Over the course of several years I had the privilege of participating in many initial meetings between egg donors and their recipients. These meetings were almost always warm, optimistic encounters that transformed strangers into kin. I especially remember one recipient who seemed to float out of the room and phoned me a few minutes later to say, “I want her eggs more than I want my own.”
From my vantage point, donor-recipient meetings provided a solid foundation for many families built through egg donation. I observed that the women who had met their donors or spoken with them at length by phone felt confident and optimistic during pregnancy. They seemed to feel secure in knowing they were their child’s real, true mothers. In addition, having connected with their donor seemed to remove anxiety about where their child was coming from. In fact, that anxiety was often replaced by what I think of as the donor “add on” — the recognition that the donor brings something that is a nice and welcome contribution to the family. There was the donor with perfect pitch, the donors with a few additional inches of height, the donor with the entrepreneurial spirit that the recipient wished she had.
And so it was with a combination of fear and sadness that I “welcomed” the arrival of egg banks five or six years ago. I knew that these programs would be attractive to many women seeking donated eggs. Having the eggs “already there” spares recipients all the time, effort, costs and anxiety that came with finding a “real live donor” who had to show up, pass all her medical and mental health screening and then go on to produce good eggs. Undoubtedly, these programs would be cost-effective for recipients. (Although I did not appreciate how much the role finances would play until I began reading of “money-back guarantees”).
Egg banks could have been a “win-win” option — and perhaps some will still prove to be. A woman could undergo stimulation, have her eggs retrieved and frozen. She could then be matched with a recipient couple or individual whom she could meet or talk with before consenting to the donation. Recipients could enjoy all the benefits that come from meeting their donor and still be spared the anxiety of knowing it could all fall through. Frozen banks could have been great but so far they have represented a giant step backwards — in my opinion — for egg donation.
Recent visits to the websites of leading frozen egg banks confirmed my fears that the egg banks seem to have little interest in connecting donors and recipients. In fact, they seem to regard connection as either irrelevant or something to be avoided. By contrast, the frozen banks seem more focused on offering up an assortment of genes than a real person. One program proudly tells recipients that they will receive the following about donors: childhood photos, audio interviews, blood type, height, weight, build, whether pregnancies have been achieved, hair and eye color, years of education, grade point averages and SAT scores, ethnic background, occupation, interests, family medical history. With a special agreement people can sometimes arrange to receive adult photos. Fresh donor programs usually offer up several adult photos and I have known many recipients who have requested and received additional photos.
What is strikingly missing at “bank” websites is any recognition of the intimate and lasting relationship that would exist between the woman who donates and the woman who hopefully becomes a mother and maybe a grandmother and great-grandmother through her eggs. The connecting of family trees now and for generations to come goes beyond SAT scores and grade-point averages.
We are still early on in the life of egg donation. The first pregnancies through this process came in the early 1980s. We are earlier still in the world of egg freezing. I hope that people involved in egg donation — physicians, “egg banks” and recipients — will be moved — as I surely was — by the segment on CBS This Morning (January 10) that showed several sperm donor offspring enjoying a gathering with their donor. As one young woman said, “I always felt loved and wanted but something was missing before I found my donor.”
There is the opportunity for there to be a new generation of donor offspring who can grow up without that sense of something missing. I hope that some involved in the still “infancy” of egg donation will see this as an opportunity to lead the way.