Students earn 'egg money' at clinics By ANDREA JONES The Atlanta Journal-Constitution The tiny ad in the Kennesaw State Sentinel promised thousands of dollars to healthy female students willing to donate their eggs. That got one 21-year-old woman thinking. She could pay down her $4,000 credit card bill with money to spare. After debating for a week, the woman, an aspiring teacher, swallowed her doubts and made the call. Three months later, after an intense round of tests, she was on an operating table having 23 eggs sucked from her body. When she woke from the anesthesia, groggy and sore, she got a big hug from the fertility clinic's egg donation coordinator and, later, a check for $5,000. Meanwhile, her eggs were whisked off to a waiting petri dish to be fertilized and implanted into a stranger, who, with luck, would give birth to a baby the egg donor would never meet. "I certainly didn't feel like a greedy monster or anything," said the woman, who signed an agreement that she wouldn't reveal her name in connection with egg donation. "Everyone walked away happy." With egg donor compensation climbing to an average $7,500 nationally, cash-strapped college students are taking notice. And couples who shell out between $20,000 and $50,000 to get pregnant aren't afraid to handpick the best and brightest. Dr. Mark Perloe, medical director of Georgia Reproductive Specialists in Atlanta, said couples are getting pickier as the technology gets better -- and that means college students are even more in demand. "We've had couples sit in the office and debate whether a donor's 3.0 GPA at Georgia is as good as another donor's 3.0 at Emory," he said. "We've had a woman picked because she was a piano player. Couples definitely aren't afraid to ask for what they want." The five fertility clinics in Georgia actively recruit college women. They advertise in campus newspapers and buy radio ad space on stations popular with the 20-something set. A few even plaster fliers in gyms and apartment complexes near campuses. Perloe, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Medical College of Georgia and author of a book on infertility, said donors provide a valuable service. "I've actually encouraged my own daughter to do it," he said. "She's a senior in college and could use the extra money. And they are paid really well." According to statistics compiled by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine -- a nonprofit organization based in Washington -- the number of clinics offering egg donation has ballooned in the last two decades. In 1985, one clinic offered the service. In 2000 -- the most recent tracking year -- nearly 400 clinics around the country used egg donors. More than 30,000 babies have been born through egg donations. Rigid screening At Georgia Reproductive, about half the donors are current college students, donor coordinator Erika Rubant said. To qualify, prospective donors have to fill out extensive medical history forms and undergo counseling and psychological testing. They attend information sessions, work with a genetic counselor and get lab work-ups and gynecology exams. They also sign agreements promising to keep their identity secret in order to protect the unborn children and prevent egg recipients from discovering the names of their egg donors. Rubant said donors first meet with a counselor to talk about possible long-term emotional and psychological effects of being an egg donor. "The counselor reminds them that once this process is over, there could be a child that is genetically linked that they will never know," Rubant said. That conversation sometimes weeds out potential donors. "We want to make sure that donors are here for the right reasons," Rubant said. After the donor passes through the screening process, Rubant gathers her data and shares it with recipient couples. While the process is completely anonymous, couples can request to see childhood pictures of the donor if the young woman agrees. After passing through the battery of tests and being chosen by a couple, the 21-year-old woman started taking medications. First she began inhaling a nasal spray called Synarel that stopped her body from producing eggs, tricking her ovaries into temporary menopause. Ten days later she switched to another set of drugs -- this time to stimulate her ovaries into ripening more than a dozen eggs instead of the usual one a month. She had to inject the drugs into her leg with a needle -- "the worst part, totally," she says -- for 12 days. "I could definitely feel [my ovaries] getting bigger, especially when I went running," she said. "It was kind of a weird feeling." After finishing the cycle of injections, she gave herself a final "trigger" shot that got the eggs ready for harvesting. Exactly 36 hours later, she checked into the clinic for surgery. The retrieval procedure took about 30 minutes. While she felt well enough to go shopping with her mom the afternoon after her surgery, about one in every 100 egg donors goes through what's called "hyperstimulation" -- a condition that can cause the ovaries to swell, sometimes requiring an overnight stay in the hospital. Perloe said risks of hyperstimulation or other serious complications from anesthesia or the surgery itself are "very, very rare." Still, Perloe's clinic requires recipient couples to take out an insurance policy for the donor they choose, agreeing to pay a large deductible should she incur any additional medical costs. The donor said she was so comfortable with the procedure that she did it again last fall and has persuaded two of her friends to begin the process. She jokes that she's a walking advertisement for the clinic. But some of her classmates and friends have raised ethical issues about her choice. She has gotten into debates with friends and, once, in class after telling fellow students she was a donor. Some classmates have told her what she has done is "unnatural or immoral." Her boyfriend kids her that she'll get a knock on her door in 15 years from an angry teenager wanting to meet his biological mom. "It definitely freaked him out," she said. An issue on campuses Student newspapers have had ethical debates over whether to run advertisements seeking donors. Mark Goodman, the executive director of the Student Law Press Center in Washington, said he advised campus newspapers to follow their hearts when deciding whether to publish ads from clinics seeking eggs. "It's a brave new world out there," he said. "And students have to make up their minds for themselves." Georgia Tech's student newspaper, The Technique, refuses to run egg donation ads. The school's policy, advisers said, prohibits the paper from publishing any ads that seek body parts. The paper does run ads for sperm donation. The Kennesaw State donor said she was motivated not only by the money but also by the thought that she could help a couple achieve their dream of having a family. Her mother describes her as a "helper," someone who always stepped up to donate her time. "She was the volunteer in the cancer ward, smiling away," her mother said. "I wasn't surprised when she talked to me about this." The donor said her almost daily trips to the doctor's office didn't interfere with her summer job. But seeing would-be parents in the waiting room was a little tough, she said. "I'm young. I'd go in there by myself and people would always look." Sometimes she would quickly move a plain silver band from her middle to her left ring finger so the couples would think she was married and not immediately peg her as a donor. "Everyone definitely checks each other out," she said. "You do kind of wonder if one of the couples could be getting your egg." Reproductive Biology Associates, another Atlanta fertility clinic, established the first anonymous egg donation program in Georgia in 1992. Today the program is one of the largest in the Southeast. The clinic boasts more than 100 successful donation surgeries a year and pays its donors $6,000 per successful donation. Marketing manager Mary Pat O'Connor has been with the company for more than 15 years and served as egg donor coordinator when the clinic first opened. "I believe in the program with all my heart," she said. "We've made a lot of couples very happy." Still, she said she wouldn't want her own 23-year-old daughter to donate. "I don't like the thought of her giving away her eggs or having a child out there with her genetic material," she said. "I wouldn't support it." The 21-year-old said she has made peace -- and more than $10,000 -- with her decision to donate eggs. "It's a tiny little zygote," she said. "I don't wake up in the middle of the night and wonder how my egg is doing."