"Live Nude Eggs" and Other Personal Accounts

Posted by Jessica Cussins on November 21st, 2012

The body as marketplace is a loaded zone. The collision of uncomfortable realities, significant amounts of money, and appeals to altruism produces multiple simultaneous stories about who benefits and who does not. New ways to form families become feasible through third-party eggs, and happy success stories from recipients are plenty. But there is limited information on how those who provide their eggs feel about the exchange.

Ruth Ragan, who donated her eggs sixteen years ago, wrote last year about her reaction on the New York Times’ parenting blog. She initially wanted to donate her eggs for altruistic reasons. She had received two blood transfusions from friends for a spinal fusion surgery in her youth and was looking for a way to repay this kindness. She found the procedure fairly difficult though; the hyperstimulation of her ovaries left her “bloated and in extreme abdominal pain” days after the retrieval. Her gynecologist scolded her for undergoing such a risky procedure, and she did not consider donating again.

As Ragan grew older and had her own child, she became aware of “lasting psychological effects as a result of the anonymous egg donation process.” She wondered if any children had resulted, if they were psychologically affected by the means of their conception, if they knew all the medical information they needed, and if their parents treated them well. She found some limited studies on the children of gamete donations that somewhat eased her concerns, but almost nothing on how donors fare.

The body of research that is available suggests that anonymous donors are forgotten once their bounty is recovered. Most of the research lies in clinical outcomes for recipients and the impact of donor characteristics on recipient pregnancy outcomes. The search for perfect donors continues, but no one is following up to make sure the once-perfect donors remain perfect.
There is, however, a growing body of first-person accounts from egg donors. Most, like Ragan’s, are full of ambivalence. A personal account in Jezebel tells the story of a woman who needed the money and had a fairly good egg retrieval experience, but still struggled with the implications. As a “white, blonde, thin, straight, smart, relatively mentally stable and able-bodied” woman, she worried she was perpetuating the notion that particular attributes are more desirable than others. In Confessions of a Serial Egg Donor, Julia Derek recounts her experience as a 12-time egg donor. She was shunned by the fertility industry when she began to experience severe medical problems due to her donations.

A recent article in the independent Santa Cruz newspaper Good Times tells the story of Raquel Cool, an egg donor and artist. Cool grew up in a tri-cultural military household that moved every few years; a fascinating part of the fertility industry for her is its ability to deconstruct normative understandings of family and parenthood. From her point of view, it not only leads to the possibility of family formation for recipients, but also allows donors access to certain kinds of motherhood.
For example, if you want to carry a child, you can become a surrogate carrier and rent out your womb; or, if you wanted to raise a child full time, but temporarily, you can become a foster parent; and if you want to pass on your genes, you can become an egg donor.
Cool says she has a “biological urge” to pass on her genes, but at least at the moment is not concerned with raising a child genetically related to her; she plans to adopt. She comments that though egg retrieval was initially “very much about being maternal,” her attitude has changed to a “desire to impregnate as many people as possible,” adding that she is “fascinated by technology and the ability to let a woman do that.” This fascination with the body as economy and vehicle was the inspiration for her new art installation, “Live Nude Eggs,” which opened this month in Santa Cruz’s Vapr Labs.

Cool’s narrative differs from many other accounts of the egg donor experience. Unlike the women in the award-winning documentary Eggsploitation, she does not see herself as a victim of an unregulated fertility industry. Though egg donation is her primary source of income, she doesn’t relate to it as something she needs in order to get by. She also doesn’t feel foiled by marketing techniques that sell the concept as the ultimate altruistic gift, practices that are well documented in Rene Almeling’s book “Sex Cells.” Instead, being an egg donor has fed Cool’s desire to constantly experience new things and push herself outside her comfort zone. (She has also donated blood, hair, and been a research subject.) Even the medical complications she has faced, including ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (“My ovaries went from the size of walnuts to grapefruits”) have not deterred her from her desire to use her body in imaginative and experimental ways.

In short, Cool, who is a “27-year-old, college-educated, trilingual triathlete of Chinese-American descent,” is a “perfect donor.” But even she has experienced the alienation that comes from the process. She has been advised against meeting with the intending parents, has limited interaction with the clinic, and has never met another egg donor. When she specifically asked to speak with one, the agency insisted that it be a three-way call that included them. Her “Live Nude Eggs” exhibit calls into question the complete exposure that is required of an egg donor – the exhibit includes a series of intimate photographs of her as she undertakes the many elements of the retrieval process. 

Cool has found egg donation to be an incredibly lop-sided experience, noting “you truly feel like you’re on the observed side of a one-way mirror.” While she is asked to give intending parents incredibly detailed and thorough information about herself, all she is given is their first names. After the procedure is over, all she learns is ‘yes’ or ‘no’; either her eggs resulted in a pregnancy or they did not.

Despite this imbalanced transparency, Cool feels that egg donors are not exploited or “completely commodified”; she sees the exchange that takes place as an economic transaction that is a two-way street.
I think the language that’s being used in the industry right now is kind of like feel-good market speak, where you’re giving the gift of life, you’re such an altruist. But that, to me, is ultimately marketing, and it really downplays the true transaction at hand, which is that it’s a business. Egg donors are a part of that business. And whether someone is ethically opposed to that, I leave it to them to decide. The installation raises those questions, you know, what are the implications of using your biology as a source of economy.
Those implications can be seen in the tension around the simultaneous framing of egg donation as altruistic gift, economic transaction, and biological legacy. How women come to terms with these frames seems to drastically impact their view of the health risks of egg retrieval, their role in the process, the fertility industry in general, and the families that are formed as a result of their biological material. As more women speak up about their experiences, those considering egg donation will be better prepared for all of the ways it could affect them, not only while they are a “perfect donor” but throughout all the stages of their life.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

•    Frozen Egg Banks – A “Paradigm Shift” for the Fertility Industry?
•    Sex Cells: New book by Rene Almeling
•    Egg Donation Survey
•    Egg Raffles and Shadow Markets: The Fertility Industry Goes Global - and Skirts Laws

Posted in Arts & Culture, Assisted Reproduction, Bioethics, Egg Retrieval, Jessica Cussins's Blog Posts, Reproductive Justice, Health & Rights


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