Egg Donors, Their Perspectives & Intended Parents

Egg Donation – Alot is currently being said about egg donors and their “place” in this world of third party family building. First, we had Melanie Thernstrom and her “twiblings”, then we are seeing the reinvigeration of “Eggsploitation.” I actually congratulate Jennifer Lahl on winning a California Independent Film Award, as her film is creating a discourse that is needed, albeit on the sensational side.

I also hope that you all read my piece on egg donation yesterday. But, after thinking through everything yesterday, I realized that their was one piece that was still missing – the status of the egg donor and the Intended Parent – to each other and to themselves. Which is why I was happy to see a post written an egg donor in response to Melanie Thernstrom’s article. It was poignant, and it is thought provoking as follows in an Egg Donor’s Tale:

“There are certain coincidences in life that cause me to wonder about fate. Two examples come to mind: every time I watch a random rerun of the old TV classic “Northern Exposure,” the particular moral lesson of the episode is one I needed to hear that very moment; or more immediate here, when the topic of the day on Motherlode seems directed at a parenting challenge I am facing or can speak to myself. The recent column responding to Melanie Thernstrom’s reproductive story was especially apropos, as I had been composing a query for your readers in my head for weeks, and this column and readers’ requests to hear from egg donors were the catalyst I needed to share my story and ask readers for their insights.

In the early ’90s, I was approached by a close family friend about donating eggs. She knew a couple who suffered horrible losses in their efforts to have a child — late-term miscarriages and one near-death experience. I should say here, for full disclosure, that I meet the socially valorized criteria of desirability: blond, blue-eyed, tall, thin, advanced degree … and this may well have been part of why I was asked. My family friend also knew that the reason I might agree had to do not with money (I come from an upper-middle-class background) but with a commitment I have maintained in my politics and in my academic pursuits to increasing and improving women’s capacity to make reproductive choices for themselves and their families.

The donation story is long, and I will try to be brief. I formed a close friendship with the “donee,” though my relationship with her husband, while cordial, was primarily centered on contracts, fees for time and travel and other logistical details. I think he felt awkward about the biological facts of our bodies colliding, and interacting on this more formal level was how he managed his discomfort. The donation itself was a two-month-long process that involved medications to put me and the donee into a kind of menopause to sync our monthly hormonal cycles, followed by a series of painful injections that would stimulate my ovaries to produce large numbers of eggs. I ended up “hyperstimulating” and produced around 30 eggs — good for the couple, very painful for me, and with unknown long-term consequences. The transfer of fertilized eggs was successful, and the donee gave birth to healthy twins eight months later.

My status as an egg donor vis-à-vis the donee and the reproductive clinic was fundamentally different from most donors’ experiences. I had my own legal counsel and insisted on legal protections not available to most donors. I came to understand that the clinics’ often-demeaning treatment of donors is predicated on the class-based economics through which they operate and profit from, and though Thernstrom alludes to these realities briefly, she fails to investigate further — and this is one failure of her article that prompted so many to criticize it as diary-genre material rather than N.Y.T.-caliber journalism.

Another serious failing of her article, in my view, is her unwillingness to explore in any depth the complicated and difficult relationship of donor and donee, in contrast to her lengthy treatment of the surrogate relationship. She briefly mentions feeling jealous and insecure of the donor, and later expresses gratitude. But nowhere does she do the serious work of thinking about how the donor might figure in her children’s lives in the long term. If anything, she gives two indications that she is in serious denial of such a future relationship: first, by out and out refusing the title of “mother” to anyone other than herself, and second, by calling the donor the “Fairy Goddonor,” she elevates the donor to the mystical realm, a realm beyond human desires and emotions. This, on the surface, may be an expression of heartfelt gratitude, but in the end it serves as a barrier to the very real human conflicts that may indeed arise from this arrangement.

Which, of course, brings me back to my own story. Unlike the admirable openness embraced by those in Thernstrom’s case, the couple to whom I donated preferred to keep the fact of donation private and asked me to sign a handwritten letter to this effect, which I did. Remember that it was still a fairly new procedure at the time, and keep in mind too that I was in my mid-20s — old enough to make a decision but not old enough to understand the long-term implications of this agreement. I could certainly see the kids anytime I wanted, and I was kindly sent updates on them in the early years, but the understanding was that they would never know about their relationship to me.

Fast-forward a decade. I have two children myself now, and while I think about the twins often, I have lost touch with the family. Partly this is because of the demands and exhaustion of parenting my own kids, but it is also because of my increasing ambivalence about the nature of my relationship to two people — one of whom looks remarkably like me — who came from my body and are making their way in this world. I have no doubt that their mother has been a loving, kind parent, and I obviously would never want to disrupt that relationship. However, I increasingly feel that the twins, who are now teenagers, have a right to know about their creation story — if not now, then when they are adults.

Why, you may rightfully ask? The obvious and easy answer is knowledge of certain medical conditions and their management that have occurred in recent years. More difficult to justify, but deeply felt, it seems that we should have the opportunity to develop a kind of mother-child relationship. On a side note, I believe this is precisely the situation Thernstrom fears, even if on a subconscious level (see her generous AND self-serving offer to pay for her donor to store fertilized eggs so she can be sure to have her own children someday). In technical terms, we are talking about new forms of kinship here (biological parent who does not give birth to or participate in daily parenting of child), but in other respects, many forms of parenting happen in our village everyday, and without threat to the primary parent. The strong cultural valuation of the biological relationship is an understandable threat here, but this is not insurmountable, particularly for those of us who have already transgressed so many other barriers in an effort to bring these children into the world.

