On May 18, The Daily featured an ad from an alumnus seeking a “genius egg donor” who would receive “excellent compensation.” The egg donor must be high-achieving, with high standardized test scores, several awards from high school and college and an A grade-point average. The alumnus set forth such exacting standards hoping that his child will eventually attend Stanford or another top university. The Editorial Board believes that these ads have troubling ethical ramifications. They distort the appropriate financial compensation for egg donation, thereby violating ethical guidelines of the fertility industry, and perpetuate the “gene myth” that capacity for achievement is transmitted genetically.
The first issue is compensation. Though the ad does not list how much the egg donor will be paid, only saying that she will receive “excellent compensation,” other ads promise compensation of up to $50,000 for well-qualified, Ivy League donors. However, the ethics committee of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) argues that compensation should not be used as an incentive to donate, but should instead cover the “time, inconvenience, and discomfort associated” with the egg retrieval process. According to the ASRM, donors should be paid $5,000 at most, and compensation above $10,000 is explicitly “not appropriate.”
Despite these guidelines, egg donation has transformed into a free market system that threatens to distort women’s perception of the health risks involved in donation. These risks stem from medication that stimulates the ovary to produce more eggs than normal and can range from moodiness and infection to ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a serious condition affecting approximately 6 percent of women who take the medication. Yet as financial compensation increases, women may become more inclined to ignore the potential health ramifications of egg donation. Ads that promise excellent compensation subvert the ASRM guidelines, which are in place partly to ensure that women are not financially coerced into ignoring these risks. Although Stanford women are intelligent enough to assess these risks, even they may discount the future risks in favor of present reward. Sperm donation, also frequently advertised in The Daily, does not present the same troubling mix of potential health complications balanced against financial profit.
The second issue raised by egg donation ads is the perpetuation of a crude view of genetics that contributes to scientific illiteracy. Complex traits such as “intelligence” and academic motivation are only partly explained by genetics. Yet ads such as these contribute to the notion that the “ideal” versions of these complex traits are mostly attributable to genetic factors. While some may argue that the May 18 advertisers may have only wanted to increase their chances of having a “gifted” child, the ad states that the donor’s passed-on genes will enable the couple’s child to have the “same special gifts” that the donor has. This cause and effect relationship deeply simplifies and distorts the messy reality of human genetics, presenting a troubling picture of phenotypic variation that has been challenged in scientific literature several times over.
Of course, women donate eggs for many reasons; many do so not to raise needed money, but altruistically to help infertile couples. However, if the egg donation is altruistic, the donor should be comfortable donating to a couple that does not specify a stringent list of academic requirements and does not advertise excellent compensation. One should donate to a couple that abides by the ethical guidelines set forth by the professional societies regulating fertility clinics; first, that payment not exceed $5,000 and second, that payment not vary based on “oocyte quality.” We have long implicitly tolerated these ads, expressing bemusement at their outlandish demands, but it is time to take a more serious look at the troubling values such ads promote.