Inside OVUM: A Provocative Film About Elite Genes
Sonja O’Hara is a New York-based writer and actress who wrote and starred in Ovum, a narrative feature film based on her experience as a three-time egg donor. 70 percent of her film was financed with her eggs — Ovum is meant to spur a conversation about eugenics, reproduction, and the unseen side of the market for elite and top shelf eggs.
[Heads up: This interview contains NSFW images. Film stills courtesy of Ovum film.]
WE ARE EGG DONORS: Tell me about what inspired you to highlight the “eugenics” side of the donor egg complex. It’s not something many egg donors talk about.
SONJA: I was flipping through Backstage — a trade paper for actors — and next to casting notices for indie films and Off-Broadway plays, there was a picture of these of beautiful, glowing young women and an ad saying something like: “Do something meaningful. Help a woman in need. $8,000 dollars.”
I remember thinking that marketing a potentially dangerous procedure to struggling actresses (who are more often than not desperate and financially impaired) seemed irresponsible. But I was also intrigued.
Very rarely are performers associated with being either selfless or altruistic, let’s be honest. So I figured that these fertility clinics were specifically targeting actresses for another reason. I mean the stereotype is that we are all hot and broke, right? Anyway, it really rubbed me the wrong way. It felt naive not to discuss the implications of, like you said, the eugenics side of the egg donor complex. This clinic was blatantly seeking strictly attractive human eggs.
But when I actually sent in my headshot to apply to be a donor I realized pretty quickly that there were two kinds of clinics in New York, the sort that exist to help infertile women conceive with the help of healthy donors (as it should be). They don’t provide pictures of us and instead match us with recipients based on our health, genetic records and temperaments. And then unfortunately, there were the second type of clinics that exclusively sought out model types and seemed to offer higher compensation for arbitrary reasons. Being an egg donor can be a rewarding, life changing experience and clearly it’s been largely positive for me because I’ve done it three times, but there are clinics I encountered that are seeking to basically purchase “designer eggs.”
I chose to write my film about the clinic where I felt exploited, not by the actual act of giving up my eggs to help another woman which is awesome, but by a process that made me feel like a genetically modified factory animal.
WAED: Were you considered an “elite” donor? If so, what qualities were you told made you a more desirable candidate? Was your compensation different from other donors?
SONJA: I feel like in my mind, that sort of prestige is reserved for the mythical Ivy league donor. Those Harvard and Yale grads. Which I get. We all want hyper intelligent genes. I am an actor whoattended drama school, not a traditional college. I was being told again and again that the recipient would just love my porcelain skin, long limbs and light eyes.
One clinic mentioned that Jewish eggs can make more and when I said that I’m from Catholic roots, she instructed me to list that I may have Jewish blood somewhere down the line anyway because it would keep my options open. I told her that I wouldn’t lie.
After my first egg donation, I was approached by another agency that offered substantially higher compensation because they specialized in having “exceptional girls.” She made me fill out a questionnaire which asked what celebrity I was most often compared to. She proceeded to spend ten minutes discussing whether I looked more like Emma Stone or Amy Adams and then took me out onto Park Avenue to take flattering “spontaneous” photos of me where she coached me into more flattering angles. I can only speak from my own experience, but I can tell you that the clinics that used my photos as part of the matching process, were able to find someone who wanted to use my eggs at about fifteen times the speed of the other clinics that were basing donor selection on our health records alone. If I had been unattractive I would not have been offered the same level of compensation.
WAED: What are your thoughts on the sorting practice that seems to happen in this industry? I remember an agency in LA that offered me $10k, yet donors in their elite program — models mostly — were paid upwards of triple that amount. I’m not a model, so it was interesting: it made me feel like the eugenic economy option, like the Toyota Corolla of genetic material.
SONJA: The eugenic economy option! Ah, that’s brilliant and heartbreaking. Wow. At one clinic, where I did not end up donating, a male administrator didn’t look at me once during our meeting and barely listened to my responses to his questions about my personal history and whether I would describe my decision to donate as “financially motivated” or not. I had brought a stack of required documents with myGPA and work history etc, that he barely skimmed through.As we were wrapping up, he asked me if I had any pictures and when I gave him my modeling shots he lit up.
He told me that many applicants sit in their system for months or even years without being selected, but it would be very different in my case, because everyone loves a pretty girl and everyone loves an actress. I put that scene in the film. It was just too appalling. We’re talking about controlled breeding!
WAED: There’s a visceral moment in the trailer where a donor candidate is being exposed and physically inspected. What inspired this?
