“Oh, hell no,” he says. “I could never use egg donation. I don’t think I could love a kid who’s not mine!” He pivots, then responds to the space he just occupied. Now he’s playing the role of himself: a doctor. A salesman.
“But do you love your dog?” he asks in a slightly deeper voice. “Your cat? Do you know that it’s cheaper than adoption and that, once you’re past forty, it’s more cost effective than IVF?”
He jumps back into his original spot.
“Let me think about it,” he says, then pauses, as if considering. “Fine, but I want blue eyes to match ours. I do not want a child with red hair.”
His audience responds with knowing chuckles; they’ve had these conversations before.
The professionals gathered in this meeting room have traveled from fertility clinics and egg donation agencies from across the country to spend this rainy March weekend at The Donor Egg Meeting 2015, a summit for doctors, nurses, and professionals bearing titles like “Donor Concierge,” “Third Party Program Director,” and “Donated Embryo Coordinator.” The objective of this annual conference, launched in 1998, is to address the present, future, and legal status of the most booming segment of the in-vitro fertilization business: egg donation.
As far as I know, I am the only layperson at the kickoff session, a state of the industry-type presentation titled the Donor Egg 101 Mini Symposium. I am the only attendee who hasn’t been given a name tag, who hasn’t paid the meeting’s $800 admission fee, and who is not staying on site, at the tony downtown hotel, Belmond Charleston Place. To my knowledge, I am the only egg donor in attendance.
Also, I have red hair. My eyes are not blue. I am not, apparently, what today’s IPs are shopping for.
Ever since my eggs were suctioned out of my anesthetized pelvis and implanted into a stranger’s womb, I’ve become increasingly curious about egg donation and its long-term implications—for donors, donor offspring, and society. When you’re tripping on fertility drugs, when people are telling you you’re a benevolent angel, it’s hard to objectively assess the process and the industry that’s sprung up around it.
But, now, five years after I donated my eggs, I find myself curious—and concerned—about the ways in which pumping myself with egg donation’s requisite fertility drugs could affect me as I age. I also wonder, as people wait longer to have children, if there are more donor kids out in the world. I want to know how typical my experience was: a transaction between strangers, one that left me sore and bloated for weeks, and one that involved zero medical follow-up. This is why I found myself Googling “the lasting effects of egg donation,” which is how I discovered that so many leaders in the assisted-reproduction field would be gathered here. It’s why I begged to be allowed to attend, why I kept pestering the conference coordinator until she relented and said I could come, but just to the opening, plenary session. For a long time I had sought a glimpse behind the curtains. I didn’t think about egg donation all the time, but when I did, I’d find myself considering all that we still don’t know about it, wondering who exactly was reaping the profits of donor egg transactions. Now was my chance to get some answers.
When I arrived in Charleston’s cobblestoned and sumptuously preserved “Old and Historic District,” I received a tepid welcome from the conference coordinator—a woman who arched her eyebrows when I answered her “What kind of a writer did you say you were?” with “creative nonfiction.” But, I soon came to understand that The Donor Egg Meeting is an insider event: The general public is not welcome. No curious voyeurs nor moneyed Charlestonians will be strolling in and collecting pamphlets about the $16,000 to $23,000 process of becoming pregnant via donor eggs.
The professionals who have gathered this weekend do not want any more press. This weekend, they want to let their guards down. I imagine that they want to go on group trips to the South Carolina aquarium overlooking the Charleston Harbor, where they can appreciate tropical fish alongside comrades who understand what it means to harvest third parties to create offspring. When sessions wrap, they want to wind their way down the Belmond’s grand staircase into a swanky, leather-walled bar—coincidentally called “The Thoroughbred Club”—where they can sip cocktails among their peers.
Demand for donated eggs is on the rise, and a large part of this symposium’s purpose is to help professionals develop new donor egg programs. The U.S. is one of the very few countries where it’s legal to let IPs handpick donors according to factors including race, height, hair color, and educational accomplishments, which is why thousands of far-flung “fertility tourists” annually seek American DNA to create or complete their families. And so, the keynote speakers at The Donor Egg Mini Symposium—the doctor, his nurse, and a fertility specialist—promise to reveal the best practices for creating a successful program. That $800 conference fee is supposed to be a professional investment that will, in theory, pay dividends: a successful program can mean big business.
