A younger friend had mentioned that when she was an undergraduate at a public college her eggs were worth $3,000 (judging by what ads placed by fertility clinics in the student paper offered), but when she went to Harvard and then Columbia (as a grad student) they were suddenly worth $8,000. Same eggs.
The suspicion that couples or others soliciting donated eggs are violating industry guidelines [an earlier version of this story said fertility clinics are violating industry guidelines] by waving wads of dough in front of young women with DNA good enough to get them into top schools (I’ll let that problematic assumption about intelligence and DNA slide for the moment) has now been confirmed. A study in the current issue of The Hastings Center Report (published by the bioethics center of the same name) finds that almost one quarter of ads in college newspapers offer more than $10,000 for egg donation, a violation of American Society for Reproductive Medicine guidelines, which in 2007 deemed payments of $5,000 or more to “require justification” and payments above $10,000 “not appropriate.” (The concern is that the promise of a big payday will entice young women to undergo a risky, painful procedure against their best interests.)
And it turns out that my friend’s experience was no aberration. Payment was strongly correlated with average SAT scores at the schools, finds Aaron D. Levine of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who analyzed 105 advertisements in 63 student newspapers. In a statistical model that controls for such variables as the demand for in vitro fertilization within a state, he finds that each increase of 100 points in the average SAT increased the price of eggs by $2,350. That was the average across all kinds of egg buyers. But for ads placed on behalf of a specific couple, 100 more SAT points upped the egg price by $3,130. And for ads placed by a donor agency, 100 extra SAT points raised the price $5,780. Fertility clinics themselves, however, did not offer more for eggs at higher-SAT schools.
Egg donation is a growing industry. The first IVF birth using a donated egg was in Australia in 1983. In 1995, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, there were about 4,800 IVF procedures using donated eggs in the U.S.; by 2005, there were 16,000. The percentage using donated eggs rose from about 8 percent to 12 percent in that period.
How much are eggs going for? In 2006 ads for a donor agency on behalf of a specific couple, placed in The Harvard Crimson, The Daily Princetonian, and Yale Daily News offered $35,000; one in The Brown Daily Herald, also by an agency for a couple, offered $50,000 to “an extraordinary egg donor.” Here’s the study I want to see: how do the parents react when the custom-picked children produced by these smart eggs don’t excel academically? The road to designer babies may be paved with hope, but threatens to end in bitterness and heartache.