A small but growing number of Jewish Israeli women are traveling to the United States to donate their eggs to infertile Jewish couples undergoing in vitro fertilization — a trend that some say strengthens Jewish continuity but also raises serious moral questions about the commercialization of fertility.
There are at least three egg donor companies operating in the United States that deal primarily or entirely with Jewish Israeli donors. These companies offer applications and donor information in Hebrew. They also provide staff in America and Israel who are proficient in Hebrew and claim a familiarity with, and sensitivity to, Jewish law.
“When you have your basic right to reproduce taken away from you, you are always going to want to find the thing closest to you,” said Judy Weiss, a registered nurse who is the founder of A Jewish Blessing, a New Jersey-based agency that deals exclusively with Jewish donors and recipients. “It’s not really about religion. It’s about a genetic group, a family. We have a shared history of suffering, a bond. We are part of the same club.”
But while demand for Jewish donors’ eggs is growing, infertility doctors say that few American Jewish women are willing to go through the process of donating eggs. There are grueling forms to fill out and weeks of psychological and physical screening, and then there’s nearly a month of daily hormone injections and close medical supervision. Finally, there’s the egg retrieval — a procedure done under anesthesia in which a needle is inserted into the donor’s ovaries to pluck the ripe eggs. These eggs, combined with the sperm of the recipient’s partner, produce embryos that are inserted back into the uterus of the recipient or inside a gestational carrier. “I want to help my people grow,” a woman who is an egg donor said in an interview with the Forward. (She and five other egg donors interviewed asked to remain anonymous.) But this is more than an altruistic act: While the sale of eggs is forbidden, “compensation” is allowed. Compensation in New York is about $8,000 for a single cycle, during which the donor takes hormone injections and eggs are extracted. The recipient couple or their insurance pays for the medical costs, including the drugs.
“There’s definitely a specialty market for Jewish eggs,” notes Debora Spar, the new president of Barnard College and the author of the 2006 book “The Baby Business,” which is about the political, economic and social issues surrounding reproductive technology. “This is a market that’s growing rapidly, partly because it’s becoming more acceptable to use donors’ eggs… and because it can be a very good solution for women above a certain age.”
Spar is troubled by this new intersection between young Israeli donors and older American Jewish women trying to conceive. “There’s a moral hazard that if women do increasingly believe they could put off child bearing for longer, they might choose to do so just because it’s medically possible,” she said.
Others see the relationship in more spiritual terms. “My mission is to explain that donors are women who are giving the most wonderful thing there is to give, and are doing it from the bottom of their hearts,” said Ruth Tavor, who opened NY LifeSpring seven years ago to recruit Israeli egg donors after her own long but eventually successful fertility treatment. She now has 203 Israeli donors on file.
Tavor offers women who approach her agency counseling on the physical and psychological challenges of egg donation. “Donors have to understand the meaning of what they are doing,” Tavor said. “Because once you give it, you can’t take it back.”
Tavor accepts only one out of 30 applicants, after also screening for education, lifestyle and health, and family history, among other factors.
And there are health risks, which is one reason that doctors suggest no woman become a donor more than six times. “You are being put under anesthesia, you can hemorrhage, you can get blood clots,” Weiss said. “Statistically, it’s a very low chance, but you could die. Donors shouldn’t think it is easy.”
One 30-year-old Israeli woman who was just beginning her third cycle of donation said she understood that she will know nothing about the outcome of the eggs she produces. “All I wanted to know is that [they go to] a warm, loving couple who deserve a child,” she said.
She has mostly kept her donation activities a secret: “It’s a very intimate thing. I didn’t tell anyone, because people are just backwards. They say I will have kids scattered all over the world,” she said.
Her reticence is not unusual. Another Israeli donor said that she didn’t tell her boyfriend about what she was doing until the two moved in together and she could no longer hide the daily injections and the hormones stored in the refrigerator.
Conversations with half a dozen Israeli donors reveal a group of determined young women undeterred by the physical discomfort of hormone injections, barely affected by mood swings and empowered by their ability to give others a most precious gift. Yet, most admit that they would not have done it without compensation.
They recognize that egg harvesting raises troubling questions. Is the egg a priceless human organ or a renewable commodity? Who owns it? Are these women donors — or simply suppliers?
“Over time, there will be demand for more regulation,” Spar predicted. “Not to limit the number of eggs, but to make sure that donors are fully informed and their medical issues taken care of.” According to Spar, the international character of these transactions would complicate the enforcement of such regulations. Right now, fertility clinics are required to comply with minimal regulations at the federal level, she said.
“Ideally, you would want regulation that is the same across international borders, but it’s just not going to happen,” Spar said. “People are going to keep moving from place to place, and most of the trade will be invisible. Of course, the young Israeli woman who travels to New York and receives money for her eggs is not going to declare it on her customs form.”