A lot of today’s symposium addresses topics I’m not equipped to understand: decreased ovarian reserve, the physiology of donors’ dominant follicle selection, split donor egg cycles, and oocyte cryopreservation cycles. The latter, I learn, is what you need to build frozen egg banks, a sperm bank-like entity, which the salt-and-pepper-haired doctor leading this session describes as “the future of egg donation.”
But some of it I have firsthand knowledge of: donor compensation, psychological evaluation, “match day,” ovum retrieval, the screening and recruitment of donors, and the incalculable nature of anonymity. Almost six years ago, after finding that plasma banks offered only $25 a pop, I Googled “becoming an egg donor” in a fit of financial panic. I was broke, underemployed, uninsured, and buried under hospital bills I’d accrued from a drunken fall on my head that landed me in the emergency room. I desperately needed to climb my way out. I’d recalled the bright pink fliers that had decorated my college campus, from which I’d graduated two and a half years before: fliers seeking “extraordinary females with high SAT scores, athletic backgrounds and emotional resiliency” to help “make someone’s dream come true.”
Some cursory web research filled me in on what exactly egg donation was: a form of assisted reproduction in which third-party eggs are fertilized via IVF and transferred to another woman’s uterus. It typically paid $6,000 to $8,000, unless you’re wildly desirable (for instance, Jewish, Asian, or an Ivy League grad), in which case you could fetch upwards of $10,000. I immediately applied to become a donor with a top-paying agency.
After my agency’s coordinators looked over my family health history—I’d online-submitted information detailing my own ambitions and test scores, my sisters’ heights, my parents’ eye colors, and my grandparents’ causes of death—they requested pictures documenting my development from infanthood to adulthood. Then, they invited me to their office for an “ovum acceptance interview.”
The interview was held at a white suburban mansion: white gate, white brick, a white interior filled with sheer, gauzy curtains. Two middle-aged, Pashmina-wearing agency coordinators met me at the door and informed me that I was “superdonor” material; they oohed and aahed over my curly hair, my “runner’s body,” my degree from a top-ranked university. I welcomed this praise. They didn’t seem to suspect that I was in debt, that I was working as an unpaid development intern by day and a cocktail waitress by night, that I was two months behind on my student loan payments. On the night of my twenty-fifth birthday, I’d had a few too many free shots and tripped on my way from the bar to the cab, my head hitting the pavement. I’d been concussed, knocked unconscious, and loaded into an ambulance.
As they led me through the house, they gushed about their agency’s miracle-producing history. They sat me down on a couch in a parlor and recorded me waxing philosophical about my hopes and dreams, my family, and my desire to donate, all through which I managed to keep mum about the negative balance in my bank account. Afterward, these ladies told me they already had a family in mind for me, and they led me into a dining room to complete a psychological evaluation, closing the door for privacy. I happily supplied information—by rating on a scale of one to five—about the extent to which I believed rules did or did not apply to me, and how often I had uncontrollable laughing and/or crying spells.
Within the week, I was officially matched with the family mentioned during my interview, a pair of strangers living five thousand miles away. People were reportedly made jubilant. Documents were signed.
Thus began a three-month process of synching my cycles with my future genetic offspring’s IP, or “birth mother,” via matching birth control regimens—we were instructed to start and cease taking little pink birth control pills on the same dates, fostering the mirroring of menstruation and ovulation schedules—and of supersizing my ovaries with jumbo dosages of fertility drugs, injected into my thigh. Throughout those three months, my agency’s coordinators referred to me as a “donor angel”; they sent Starbucks gift cards to my house and wouldn’t stop talking about the “miracle” I was facilitating, the “incredible gift” I was providing.
