Last week marked the 37th birthday of Louise Brown, commonly known as “the world’s first test-tube baby.” Her British parents were the first couple to successfully have a child using in vitro fertilization. The same technology that allowed for her birth launched a reproductive revolution and forever expanded the ways in which conception is possible.
When Brown’s mother, Lesley, died in 2012, an obituary in the New York Times remarked upon the significance of Louise’s birth, calling it “an instant global sensation and a turning point in the treatment of infertility.” Her story is lauded as a medical breakthrough and a victory for women. Yet the same methods that allowed Brown’s conception to take place have led to significant health challenges for countless other women — and in some cases have cost them their lives. Unlike the case with Brown, their stories remain largely untold.
The moment baby making was reduced to a laboratory technique, sperm, eggs, and wombs became interchangeable and the biological aspect of reproduction became a footnote. A few short years after Brown was born using her parents’ own sperm and egg, conception via anonymous egg donation became a reality. And a mere decade later, surrogate pregnancy had become commonplace. While most media attention has focused on the children created through these arrangements, many of the women and men who donated their gametes now silently fear what their participation in this endeavor might have actually wrought.
Consider Maggie, a 33-year-old woman from Puyallup, Wash. She’s a 911 operator, but perhaps the most remarkable line on her résumé is that she’s a stage IV breast-cancer survivor. Maggie’s family does not have a history of breast cancer, and her active, healthy lifestyle placed her at relatively low risk for such health complications. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32 — much to the shock of her doctor, family members, and friends — there was only one questionable aspect of her medical history: the fact that she had served as a serial egg donor, donating a total of ten times with two different physicians.
In a just-released documentary film short, Eggsploitation: Maggie’s Story, my colleagues at the Center for Bioethics and Culture detail how she was told that she was a savior helping other women to have children they desperately desire, while never being informed about the health risks that egg donation carried for her.
The buying and selling of human eggs is a lucrative enterprise, often targeted at young women on university campuses who are desperate to make extra money. Ads on Facebook and Craigslist and in newspapers tell these women that they stand to gain anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 (or more) per extraction — while helping make the dreams of others come true — if their profile is right (perfect hair, height, eye color, and IQ). However, these ads fail to mention the potential health risks involved or reveal the lack of long-term follow-up studies conducted on young women who choose to sell their eggs. Such information is essential to truly informed decision-making and consent — a foundational principle within the medical profession.
And while the process of egg retrieval requires young women, like Maggie, to navigate countless tests, treatments, injections, and surgeries, they are rarely considered patients. Instead, they are clients, women hired by egg brokers and other women for their spare parts.
Experiences like Maggie’s remind us of the human costs involved in the big business of infertility.
After Maggie’s first egg retrieval, she woke up from her surgery to be told by her nurse, “I can’t wait to use you again; you lit up like the Christmas tree.” Maggie had yielded an unusually large supply of eggs and was soon courted by the agency as a star “donor.” Brushed aside, however, were the medical risks, which include ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, loss of fertility, ovarian torsion, blood clots, kidney disease, premature menopause, ovarian cysts, chronic pelvic pain, stroke, and various reproductive cancers.
Sadly, Maggie’s story isn’t unusual. Thousands of women engage in this practice every year. The same breakthrough that led to the birth of Louise Brown also opened the floodgates for a world of third-party reproduction: egg and sperm donation and surrogate motherhood. Experiences like Maggie’s remind us of the human costs involved in the big business of infertility, which has expanded far beyond solving medical complications to a practice aimed at making conception little more than another consumer product.
While Maggie’s health was jeopardized right in front of the eyes of those seeking her eggs, they remained silent (you’ll have to watch the film to see just how much of a blind eye they turned toward her health). Maggie’s Story shatters that silence and pleads for us to hear and to see that while reproductive technology may be seen by some couples as health and healing, it can prove to be hell for others.
— Christopher White is director of research and education at the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.