Should I become an egg donor -- to pay off my loans?

I'm troubled by the ethical implications of taking money for my ova.

By Cary Tennis
Published January 25, 2007 12:10PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I've recently been giving some thought to donating eggs. I don't exactly need the money because I have a job that pays me a very decent, if not at all extravagant, amount of money, and I can cover my expenses comfortably, but it would be nice to pay off a big chunk of my $11,000 in student loans. I have not yet made any attempt to find an appropriate agency to serve as middleman, so I'm not sure what is generally required in terms of provision of personal information, but I would be willing to put information about my ethnic background, test scores, education, looks, etc. in writing (but not photographs or voice recordings or that kind of thing) in a database, and I would have no qualms about meeting the couple who wanted my eggs.

I am not too worried about privacy because I'm pretty sure I know what I'd be comfortable with. I'm also not freaked out about the idea of my biological offspring being brought into the world and raised by someone else (or, for that matter, wanting to seek me out years from now). I sort of like the idea, actually. Is that totally weird? Also, I am a little unclear as to why it appears to be considered objectionable to pay or accept more than a certain amount of money for the service -- over $7,000, for example, seems to be considered (by various message board users, anyway) quite too much. I don't really understand this; it seems to me that if someone wants to pay, say, $10,000, and they have it, then why shouldn't they, and why shouldn't I accept it? Anyway, I just don't see why some people have such a problem with the whole issue.

Which brings me to the fact that, if I were to pursue this, I don't think I would want to tell anyone about it. You never know how some people will react, and I wouldn't want people's opinions of me to be diminished by their prejudice against what I believe is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. For example, one of my two roommates has implied that she looks down on such things. (She was sort of grossed out by the prospect of sperm donation on a TV show we were watching once.) Of course, keeping the process secret from her would be almost impossible, since it would involve injecting myself at home and significantly altering my schedule for a month or so, right? I would have to tell her, and perhaps live with her disapproval.

On top of that, I am sure that most of my family members, to whom I am very close, would disapprove, or at the very least be freaked out. None of them live in the same city as I do, so logistically they would not have to know, but emotionally keeping it a secret would be very difficult for me. What's more, I wonder if it is the kind of thing that, years from now, I might feel compelled to tell them -- if, for example, someone was dying, or I was planning to have a child of my own.

I have, basically, two questions for you: 1) Am I neglecting to come to terms with certain ethical problems here? 2) Would I end up miserable if I couldn't tell my friends or family what I was up to (or if they were disgusted with me because of it)?

I see it like this: I'm 22 years old, and I have various attributes that I think prospective parents would find very attractive. I am a great egg donor candidate, I could get a lot of money, and for a substantial but temporary inconvenience I could eliminate at least half of the principal on my loans. The sooner I do this, obviously, the better. So why not?

To Be or Not to Be ... an Egg Donor

Dear Prospective Egg Donor,

Frankly, I don't know why you shouldn't sell your eggs for as much as you can get.

But I am no ethicist.

Randy Cohen is an ethicist. While he does not answer your particular question, he does take up the question of whether and when to tell one's child of his or her provenance here (you have to scroll down a little). If you see his answer, I think you will agree that he is a reasonably reasonable man, and perhaps he would be so kind as to entertain your particular question, if you were to write to him.

For a lengthy, serious and thorough treatment of the ethical question of payment for egg donation and surrogacy, see the article by Bonnie Steinbock, Ph.D., abstracted here -- or find the full-text PDF here. Steinbock gives the matter careful thought and concludes that while one should be paid for one's expenses and economic losses while undergoing medical procedures to donate one's eggs, one ought not be paid for the eggs themselves -- payment for which raises troubling questions.

As for me, I fear we spend too much in consideration of too little. I think that if you stay within the law and are not doing any harm to anyone, you may do whatever you wish. If we must live with the ills of capitalism and the free market, we ought at least to take advantage of some of its freedoms. Social thinkers may decry the eventual implications of your actions, but that is not your problem. If it were your problem, then your freedom to act as you wished as long as you were not harming anyone would be meaningless. You would be responsible for the slightest reverberations of your behavior on through the centuries. You would be paralyzed. That is why we have laws. Where there is clear danger or harm, we have laws. Where there are no laws, we have freedom of action.

If we live in a market society, why should the market not set the price for our eggs? Because we blanch at the notion that beauty is disproportionately rewarded in our society? Because we tremble at the notion of life having a dollar value? Every time a person dies for lack of health insurance, every time a person dies for lack of housing, it is because we place a dollar value on life. And yet when it comes to selling eggs, we quake at the implications.

What if everyone sold their eggs?

If everyone sold their eggs the price would go down. Currently the supply of eggs is strangled by thin scruple, yielding abundant demand and thus value.

But again, I am not an ethicist. I am just a guy at a cafe table. If you want to make your decision based on careful ethical considerations, that's fine. Read that article and consider the arguments. Ask Randy Cohen. I readily admit that in matters, say, of ecology, to act heedlessly simply because there are no strict laws governing our actions is wrong, bad, evil, stupid. But in this case, I don't really see the harm. Others may. I see our squeamishness. I see our superstitious fear. I see our true values revealed. I see the miraculous power of science. But I don't see the clear harm.

I would argue for exercising your freedom -- in the absence of any law against it.

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