Three months after I turned 25, my supersized superdonor eggs were removed and implanted into this woman I had never met, whose name I am never supposed to learn. I received a check for 8,000 taxable dollars. She subsequently became pregnant with triplets, but only carried one to term. At some point, I checked a box indicating that while ours was an anonymous transaction, I was open to the possibility of being contacted by this couple and any potential genetic offspring. At the time I wondered: Would the kid share my eyes? My love of reading? And what about me: Would I ever feel any attachment beyond this mildly anthropological curiosity? If we ever happened to meet, would we shake hands like strangers, or hug like family members united through a genealogical dig?
The introductory session of this conference is supposed to be an interactive symposium—an open mic night for fertility artists, if you will. The specialists who have gathered here seem to want to use this time to vent about the quotidian challenges they face in running what is, it quickly becomes clear to me, a complicated business that needs to be marketed—with clients who need to be managed. All this venting isn’t really surprising. After all, these professionals spend three hundred some days a year slapping a happy face onto a strange, somewhat eugenic path to parenthood.
At the front of the room, the fertility clinic manager, who’s from Alabama, stands next to the reproductive endocrinologist, discussing how to select “suitable, compliant donors”—people like me—in a “cost-effective manner.” She scrolls through PowerPoint slides detailing the best places to recruit donors—college campuses, newspaper ads, women’s magazines—and the most efficient and effective ways to screen them: online surveys, in-person interviews, and phone calls with genetic counselors. My fellow attendees, seated in rows of long tables, scribble notes on the pads we’ve all been provided.
“Donors are a scarce resource,” she says. She hasn’t met many donor clinicians or agency owners who’ve said things like, “No, we’re filled up with donors. Call someone else.”
Her audience murmurs their unanimous assent.
“You want to minimize your inconveniences with donors,” she continues. “Make it easy for them. You might have strict rules for when your recipient parents can come into your clinic—be a lot more flexible with donors. They’re not the most reliable birds.”
From the front row, a fertility nurse claims that in her clinic, “We joke that donors are nomads—by the time they’re matched with an IP, their address has changed twice!”
The women seated around me groan, smile, and nod their heads in agreement.
“I like to make them do a mail-in questionnaire, rather than an online screening survey,” she says. “Just to see if they’re capable of putting in even a tiny bit of effort. I call them, too. They’ll check the non-smoker box,” she says. “But you can ask them, ‘How many cigarettes do you smoke each day?’”
Even though, at thirty, my eggs and I have apparently aged out, I shift nervously in my seat, find myself hoping that we unreliable birds don’t carry a distinct look, a telling smell.
It’s not just donors that the professionals here want to vent about—the IPs themselves are often frustratingly clueless, it seems. The endocrinologist at the front of the room takes the mic again and is talking about how, sure, he can give IPs their custom-ordered twins. “But then I say, ‘Full disclosure, that’ll increase your baby’s risk of cerebral palsy by ten percent.’ Then they don’t want that.” It has become taboo for reproductive endocrinologists to purposely “give” IPs twins, as doing so increases the likelihood infants could develop blindness, retardation, and congenital malformations.
One cycle coordinator from New York says she used to get gay men requesting twins, “using some sperm from one partner with one donor embryo, and from the second with another,” all of it planted into the same gestational carrier. “Now, we’d never allow that,” she says. It raises ethical concerns, and multiple births are more physically taxing on surrogates. It’s clear this largely unregulated, uncharted frontier of a field is rife with health questions and thorny ethical issues. After thirty years of egg donation, things don’t seem to be getting any less complicated.
These experts’ job is to make egg donation sound palatable, even exciting, to IPs, which is not exactly an easy task, especially since there is such a storm of criticism surrounding the practice. To donors, they frame the process as miraculous, the act as selfless. Yet these experts put up with ire from the religious right—charges that performing IVF is tantamount to wrongfully playing God, that they create and murder embryos for profit, that doing so is unnatural and that they, the mad scientists, are thus hell-bound. Pro-lifers hate that those eggs suctioned out of donors, and mixed with birth fathers’ sperm in the lab, turned into embryos, and implanted into birth mothers, may be “selectively reduced,” i.e., aborted, to avoid dangerous multiple births. This is because twins and triplets are a common occurrence once fertility drugs—used, in this instance, to hyperstimulate egg donors’ ovaries to produce more and bigger eggs—enter any procreative equation. Also, up to 20 percent of donated embryos die in utero, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
And then there’s another, almost quaint deal breaker: the matter of how the father’s sperm is obtained. One nurse here jokingly refers to the chamber within her clinic where this piece of the puzzle is produced as a “jack shack.” And many major religions, alas, still maintain that masturbation is highly immoral.
