In fall 2001, LILITH published a report on the growing number of requests for Jewish women’s eggs for in-vitro fertilization. LILITH noted that of the few young Jewish women who had initially responded to ads offering escalating sums to donors with high SAT scores and four Jewish grandparents, all had ultimately rejected the idea of becoming egg donors. Rebecca Greenberg’s story didn’t begin any differently As a 19-year-old college student at a large state university in the eariy 1990s, Rebecca (a pseudonym) saw an ad in her college paper offering egg donors a financial incentive of $5,000. She sat through an information session with about 200 other young women, and after an “excruciatingly honest” description of the process, Rebecca’s enthusiasm cooled. Almost a decade later, Rebecca acted on her original impulse and became an egg donor Recently she talked about why she made this uncommon decision, and about the changes since in her own life.
I My journey to egg donation was a long one. I considered the process thi^ee separate times. After that first information session, I knew it wasn’t for me. Not then. The second time, although the money and prospect of providing eggs to an infertile couple still appealed to me, it still seemed too much of a commitment, and it felt a little sordid that I might be doing it only for the money. By the time I was out of college and gainftilly employed, the money wasn’t my central impetus any more, and I went as far as asking my family for a medical history, which is a required part of the screening process. But, I opted out, again.
Then came 9/11.
Like many New Yorkers, I wanted to help, but didn’t know how. They wouldn’t even allow people to give blood. Then I remembered egg donation. Finally, the timing was right: I wasn’t married and had no significant other in my life, I was physically ready, I had the time to commit to the process, and this was something I could do for someone else. It felt to me that helping people create families is doing the best work.
By the time the LILITH cover story came across my desk at the Jewish organization where I worked in 2001, the issue was flilly back on my radar. At an office study session, I learned that it is the womb, not the egg or the sperm, that determines if a baby is Jewish. I now understood that Jewish couples preferred Jewish eggs not for religious reasons but because they thought that, this way, their baby would have a better chance of looking like them.
Because I had observed fertility problems in my own friends and colleagues in the Jewish community, I had hoped that the clinic would designate my eggs for donation to a Jewish couple. Officially, the clinic denied my request, but implied that they don’t get many people who look like me. So I assumed, and was satisfied knowing, that Jewish couples would likely be the first in line for my eggs.
With a motivation more powerful than money, I finally committed: I would become an egg donor.
II On college campuses, the age of the intended audience for the egg donation ads is between 18 and 22. But the Center for Human Reproduction states that egg donors should be between the ages of 21 and 34, and notes that exceptions are only occasionally made for ages of 18 to 21 and 34 to 35. Even at 21, potential donors may be too young to ftilly understand potential complications or consequences, which is why a detailed prescreening and explanation of the process and the risks is considered so important.
I was a little concerned that the IVF procedure might pose a risk to my own reproductive future, but, since I’d had two pregnancies in the past, I felt pretty confident about my fertility. [Rebecca opted for temiination of the first pregnancy, and the second ended in a miscarriage.] Because I was doing something good, I really believed that I would not be harmed by the process. In addition, the chance to help potential parents become a family was my opportunity to balance out the reproductive choices I had made in the past. I even saw donating my eggs as an opportunity to “right a wrong.”
In my professional and social circles, I was very open about my decision. My belief was that it was an egg that I wasn’t going to use—better it be used by someone else than not at all. Some asked me how I would feel knowing that some of my biological material would be out there, questions like, “Wouldn’t you want to meet the child one day?” “What if more than one family gets to use your eggs?” “What will you do if the child tracks you down one day?” But no one was negative. So many people, especially at the office, told me “it’s a mitzvah.”
I think that more women don’t follow through [to actually donate] because their initial motivation is financial, and this is not enough to sustain them. For me to go through with donating, it had to become about more than just the money: it was my chance to do something for other people.
III Rebecca underwent the process safely, and was told that between 8-14 of her eggs were hai-vested for donation. Two years later, her faith in God, karma and her own fertility were justified—Rebecca is now happily married with a healthy baby daughter of her own, and she says she has no regrets.
