Egg donation has been an option in high-tech fertility treatment since 1984. The process starts with both donor and recipient undergoing hormone injections to match their menstrual cycles so that when the donor's eggs mature, the recipient's body is ready to support a pregnancy. (Two recent variations on this approach allow women to choose frozen eggs or embryos for implantation.)
But the business has changed radically now that hopeful clients can shop for donors on the Internet. Most fertility clinics offer egg-donor services, but they can't always meet the client's needs. "It's not a clinic's main business. They don't have the resources we do," explains egg broker Megan Morgenstern, agency coordinator at the Los Angeles–based Egg Donation and Surrogacy Center. Egg brokers are in the business of linking prospective mothers and donors. Depending on the service, the client will travel to the donor's town or pay for the donor to come to her. While there are plenty of legitimate brokers, almost anyone can set himself up as one since the only requirements are an Internet connection and some ready cash to lure donors.
You can investigate the success rates of most fertility clinics (see the CDC's "Assisted Reproductive Technology Report" at www.cdc.gov/art/art2004), but it's hard to determine how reliable egg brokers are. Eggs from Ivy League students and graduates get the highest prices, reportedly as much as $100,000. (According to a recent survey, the average compensation is $5,200, and $4,400 for the broker.) Some brokers also take a percentage of the donor's fee, so there is incentive for donors—and brokers—to lie. One donor discovered that the broker had inflated her SAT score by 250 points and omitted her family history of asthma.
"It was still a very positive experience," she says. "I feel that I did a really good thing. They have twins they adore. Every year at Christmas we exchange e-mails. They tell me about the children, and I update them on my family medical information."
There are reports of couples handing money to brokers only to have them disappear. But those who know the business say you can avoid fraud. Debora Spar, PhD, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of The Baby Business, isn't opposed to the use of brokers, but she suggests asking your fertility doctor for a recommendation. "And I would ask brokers if they arrange for genetic testing on their donors, and how you can be sure the eggs you are getting are the ones you paid for." Lifestyle choices shouldn't figure into your decision, Spar says: "Don't focus on what instrument she plays and what her life's dreams are. Those things don't pass genetically." Ultimately, Spar, along with other experts in the field, would like to see brokers come under some kind of government regulation or licensing. "I think it's absurd that such a sensitive area as egg donation lacks oversight."