I spent years abusing cocaine and marijuana to deal with severe depression, anxiety, and anorexia. I spent a month in a psychiatric hospital ten years ago, and I still take prescription mood stabilizers twice a day. My family history includes ovarian cancer, schizophrenia, autism, substance use, and obesity.
But last year I was struggling to make ends meet and support a household with a salary of $30,000 in New York City.
So I lied my ass off to become an egg donor.
Before I start, I want to admit that sharing this story — albeit anonymously — really scares me. But I want to open up a discussion about the “screening standards” agencies have in place, and how the financial compensation egg donors are offered can incentivize lying.
I’d also like to say that I am in NO WAY suggesting that all egg donors have done this. In fact, some egg donors would be horrified to learn that others have concealed blemishes on their profile to make the cut. Although I have to admit, I do not think that what I’ve done is particularly rare.
This is my story…
Before one could earn $10,000 for donating eggs, the agency website promised a “rigorous” and “intense” screening for donor egg candidates. The agency brags that it rejects 90% of applicants. I assumed they would ask for releases to obtain old medical records to verify the information provided on my application, and I wondered whether they might even want releases to question my relatives.
So it was with great anxiety that I set to work minimizing my personal history on my application. I downgraded the depression to “moderate,” downgraded the drug use to youthful experimentation, and omitted the anorexia and five years of cigarette smoking. Oh, and I lied about the number of past sexual partners I’ve had.
I also went to a new doctor’s office to get a Pap smear (required by the agency) and told the staff that I do not take any medications, because my most recent Pap – only six months old – listed the mood stabilizers under “current medications.”
When I went in for my initial interview, I was braced to go over my not-so-candid written application and to sign releases for the agency to contact a couple of past medical providers.
The agency didn’t ask for a shred of proof of anything I reported.
I was stunned as I walked out an hour later with referrals for the standard physical screening and psychological evaluation. I think the maternal cancer history gave the agency pause, but in the end they approved me, and I went through two successful cycles for a total compensation of $20,000.
I was particularly scornful of how the psychologist asked me about my income and debts so the agency could “ensure” that I was not donating out of financial desperation.
“Well, I have a college degree and a full-time job, and no credit card debt,” I said. (Those things ARE true.) I went on, “I can’t imagine how anyone could go through all the effort of egg donation just for money. It’s so much more meaningful than that; it’s about helping to make a family.”
In my head I was thinking, ‘Please. I couldn’t care less whether a rich stranger has a baby, and you are offering ten grand because you know that.’
And at this point you’re probably thinking I’m some lying, greedy villain. You’re probably thinking you wouldn’t want my eggs – it would be a terrible thing if your child turned out like me.
It’s not that simple. I have a masters degree and graduated with a 3.9. I make so little money because I work in social services, helping medically fragile children and their families. I’ve also participated in social and political causes such as domestic violence and LGBT rights. I have a successful marriage and great friends and family. And even in the worst years of my mental illness, I was a straight-A student and varsity athlete.
So my parents are actually pretty proud of me.
All of this lying is highly uncharacteristic. I’m not proud of it. I can, and did, rationalize all of it.They know they’re asking us to lie, I told myself. I’m smart, attractive, and successful – isn’t that all the Intended Parents care about?, I told myself. It’s not like the Intended Parents would have perfect family medical histories, I told myself.
Overall my family background is pretty good, I told myself. Grandparents all lived into their 80s. I have close relatives who are doctors, engineers, military officers, and artists.
But the fact is that I was sick to death of living paycheck to paycheck, and when I thought about the opportunity to earn more money in four weeks than I would normally earn in four months, my scruples crumbled in the face of temptation.
I know I’m not the only donor to lie during the screening process. And the agencies know it too. It would have taken this agency a few minutes of extra work to fax a request for my medical records to my past doctors, and the agency probably would have uncovered lies.
But I don’t think egg donor agencies want to uncover lies.
The fact is that hardly anyone has the kind of squeaky-clean medical history that affluent intended parents expect from egg donors. Agencies have to know that there wouldn’t be enough egg donors to meet demand if they fact-checked our applications. And without egg donors, an egg donor agency would be out of business.
The thing is, risks of egg donation aren’t the same for everyone – certain pieces of the donor’s family history, such as endometriosis and reproductive cancers, can make the egg donor vulnerable to terrible consequences.
Look at two-time egg donor Leah Campbell’s experience in which she developed a rapidly aggressive case of Stage IV endometriosis, a condition in which uterine tissue grows outside the uterus. Endometriosis runs in families and is fueled by estrogen – the hormone that skyrockets during a donor egg cycle.
In Leah’s case, she didn’t lie; she only found out after donating that relatives had, in fact, suffered endometriosis.
Another egg donor was rejected by an egg donor agency due to a family history of breast cancer – the donor coordinator told her that “…exposure to increased levels of estrogen through the donation process could potentially put you at greater risk for breast cancer when there is a close family history of premenopausal breast cancer.”
Plenty of prospective egg donors, desperate for that post-retrieval paycheck, could omit things like a family history of endometriosis or breast cancer to increase their chances of being matched, without realizing they are placing themselves at risk.
Prospective egg donors, you should probably do the right thing and be candid in your applications. And if you have a family history of hormone-sensitive conditions, you probably shouldn’t donate.
But who am I to tell you that?
Photo credit: First photo by Gioiadeantoniis. Dollar photo by pea sap. Both sourced via Flickr Creative Commons.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article has been altered to omit identifying details.