in the trunk of the car and drove us to my grandmother’s house.
“Ariel is with God now,” my grandmother said.
All I knew was that Ariel was supposed to be here. We were supposed to be on our way to the Backstreet Boys concert, and now I was never going to see her again.
As life went on after Ariel’s death, I stayed close with her family.
For years, friends and I got together on the anniversaries of Ariel’s birth and death to plant flowers and maintain a butterfly garden for her on our old middle school campus. Afterward, Ariel’s mother, Lynn, would buy us ice cream at the nearby Dairy Queen.
As we ate cones and sundaes together, sweaty and sunburned from a day at the garden, Lynn would ask us about our lives: who we were dating, what our prom dresses looked like, which colleges we were applying to — all questions she’d never be able to ask her own daughter.
Lynn struggled to find normalcy after her daughter’s death. Several miscarriages led her and her husband to serious talks about egg donation and surrogacy. Eventually, Lynn conceived naturally and delivered a healthy baby boy at age 48 – a miracle in the eyes of many physicians.
Early medical studies showed links to ovarian cancer and infertility in older women who underwent IVF cycles after already experiencing infertility issues. Those claims have since been debunked, fertility specialists have said.
Her struggle to have another child made me think of others like her, couples around the world who felt the same kind of heartbreak and were forced into the same fertility battles. I saw the joy Lynn found in her son, Zach, and wondered if there was something I could do to help someone else create a family of their own.
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