SONJA: Although I never had to physically strip like my character does in the film, I found that the parallels between being an actress and an egg donor were eerily similar. For both, I would show up for castings where there were always far more young women who were seeking the job than there were spots being offered. I would feel pressure to be witty and charming in the interviews and knew that a significant amount of the decision making process was determined by my physical appearance.
I remember it being drilled in my head that this particular egg agency wanted gorgeous, brilliant, Grade A women.
There was a moment when I was receiving a mammogram (as part of the donor physical health inspection) where I just felt very vulnerable and exposed. Even though they were just testing to make sure there were no lumps in my breast tissue, I clearly remember having this perverse fear that they would determine that my breasts weren’t perfect enough to be selected. I mean rationally, I know the thought was absurd but the fear was there, that I wasn’t good enough. That was why I chose to do the scene in the film to show what it’s like being under a microscope like that, but in a more visual, cinematic style.
WAED: Was the mammogram standard procedure? I’ve never heard of an egg donor screening process requiring one — one egg donor was outright rejected because of her family history of breast cancer.
SONJA: Hmm, I’m unsure if the mammogram was standard. I have absolutely no cancer history in my family so it seems unlikely that It was a targeted thing. Also being mid twenties, I can’t imagine that I would have been in a high risk group, right? It only happened once out of the three times I was screened as a donor but come to think of it I never asked if it was standard I just went along with it because I didn’t really know what to expect.
WAED: You mentioned that you experienced difficult experiences as an egg donor. Could you elaborate?
SONJA: As an donor, I would be constantly weighed, asked my BMI, clothing size, amount of sexual partners (and their genders) and other questions that would fall more into the questionable “moral” realm. If I once smoked pot or had same sex experiences, how would this effect the quality of my eggs? I had to disclose the number of sex partners.
I hyper-stimulated after a retrieval and basically had to write a really intense email before anyone from the clinic would agree to give me another ultrasound to check if I was alright even though my ovaries were really enlarged. That was pretty scary.
There were other little things, like I had a nurse rush me out after my egg retrieval when I was still groggy with an IV still in my arm.
WAED: You’re not the first egg donor I’ve spoken to who felt rushed out of the clinic, post-retrieval, when the anesthesia has barely worn off. If you could change one thing about the egg donation industry, what would it be?
SONJA: I would want donors to feel as if they were getting the same quality of daily care as the patients themselves are receiving. I also wish there were more conclusive studies on donor health to really figure out if there are long term effects.
WAED: What was “coming out” as an egg donor like? What are some common misconceptions you come across when you share this side of yourself?
SONJA: When I first did it I told no one except for my mother and boyfriend and I felt a lot of shame. I was secretly documenting what it was like to go through the daily hormone injections and the specifics things were happening to my body. Writing the screenplay was incredibly cathartic because I felt like if I told anyone I would be judged. I’m from Canada originally where it is illegal to receive compensation as an egg donor. When I finally handed over the first draft of my screenplay to be read by my agents and manager I felt tremendous relief. People thought it was lovely that I was helping an infertile woman when I personally don’t think I’ll ever want children. More surprisingly, people from extremely diverse walks of life were REALLY responding to the script! Now when I meet other donors I want to hug them.
WAED: Tell me more about the conversation surrounding reproductive rights that inspired you to create this film.
SONJA: We see a very limited, very heteronormative depiction of reproductive realities in the media although it is starting to improve. I was super excited when the film “Obvious Child” debuted at Sundance last year! Here was a story about abortion and one woman’s candid journey (she wasn’t claiming to speak for anyone else!) and people were captivated. It was funny and irreverent and just so human.In “Ovum,” I play a bisexual actress who makes a lot of questionable decisions. Could an audience relate to a flawed and ultimately self-serving female character who sells her eggs? I wanted to rebel by creating a profoundly flawed heroine who could provoke conversation about eugenics, performance art and reproductive rights. Can one go “too far” for their art? It’s just so silly that it’s 2014 and egg donation is still a largely unexplored taboo topic.
WAED: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
SONJA: I discovered that the in vitro fertilization process can be potentially more affordable than the sometimes exorbitant adoption fees in New York State. The whole issue isn’t black and white.
WAED: Where and when can we watch Ovum?
SONJA: “Ovum” will be on the film festival circuit this spring. For specific screening dates and locations, visit ovumfilm.com. We’ll be updating the site each time we get into a film festival!
WAED: Thanks for speaking with us.