Initially, I had some fear about its affecting my own ability to have children, but as I went through it I became convinced that if I was doing something good for others, I couldn’t be hurt. Because I considered it for so long, I had thought about every consequence of what could happen. Obviously, you never know with any medical procedures—there are always risks. But, like the nine-inch needle I took in the back for an epidural during labor, the benefit outweighs the risk. And, if anything, having my daughter has made me doubly confident I did the right thing.
I’d only recommend egg donation to someone who was sure. I have advised women who were in the early stages of researching the possibility, and I gave them a brutally honest first-person perspective. I told them that egg donation is a tremendous commitment, and takes a toll on your time and body. Because you have to be on the same cycle as the egg recipient—the eggs are harvested and immediately implanted in the recipient—you have to go to the hospital every day, either for blood work or for an ultrasound to monitor your progress. You need to give yourself daily hormone injections, sometimes multiple times a day. But, in my opinion, the most important thing is that you have to truly believe that you are not giving away a child. If you are going to spend the rest of your life looking at children on playgrounds and wondering if it’s possible that child could be yours, then perhaps it’s not the right choice for you.
People have asked what I would do if, 20 years from now, a child that was biologically half mine tracked me down. But I just can’t imagine that any child resulting from an IVF process using my egg would want to track me down. The parents don’t know who I am. There may be clinics that don’t guarantee anonymity, but in this case, the records are sealed; they’re not even computerized. The only way the file could be opened is if it’s court-ordered, for example, in the case of a terminal illness. And in that type of extreme scenario, I wouldn’t object to being contacted.
I’m already on the bone-marrow registry, so why would helping out in this case be any different?
IV Why don’t more young Jewish women donate their eggs? Rebecca speculates that Jewish parents tend to be more judgmental of unusual choices, and that some single women may fear they are letting their parents down by not producing children of their own. Despite her conviction that she made the right choice, Rebecca still hasn’t told her own parents (and therefore requested that LILITH use a pseudonym).
I would really like to tell my parents, and hope to one day. I think they’d see it as a mitzvah, but they’d also be upset about my taking a risk that could have impacted my life and that of their potential grandchildren. [According to the CHR website, www.centerforhumanreprod.com, egg donation does not appear to have any long-teim effects on a donor’s fertility.] I was also afraid that people in the community wouldn’t see this as my personal choice: they would see it as reflecting badly on my parents, that they “let me become poor enough” that I was forced to make this choice.
I told my husband pretty early in our relationship, after about two or three months. I liked to get this announcement out of the way when I was dating, in case it was going to be a problem. But it was something I was proud of, and I hoped he would be too. He later told me that he thought it was amazingly selfless of me. He thought it said a lot about me that I could be that generous. Someday I will tell my daughter, too…when she’s old enough to understand the context, and that by donating an egg, I wasn’t giving away one of her siblings.
V While sperm and embryos can be easily iiozen for future use, freezing unfertilized eggs is a more challenging process. Within 10 years, some speculate, women may have the opportunity to freeze their eggs for future implantation.
Still, with the tendency toward late marriage for today’s 20- and 30-somethings, these factors combine to create a fertility crisis. However, the crisis can be alleviated through community action and services, and, Rebecca suggests, with more support for egg donation as a choice for Jewish women.
Because donation is something that Jewish women haven’t traditionally done, that gives the impression that this is something Jewish women shouldn’t do.
Today there are thousands of Jewish couples who cannot have children. By the time that they feel they’re ready financially, they start having fertility problems. Young Jewish women who are still young enough to produce viable eggs, even those who have families of their own but who have chosen not to have any more children, may want to consider egg donation. The Jewish community could help in several ways, from providing day care and other helpful services, so couples can choose to have children earlier, to being more accepting, even supportive, of a young Jewish woman’s choice to donate her eggs. But this doesn’t change the fact that for many couples it’s already too late, and the community should be more supportive of them, too.
Though people don’t readily talk about it, I don’t believe that I’m the only Jewish woman to ever donate eggs. We’re always taught the value of pikuah nefesh, of saving a life. But egg donation is giving a life. It shouldn’t be such a taboo topic.
Esther D. Kustanowitz is a freelance writer living in New York.