They also meet skepticism from doctors and scientists who point out that, since the first birth via donor eggs occurred only in 1984—the same year I was born—we don’t yet know enough about the long-term health consequences that fertility drugs may have on donors. There have been few clinical studies addressing associated long-term health concerns, and no registry exists to track egg donors and the fates of their health. Severe ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome—which about one percent of egg donors experience—occasionally leads to thrombosis, stroke, and heart attack. Anecdotal evidence points to a connection between egg donation and ovary loss, pelvic bleeding, and cancer. The fear that the reproductive endocrinologists and fertility specialists gathered in this room could be hyperstimulating or maxing out donors’ reproductive systems—and possibly setting them up for cancer and potential birth complications of their own down the road—isn’t completely unwarranted. “Doctors say there is no biological reason that donating eggs would cause infertility, but they also cannot say for sure that it doesn’t,” writes Catherine Elton for Time.
In any case, donation agencies in the U.S. can legally choose whether or not to abide by those guidelines put forth by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), an organization comprised of researchers, physicians, and other fertility artists who make their money off of IPs’ demand for donor eggs. None of the eggbrokers or fertility nurses present are legally obligated to inform donor candidates of the potential of health risks. Most, however, will make mention of the potential for “temporary side effects,” including headaches, bloating, and mood swings. When women ask about longer-term side effects—something I, in my desperate state, never thought to do—it is perfectly kosher for eggbrokers to tell them, “there is no evidence.”
The attendants here seem good at selling the idea of assisted reproductive technology. From the sounds of it, pros across the country are using the same stock scripts to help female IPs mourn their loss of fertility, referring to Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief, for instance, or suggesting that women write letters to their dreamed-of genetic children. They are also accustomed to such patients’ initial reactions to the suggestion of egg donation: anger.
The reproductive endocrinologist says he tells angry IPs that it’s just a “limitation,” and that “one day we’ll have the medicine to fix that for you.”
In the meantime, there are online catalogues boasting young women with exceptional looks, Ivy League educations, specific ethnic backgrounds, athletic accomplishments, musical acumen, and more desirable qualities. He can soothe angry IPs by directing them to the donor databases, where they can browse through donor after donor, shopping for desired traits.
The folks here are well educated themselves. They’re outfitted in tailored suits and fine jewelry. Most have nice smiles, yet few smile lines. They have reasonable BMIs—something you notice down here in the South. I don’t have access to their profit margins, but they’re working in a lucrative field, an explosive industry. It’s a case of the affluent serving the affluent.
Their language when mining the less affluent component of the donor egg equation—the actual donors—is intimate, a spooky echo of the language I heard six years ago. These young female patients, they say, should be told they are “altruistic heroes.” Donors are giving “the most precious gift.” They are making miracles possible. In synching their cycles with an IP or gestational carrier, by popping estrogen pills and injecting themselves with drugs that will spur their ovaries into creating more and bigger eggs for doctors to extract from their bodies, they will be able to take comfort in the fact that they’ve helped someone realize the “ultimate dream” of bringing a child into this world. They may believe in this message whole-heartedly, but there’s something chilling about the saccharine language. The way they are going on about the importance of rendering the process easy and warm and fuzzy for donors, it almost seems like the fate of the industry rests on such overt displays of goodwill and gratitude.
But I was guilty of playing this game, too. It was amazing how easily the honey-laced language came to me during my ovum acceptance interview: “If I’m easily fertile, which I believe I am,” I’d told the women recording me, “then I have something sacred within me, something that others can benefit from.” I remember praying that cartoon dollar signs weren’t branding the whites of my eyes. Eggbrokers and agency website testimonials never make mention of the “ultimate dream” of chipping away at some student loans, of helping to finance a doctor’s bill, car payments, or a mortgage. Donors, specialists always say, are not compensated for their body parts, not for shooting themselves with strong and mysterious drugs, but for their “time and inconvenience.”
