Egg-sharing is sometimes treated as the less acceptable face of gamete donation. What is known as altruistic donation, where a woman who is not having fertility treatment herself volunteers to donate eggs to a woman she does not know, is seen as the gold standard. Putting aside for the moment the issue of whether being ‘compensated’ with the sum of £750 completely undermines the altruistic premise and principle, let us consider whether egg sharing deserves the second class status accorded by many. To remind ourselves, egg sharing is a scheme by which a woman under 35 who is already undergoing IVF, agrees to share the ‘crop’ of eggs she produces with another woman who, for a range of reasons, does not have eggs that can produce a viable pregnancy. This happens in exchange for free or subsidised fertility treatment for the donor. An immediate response to this might be that the practice is exploitative, taking advantage of women at a particularly vulnerable time, both emotionally and financially. And what if the recipient becomes pregnant but the donor doesn’t? Isn’t this going to cause psychological damage for unsuccessful donors who will be traumatised by thoughts of the recipient conceiving their genetic children?
All the above are very proper fears and anxieties, but recent research seems to be confirming anecdotal evidence that has been leaking out for years, that empathy and a sense of reciprocity between the women involved can make egg-sharing a win/win situation for both families. Obviously there need to be very clear and fair protocols in clinics. Donors must be women whose egg quality is not compromised, so they are likely to be having IVF because of blocked fallopian tubes or for male factor reasons. There must be agreements about how the eggs are to be shared and what happens if too few eggs are produced to give each a reasonable chance. And of course both parties must have good pre-treatment counselling to make sure that the long-term implications of the transaction are understood and accepted. Another factor to take into account is that in egg sharing the donor would be undergoing artificial stimulation of egg production anyway for her own benefit. In some countries, notably pro-natalist Israel, egg-sharing is the only form of egg donation allowed, it being considered unethical to stimulate a woman who is not in need of fertility treatment herself.
Have a read of the report on the research carried in BioNews on 23rd April. It certainly made me think that egg sharing deserves a better reputation.
And as it happens, the Family supplement of The Guardian on 7th July carried an article about Suzanne and Mark Harper who had a child by sperm donation and on trying for a second child decided to donate eggs. Suzanne said, “I was so thrilled to have Libby in our lives. I felt this overwhelming urge to do for someone else what someone else had done for us”. Sadly Suzanne did not become pregnant but the woman she donated to did. Unusually, the clinic seem to have been very forthcoming about the progress of the recipient’s pregnancy, revealing that she was carrying twins and ‘phoning Suzanne, at her request, when the babies were born. In the meantime Suzanne had become pregnant with one of the embryos frozen from her first cycle but had miscarried at six weeks. Despite all this Suzanne says that she has never felt envious of the woman who received her eggs. “I’ll always cherish the knowledge that somewhere out there there’s another family who only happened because of our heartache”.
Not only have Suzanne and Mark been enormously generous to others, they are clearly being open with their daughter Libby. They were, however, disappointed to find that Libby’s donor had not written very much information about himself, but it will be possible for Libby to trace him when she is 18 – and indeed presumably to find half-siblings via the Donor Sibling Registry – as the donor sperm was imported from the US. As an egg donor Suzanne was keen to give as much information about herself as possible. “When I was given the chance to write some information for the family who’ve had the twins, I told them all about myself- what sort of person I am and what I’m interested in”. She is looking forward to the time when Libby and her half-sisters can get to know each other. Mark, meanwhile, says that if Libby wants to to to the US to find her genetic father then he’d be keen to tag along. “I want to shake his hand and say, ‘I can’t thank you enough mate.’
Three cheers for this truly modern family!