While I’m sharing my story to add another perspective to an important conversation, I also do so in the genuine hope of soliciting advice. I am considering contacting the donee to suggest that the two of us meet. Should I bring up my concerns about our original agreement, or should I let more years pass until the kids are adults? If she is not open to telling them the truth, is it unethical for me to approach them on my own someday? I certainly would never do so with any expectations or criticisms of their parents, just with the truth and the simple hope that I might figure into their lives in a meaningful way. I should add that I had my last child in my early 40s, so, like the donee, I will be a much older mom when my daughter is an adult. As I age — gracefully, I hope — were there someone younger to provide parenting guidance should I be unable to do so, I would be grateful. But is it too much to expect that the donee would think in similar terms?

Many thanks in advance for your thoughts here. I can assure those of you who raised questions about the egg donor in Thernstrom’s case that I have never regretted my role in creating this particular family and in providing the chance for these two lives, no matter how complicated, or emotionally and practically difficult. Which brings us to back to fate. …”

Now, in response to my post on this on Facebook, an Intended Mother, Marna Gatlin of PVED, responds:

“This may not be popular: my response to the egg donor.

I read your article with great interest – thank you for putting yourself out there and expressing how you feel.
As a mother via egg donation I think what jumped out at me was your stateme…nt:

“. But nowhere does she do the serious work of thinking about how the donor might figure in her children’s lives in the long term. If anything, she gives two indications that she is in serious denial of such a future relationship: first, by out and out refusing the title of “mother” to anyone other than herself, and second, by calling the donor the “Fairy Goddonor,” she elevates the donor to the mystical realm, a realm beyond human desires and emotions. This, on the surface, may be an expression of heartfelt gratitude, but in the end it serves as a barrier to the very real human conflicts that may indeed arise from this arrangement”

This is fascinating to me because as my son’s mother I am curious as to what you an egg donor would like to be referred to as? Do you want to be acknowledged as the twin’s mother? Is that truly what you see yourself as?

My guess (although I don’t know as I haven’t asked Melanie her feelings about the term Fair Goddonor) is that this term is a term of endearment. In going back and re-reading Mealanie’s article Meet the Twiblings I don’t see any sort of malice in her words. I see a mom expressing how complicated all this can be.

I know I am my son’s mother. I carried him, went through 58 hours of labor, and have put him first in everything I do. I love him so much I sometimes forget to breathe. Would it make me uncomfortable or hurtful to share the term “mom” with someone else when it’s me who is the center of my child’s world. To be honest probably. I feel I have worked hard to earn that title. I don’t think just anyone can be a mommy. Does that make sense?

The difference between my story and yours is that my son knows fully how he was created. I used to think he wouldn’t care. I was wrong. As he’s gotten older he’s more and more curious about his origins and where he began. As his mother I have to honor that. It would be a disservice not to help him find out about his genetic background. So I am petitioning my clinic to contact her even though it was an anonymous donation. Fortunately for us our egg donor expressed in writing the willingness to have future contact so my hope is that the clinic will do the right thing and attempt to contact her. That way we can perhaps learn more about each other and my son can have the questions he has about his background answered.

We will see.

Personally, I find it sad for intended parents not to have honest conversations with their children about their origins. We tell adopted children all the time about where they came from and in many instances the circumstances surrounding their adoption.
The reality is you have two children who are half siblings to the twins you helped create. And I think it’s the twin’s right to know about half siblings they have – and I am with you I think those kids have a right to know their creation story. However, it’s not your place to tell them, it’s their parents and you aren’t their parents. You signed away those rights years ago when you donated eggs to this couple. And while I understand your desire to want to share medical information with this family, there is nothing preventing you to do that is there?

In regards to your need to have the opportunity to develop a kind of mother-child relationship with the twins you helped bring into the world — I empathize with you as a mother. We love our children. I love my child, so very very much. He brings me great joy all the time. But these twins aren’t your children. They are someone else’s children. And while there are many forms of parenting happening in the world today – (as in it takes a village to raise a child) I think if this were to transpire it would have to be done carefully and with great sensitivity to all parties involved.

Can you imagine how confused you might be at age 15 to find out that after all these years Aunt Jane is really not just Aunt Jane but really the woman who gave your mom and dad eggs 15 years ago to have you? And now Aunt Jane wants to have a “relationship” with you because she has always had a desire to have a mother-child relationship with you because she helped bring you into the world?

I think if I were a 15 year old I’d be asking my parents and Aunt Jane “What the hell?” and “Why now? Why did you wait all this time”

In our journey to contact our egg donor her circumstances surrounding her egg donation to us may have changed. She might have married someone who doesn’t know she was an egg donor. Or she might not have told her own family of origin. She might say “no thank you I have changed my mind” and we have to honor and respect that just as you are going to have to honor and respect the wishes of the recipient parent in which you donated eggs to. At the end of the day you aren’t these children’s parent. They already have a set of parents. I realize that is tough to read – but really put yourself in the parents shoes or even more importantly the twin’s shoes.

My thoughts are going to be with you as this all works itself out however that may be. Again thank you for such a thoughtful article.”

As for me, well, taking the time to let this all sink in, I actually respect the donor’s honesty in making these bold statements, yet I also respect Marna, the mother, and her bold statements no matter how unpopular they are. Do I feel the same way as this egg donor, having donated in the past? No, not at all. My children understand completely that there are genetic half offspring out there in the world, and they respect my decision. Do I worry about these children created with my genes? No. As they are being raised by loving parents, whom I hope are being open and honest with them about their origins. Do I feel as if I am their mother? NO! I am the mother to two phenomenal children only, yet by donating my genes, I have helped others experience the joy of parenting – the good, and the ugly. Let the discourse continue!

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