On my way out the door after the interview, the sweetly beatific agency ladies handed me a “delicious angel bar,” which, upon further examination, was just Hershey’s chocolate, wrapped in the same angel-wing paper that had decorated the cup of Dixie water I’d sipped from during my interview. After I left, they emailed to thank me again for seeking “the indescribable joy of compassionately helping someone.” When my IPs expressed interest in me—something they finalized only after requesting more photos and ascertaining whether or not my hair was naturally curly—these agency coordinators called me using jubilant voices. It was all hearty congratulations for this angel.
One specialist at the Donor Egg 101 Mini Symposium gets excited when she tells us about her clinic’s donor referral program. “If a donor brings in another donor they get a little bonus,” she says. She explains how friends of donors make for exceptional donors themselves because the donors can help them with their injections, coach them on the whole process, making her job easier.
I wonder if anyone finds this as bizarre as I do. My agency played up their exclusivity, purportedly accepting less than five percent of aspiring donors. This only fueled my drive to join their peculiar sorority. And their website testimonials, featuring lithe and photogenic “angels,” girls who claimed to have always dreamed of helping parents to realize a family? That helped, too. The way my coordinator went out of her way to express how “special” my application seemed, how astoundingly “perfect” I was for my IPs, I would’ve been shocked had she handed me a punch card and asked me to start rounding up my girlfriends.
“You get bloated and mentally foggy and over-emotional and might have to miss work for a while,” I imagine myself telling a pal, “but, girl, after the surgery is all said and done and the anesthesia wears off and you can walk again without your abdomen cramping, they send you a blue iPod nano and a spa gift card. Go on in; tell them I sent you—we can get together and give each other shots.”
After my own experience, I am not one to balk at the transactional nature of egg donation, at the paradox of the industry’s appropriation of the word “donation.” But still, this reveal of the inner workings of the business leaves me feeling a bit like how I imagine small children might feel upon glimpsing Santa Claus or Disney heroes out of character—the magic gone with a puff of an off-stage cigarette, a pull of bourbon behind a parade-route dumpster.
None in this meeting room likely suspects that a donor may be among them. I doubt they’d like that very much. Occasionally, the doctor and fertility specialist pause during their PowerPoint scrolls to poll the room—“Who here does split cycle donations?” “Who works with IPs older than fifty?” “Who would let a girl do more than six donor cycles?” More than that is considered unwise—not for the sake of the donor’s health, but because over six donations from one woman makes it more challenging to avoid issues of consanguinity, also known as inadvertent incest between unwitting half-siblings.
I hope no one notices the fact that mine is the only hand that never goes up. I hope I don’t look particularly un-fertility nurse-like. I want to ask one million questions. But while I have not falsely represented myself, I have the distinct sense that folks would get uneasy, might not talk so freely, were I to get explicit about my interest in being here. So I hush the journalist within. I sit. I listen. I do what egg donors do best—I remain anonymous.
In cases of anonymous egg donation, the donor’s identity, i.e. name and address, is kept private and confidential, as are recipients.’ Anonymity has characterized the vast majority of donor egg transactions since the first-ever such impregnation took place in 1984.
I am surprised to learn that anonymity exists as much to keep meddlesome IPs away from donors as vice versa. I had been under the impression that anonymity primarily exists for IPs’ sake, that parents typically feel better knowing there’s no chance of their donor getting too attached to the life she’s quasi-produced, of her going emotionally haywire and trying to entwine herself in the pregnancy or worse, the child’s upbringing. I figure aspiring-turned-actual parents want any resulting children to be raised as the traditionally conceived among us are.
While my donation, like most, was anonymous, there were both child and adult photos of me featured in my agency’s catalogue—I was Donor #1025. Considering I was and am a bookish-looking young woman, that I was listed aside aspiring actresses and models—a bevy of truly beautiful girls—I suspect that this pair of barristers specifically sought a donor who looked like them. They have been described to me as fair-skinned, as avid readers blessed with slight-ish height and build—like me. They live in London, not too far from my ancestral Ireland. But aside from notification of the child’s birth, I have not, to date, heard from the family, nor the agency.
