Recession spurs egg and sperm donations

Giving provides extra income

By Bella English
Globe Staff / April 7, 2009
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Charitable donations may be down because of the recession, but another type of donation is up for the very same reason: egg and sperm.

More women are trying to make money by offering their eggs to infertile couples, and men are doing the same with their sperm. Egg donor agencies in the Boston area report that their applications are up from between 25 and 100 percent over this time a year ago, and New England sperm banks have seen a similiar trend in the past six months.

"What we've seen is that the economy seems to have inspired more people to look at alternative ways to earning money," said Sanford M. Benardo, president of Northeast Assisted Fertility Group, a company that recruits, screens, and matches women who want to become egg donors or surrogate mothers. "We're seeing people who might not otherwise do this but for their economic condition."

At Benardo's agency, which has offices in Boston and New York, applications from women who want to offer their eggs have doubled in the past year, with the bulk coming in the past six months. If a woman meets the agency's criteria, she earns $10,000 every time she donates. (Technically, the women are compensated for their time and inconvenience; it is illegal to sell one's eggs.)

But there's a paradox: At the same time donor applications are up, demand for donors is down.

"Fewer folks are in a financial position to access this family-building option," said Amy Demma, founder of Prospective Families, an egg donation agency in Wellesley. "So while there are certainly more women [donors] lined up outside the clinic door with application in hand, there aren't more getting through the door."

Said Benardo: "It's almost like an employment agency flooded with resumes but people aren't hiring so much."

Couples, and some single women, pay $20,000 to $30,000 for an egg donation, in vitro fertilization, and transfer to the recipient. Donors generally must be healthy nonsmokers between ages 21 and 32 with a good family health history, "reasonably educated and reasonably attractive," Benardo said. Screening involves physical, psychological, and genetic testing. If accepted, the woman undergoes hormone injections, then a surgical procedure to remove her eggs. Fees paid to the donor generally range from $5,000 to $10,000. Recipients choose prescreened donors.

"This is not easy money," said Kathy Benardo, the egg donor program manager for the company she runs with her husband. "You can't make a living doing this, but it helps supplement your income if you're doing part-time work or in graduate school."

Hollyn Robinson did three donations last year and has another coming up in May. Her first was done through an agency in Springfield, which paid her $5,000. Her second and third were through a New York agency, which paid her $5,500 and $6,000, respectively. For her next one, she is going through Prospective Families in Wellesley, which will pay her $6,000. The money, she said, will go toward car payments and bedroom furniture for her children.

Robinson, who lives in Binghamton, N.Y., but plans to relocate to Westborough with her family, has three sons, ages 12, 6, and 3. For her, money was a motivator but not the only one. "This last year it definitely took a toll on my body," said Robinson, 32. "I'm the kind of person who really doesn't want to say no."

Demma's agency has seen a 30 percent increase in donor applications in the past year. Some are stay-at-home mothers, some are young women who want to help finance graduate school. But she said there's also an altruistic motive, with fertile women wanting to enter into "collaborative reproduction" with those who have been unable to have a baby.

Ellen Sarasohn Glazer, a Newton social worker and author of "Having Your Baby Through Egg Donation," cautions donors against doing it solely for the money.

"There's a much greater risk of looking back with regret," she said. "They should really pause at the starting point and say, 'How might I feel 10 or 15 years from now? How will my parents feel, because this is their grandchild?' "

Still, Glazer says she understands that in a recession, a mother with children to feed may be more motivated to donate: "She might say it's worth it to feed my children and help a family at the same time."

The Donor Source, which is based in Irvine, Calif., and has a Boston office, has experienced a 25 percent increase in applications in the past year, with most coming in the past six months. The local office recently held a seminar for prospective donors.

"I usually do seminars at the office, but we've had so many applications that I actually rented a big space in a hotel," said Sheryl Steinberg, the Massachusetts case manager.

In Charlestown, NEEDS (National Exchange for Egg Donation and Surrogacy) also reports a 25 percent increase. "Very few of them will say just straight out it's for the money," said NEEDS manager Jan Lee. "They don't want to sound like a money-grabber. We ask them if they're applying because they need the money or out of the goodness of their heart, and they say both."

At Tufts Medical Center, Dr. John Buster, chief of reproductive endocrinology, said the donor agencies that his department uses for infertile couples have reported a doubling and even tripling of phone calls from potential donors.

Dr. Vito Cardone, founder of Cardone Reproductive Medicine & Infertility, a fertility clinic in Stoneham, said the weak economy undoubtedly has broadened the pool of egg donors. One prospective recipient, who has advertised for donors, told him that a few months ago she had few replies but now has many.

Cardone cautions against women seeing this as a gold mine.

"The money that's given is limited; it's not going to be something to create a yearly revenue to get them through life," he said.

He believes in compensating women for their time and trouble but said there needs to be "some ethics to it" - both an altruistic motive and a monetary limit.

"When I see people who want to 'sell' their eggs for $20,000 or more it makes no sense, because then it becomes commercial, like selling any other thing," he said. "There has to be a little bit of kindness, because these couples have had a lot of hardship and desire a child very strongly."

But economic reality remains a major motivator. One single, 24-year-old woman who lives in New York and works in advertising recently applied to be an egg donor, after a friend did so. The woman, who asked not to be identified because she doesn't want friends and relatives to know her plans, said she is amazed at the money to be made.

"It made me sit up and take notice," she said. "I'm looking to go to graduate school and hoping to use this to help finance that."

Sperm donations are also on the increase, although they pay much less - an average of $85 to $100 per donation. Such "banks" generally require that the donor be at least 5-foot-8, a college student or graduate between the ages of 18 and 38, and in good health.

California Cryobank, which has offices in Cambridge, recruits largely on college campuses and asks each donor for a year's commitment, with the average donor contributing 2-3 times a week.

In the past six months, applications are up 20 percent, said Scott Brown, communications manager. "I think the recession has certainly opened up interest," he said. But less than 1 percent of applicants are chosen, based on family history, a physical exam, and analyses of blood, urine, and semen. "It's tougher to get into the Cryobank than into Harvard," Brown said.