Eggsploitation: Designer Babies, Damaged Moms

“Egg Donors Needed” reads an ad on a campus bulletin board. “We are soliciting attractive women of all ethnicities between the ages of 21-29 who are physically fit and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. $15,000 plus all expenses.” Since the 1978 birth of the world’s first test tube baby, the fertility industry in the U.S. has grown into a multi-billion dollar market offering women all over the world big money, as much as $100,000, in exchange for their eggs. The ads solicit donors, but in effect, they are offers to purchase human eggs.

“Eggsploitation,” a 2010 documentary produced by the Center for Bioethics and Culture, takes a careful look at the women central to this largely unexamined and unregulated business. “Eggsploitation” explains the procedure of egg harvesting, identifies medical risks to donors, and explores the human cost of egg donation in the lives of some women for whom the well-meaning endeavor to make another couple’s dream come true became a living – and in some cases, deadly – nightmare.

Calla suffered a stroke within a few days of taking the required fertility drugs. She was hospitalized for a month, lost her fertility, and nearly lost her life. Alexandra suffered a tortioned ovary, a condition that results when a stimulated ovary twists on itself and cuts off its own blood supply. She underwent multiple surgeries, lost her fertility, and subsequently contracted breast cancer – twice. Jessica sold her eggs three times in her twenties and died from colon cancer at age thirty-four.

Though egg harvesting is a medical procedure, the entire paradigm diverges from conventional medicine in that the patient is not ill. In fact, it is precisely because of her excellent health and other desirable traits, that she is solicited to become a supply which will meet another party’s demand. “Eggsploitation” primarily addresses the substantial, underreported health risks to the donor, but it also raises important questions concerning this practice which literally commoditizes human life:

  • If prospective buyers evaluate a supplier by looking at her picture and IQ score, does that elevate the value of the resulting life or cheapen it?
  • How do we really feel about conception by contract?
  • Can a mother ever inquire as to whether she has biological offspring? (With most agencies, she can’t.)

“Eggsploitation” is a must-see for any woman considering egg donation and for couples considering in-vitro fertilization. Beyond that narrow audience, though, the questions it raises call for a thoughtful public discussion about our respect for human life, the place and value of children and families, and what it means to be human in an era of made-to-order humans.

This article first appeared in Salvo 14, Fall 2010.

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