I don’t feel like their child is my child, but I do wonder about this family sometimes—and very occasionally, such wondering has led to attempted cyber-stalking. Every Google-search, however, has been fruitless—after all, I’ve no information to plug in save for their professions and hair colors. I’m guessing this married couple simply sought a smart-seeming girl who looked enough like them that no one would suspect their child had been conceived in a laboratory. I have thus always supposed that our transactional anonymity will be long-term, that their child may never learn that any third-party American was involved in his conception. I’ve just assumed I’ll never know whether we share nose shapes, laughs, or music taste, and whether any of that means anything at all. I suddenly wonder whether my IPs have tried to find me, and I’m unsure of whether I’d want to know if they did.
One nurse explains how easy it is for IPs to turn around and find “anonymous” donors on Facebook. Many in the room agree. Many say they would like to just show potential donors’ baby pics, that it would save them a lot of trouble. I am surprised to see, via show of hands, that only about 70 percent of the clinics/agencies represented feature current shots in their donor catalogues anymore, those galleries assembled for IPs to peruse. It’s a way, they say, to ratchet up the anonymity factor. Security is important to IPs and donors alike—less than ten percent of members from both parties are known to opt for “open” donations. And what’s important to both IPs and donors makes for good business.
I think back to the photo shoot I cajoled my photographer friend into performing after the agency wrote me to ask for portraits—“the more and sooner, the better!” My friend was in on the mission. We’d spent a whole day making me look wholesome and whimsical—sneaking into marinas and botanical gardens, frequenting outdoor art installations. The agency ladies had wanted childhood photos, too, family pictures, shots documenting me growing up. Once I sent everything in that I had, though, they wrote to say they would “especially delight” in seeing more of me as a baby—probably because the barristers wanted a better idea of what their baby would look like.
“Maintaining anonymity has become increasingly complicated,” one fertility clinic worker says. “You spend a lot of time as a donor coordinator educating donors on what anonymity means. We had to put up disclaimers on our applications warning them to send us unique photos,” meaning: not what they post to Facebook or Instagram.
Intended parents, I learn, are becoming increasingly notorious for stalking their donors’ social media accounts, “sharking the pool,” as one woman puts it, by collecting clues from agency catalogues to guide such quests.
Real-life stalking, some conference attendees imply, is often the next step. After which, IPs are likely to confront donation coordinators, who are then put in the position of defending their agencies or clinics against charges that they have upsold their catalogue’s donors—lowballing BMIs, for instance, or claiming that a donor does not smoke, when the same girl has been spotted, by the stranger harboring her eggs or raising her biological children, lighting up outside the local mall.
I donated my eggs in the pre-Instagram Stone Age of early 2010, which means my catalogue photos looked like me—my best self for sure, but me all the same. My agency was international. Unlike what I’m learning happens within hyperlocalized networks, my genetic offspring’s birth parents are not going to run into me at the grocery store and sense they’ve seen that face somewhere. But of course, these Brits could find me on Facebook, on LinkedIn, no problem.
I had never considered this possibility until now. I had always assumed that while I was so curious about the Brits—what they look like, how they decorated their child’s nursery, what books they read to him at night—my genetic offspring’s IPs liked to pretend I never existed. I never considered that they might have lingering questions of their own.
A gray-haired, bead-wearing psychotherapist stands up in the back and says, “There’s no such thing as anonymity anymore.” After a pause, several fellow conference attendees nod in agreement. A few vocally echo the sentiment.
For all of my agency’s attempts at complete anonymity, there were certainly some near-misses. I remember my reproductive endocrinologist’s covert back room well. On the day of my retrieval procedure, it felt dingy, made me think of Margaret Atwood’s lowly handmaids. Unlike the pristine waiting room—the space I’d been allowed to occupy several weeks earlier when I’d come in for my first monitoring appointment, when my IPs were safely in England—hidden donor limbo featured no art. But my required companion, the friend who drove me in, got to wait in front. That’s where he was until the time came to help an anesthetized me out of the operating room and into the changing room. He mentioned that he’d heard English accents coming from two auburn-haired forty-somethings in the waiting room, a man and a woman. I was pretty drugged up, but I wanted to chase them, to spy on them, tried in vain to convince my friend we should tail them.
