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One Good Egg

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egg.jpgEgg donation, clearly, is not for everybody. Really, is there any woman in the world who relishes daily shots in the ass, wildly fluctuating hormones and a mildly-invasive surgery that involves a really, really long needle into the ovaries, not to mention a screwed-up menstrual cycle and several months of enforced celibacy?

But weigh that against $10,000. It seems almost worth it. An extra ten grand is awfully hard to come by, especially these days. Oh, yeah, and the joy that comes from helping infertile women have babies of their own.

Well, it seemed like a pretty good deal to me. My eggs are pretty valuable, I like to think. No obvious defects. Limited athletic ability, it's true, but high SAT scores. Jewish, if you're into that sort of thing, and some people are. Alas, my poor eggs are about two years too old: Maximum donor age is 30.

Still, I cannot possibly be the only woman in St. Louis who has considered donating (or, more precisely, selling) an egg to ward off the ill effects of this economy. Right?

Surprisingly, the number of egg donors here has not increased at all, says Therese Kaag, manager of the Infertility and Reproductive Medicine Center at Washington University School of Medicine, Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

"In St. Louis, people are very conservative," she says. "There's the concern of having your DNA out there."

Currently, only 20 donors per year make it through Barnes' rigorous screening process. "Even with the few that we have," Kaag says, "we take 90 percent of the people who apply."

But there's a two-year waiting list of people who want the eggs, and even though in-vitro fertilization can cost $20,000, none of it covered by insurance, that doesn't seem likely to decrease.

"It's an emotional issue," Kaag says. "People will do what it takes. They will find the money. It's not like buying a TV. We're not going to see those numbers drop."

The actual egg donation process takes about a month, explains Dr. Sherman Silber of The Infertility Center of St. Louis at St. Luke's in his book How to Get Pregnant. Both the donor and recipient take birth control pills to synchronize their menstrual cycles and then undergo twelve days of hormone shots to stimulate egg production and increase the egg's likelihood of being fertilized and implanting in the uterus. During surgery, the egg is removed from the donor's ovary and transferred immediately to the recipient's uterus.

Silber's clinic does not have direct contact with the donors. "We use agencies nationwide so that the donor comes from a different area from the recipient," he says. "We want to reduce the risk of accidentally using a first cousin or something. Our donors come from a pool of 300,000 across America rather than one fertility center with 20 donors." He has not seen a decrease in the demand for eggs, either.

In addition to all its other problems, Silber believes our nation is facing an infertility crisis. "There's a ten-fold decline in fertility when a woman reaches her early thirties," he says. "The infertility rate by then is twenty percent. By the time a woman reaches 40, the infertility rate is 40 percent or more."

And with more women waiting until their mid-30s or later to start having children, many run the risk of running short on eggs.

In 2007, Silber devised a way to harvest and freeze a woman's eggs until she is ready to have kids. (For more on Silber's research, see Chad Garrison's feature "The Egg Man".) He estimates that within the next 30 years or so, it will become common for women to start freezing and saving their eggs.

In the meantime, he thinks it might behoove our debt-ridden government to start paying for in-vitro fertilization.

"The net present value of a child born through in-vitro fertilization is $170,000," he says. "The cost of producing each of those children is $20,000. It would bring a net profit to the government to start paying for IVF."

Yeah, that's great, but what about my ten grand?

- Aimee Levitt


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