“We have a tremendous amount of data that tells us humans are really curious about their genetic identity,” the psychotherapist says. She’s had families come back to say they regret choosing to do this anonymously, that they’ve searched Facebook trying to match information. Others chime in that they’ve heard similar experiences, and that there’s a lot of stalking these days, on both donors’ and IPs’ parts.
I guess I fall into the camp of those who struggle with anonymity. It is some comfort, I suppose, to find that I occupy a populous pool.
Once IPs actually become parents, they’re not as “fearful” of egg donation, of donors, anymore, the psychotherapist explains. “They feel like whole parents, and they want their children to have any and all info they might want about themselves. This is happening with almost every donor child I work with, from a young age through adolescence.”
The reproductive endocrinologist—one among two men in the room—stays mum. But his nurse agrees that anonymity is going to go away. “It’s inevitable,” she says. “Recipients do change their mind. Nowadays, I tell donors, ‘I don’t know what the future’s gonna hold, but you gotta prepare for the fact that you could be found. And if you hate that, maybe don’t participate.’”
The fertility specialist at the front of the room clears her throat. “What I’ve found, though, is that donors don’t care about anonymity like we do. For a 22-year-old today, nothing’s been private in her life—nothing’s private at all anymore.”
Again, the room becomes a sea of murmurs. The psychotherapist raises her hand once more. It’s the widespread and increasing prevalence of donor offspring, she says, who are causing her and other professionals to question just how effective anonymous transactions really are. So, my suspicion was right: There are more donor kids.
“The medical world can be slow to catch up,” she says. “I’m from L.A., where there’s eight million people. I’m on the board of Parents Via Egg Donation, and we’re already discovering that donor siblings are going to school together. It’s really better for everyone to talk about it—to be like, ‘Yes, my donor is Nicole, and yes, it’s complicated, and this is her genetic offspring, and does he or she have any half-siblings in town?’”
I’m intrigued by this key change. I find myself hoping my biological offspring is able to ask whatever questions he needs to about his genetic identity, that he’ll get truthful answers. Still, the thought of what could follow unnerves me.
I cannot stop picturing my IPs Googling me, Facebooking me, from across the ocean. I entertain the irrational notion that they are somehow watching me right now. My throat is dry. I want to get up from my seat at the conference for water, for coffee, but fear that someone might notice my lack of name tag, my lack of medical credentials, might pick up on that Donor #1025-esque air about me. By now, these of all people must know when they spot a mark.
So, I stay put. I continue to take notes, and I go ahead and take the professional advice being dispensed—I mentally prepare for the possibility that I could be found by my genetic offspring. How would it manifest, I wonder. A knock on the door in a decade? A Facebook message? Some cosmic and mutual sense of recognition one day—Hey, those ears look like my ears!—when passing through Heathrow? If we meet, what would we all say to one another? Would I cry? Would we all look alike? Would they like me in person? Would I become suddenly possessive? Would it all make for a Lifetime Movie moment, or a disappointing letdown? I now understand that an anthropological quest could be more emotionally complicated than I had imagined.
I consider the fact that the world’s oldest donor offspring is the same age as me—that we as a society are likely just on the brink of finding out exactly how curious humans really are about their genetic identities. I think about how anonymity is one of the crucial factors characterizing the whole process of egg donation. I try to picture a world filled with cheap frozen eggs, ones that easily trace back to known, in-the-flesh humans. It is nothing if not a confusing image.
When the meeting ends, I do not introduce myself to anyone, do not linger to chat. One of the implicit tenets of those compacts binding the anonymous is that we are not invasive. So I go where we are all more or less anonymous—the hotel bar. I take my red hair and my non-blue eyes straight on downstairs, for a stiff drink at the Thoroughbred Club.