Ova for Sale

The art of the deal in the gray market for human eggs


Louise Brown was born in July 1978, but the story of how she would recast civilization had been written years before. The first baby born through in vitro fertilization came not as a shock but as an affirmation, exhibit A to the commentariat who had for a decade promised that the day of the test-tube baby was nigh. To many, little Louise Brown was just the first drop of rain in a monsoon; delicate, unobjectionable, and trivial in herself, but harbinger of an onslaught that would rip away the groundwork of civilized society.

In 1970, Princeton theologian Paul Ramsey railed against in vitro technologies in a sobering book titled Fabricated Man; a year later, The Atlantic Monthly ran a story headlined "The Obsolescent Mother." Editorialists spun visions of a world in which women would exchange each other's ova and rent each other's wombs, creating all manner of tangled familial relations. White couples would implant strange ova and give birth to mixed-race children. Parents would select and breed for genetic matches for siblings in need of replacement tissues. University of Chicago Professor Leon Kass, a prominent conservative who would later serve as head of the President's Council on Bioethics, emerged as an in vitro fertilization (IVF) opponent before most people had heard of the technology. A social philosopher with a knack for expressing visceral social anxieties in academic prose, Kass could not keep a tinge of hysteria out of a 1972 essay on the topic. He posed a sarcastic question to readers: "And why stop at couples? What about single women, widows, or lesbians?"

The right held no monopoly on test-tube trepidation; the sky was falling from all quarters. Left-wing feminists feared the new technologies would create new means by which to exploit women and entrench the patriarchy. In 1985 Gena Corea predicted that rich couples in the West would send ova to poor women in the Third World, who would endure the pain of pregnancy at bargain rates. She warned of a market for "breeders" who would be valued for the reproductive potential of their component parts.

IVF advocates could be forgiven for dismissing the righteous panic of Christian conservatives, alarmist feminists, and academic Luddites. But much of what has been prophesied has come true.

My interest in assisted reproduction is more than academic. In December 2005 I flew to Chicago, underwent general anesthesia, endured a minor medical procedure, and sold 12 ova to a pair of strangers for $10,000. Like thousands of other women that year, I joined in an assembly-line production of a human embryo.

How I Became "Donor #15"

The egg market didn't emerge overnight. But by the mid-1980s, babies were being born via donated eggs that were fertilized outside the womb and later implanted in women incapable of producing viable ova. If you can imagine a scenario involving IVF-related technologies, chances are it has already taken place. In 1999 Adam Nash was conceived in a laboratory as a perfect genetic match to his sister, Molly, who would have died without the bone marrow transplant he later provided. A few years later, an IVF mix-up led to a white couple with half-black twin sons. Today in Bombay, surrogate mothers are carrying the genetic children of European and American women. To Kass's visions of egg-trading singles, widows, and lesbians, add one more: gay men are now party to the trade in genetic materials, contracting for both eggs and wombs to create children half genetically theirs.

The once-hypothetical fears of bioconservatives are now walking and talking human beings, but the debate over the ethical implications of such children is still oddly abstract. "It is argued," states a 2002 report by the President's Council on Bioethics regarding the commercial trade in human DNA, "that we stand to introduce a commercial character into human reproduction, and to introduce commercial concerns into the coming-to-be of the next generation." If that is the risk, we're already running it, because the market in eggs, sperm, and reproductive technology has never been larger or more accessible.

The "breeders" Corea envisioned 20 years ago are now college students selling their genetic material and low-income women renting out their wombs. There is considerable debate about whether they should be allowed to trade reproductive capacity for cash, how they should be compensated, and how far is too far. But the more interesting questions are not regulatory. Reproductive technologies have spawned new markets in the business of baby-making while old fears about the commodification of human life persist; the social norms lag well behind the scientific capabilities. The result is a bizarre juxtaposition of crass commerce and high rhetoric, of conceptions cooked up in a lab to fill a demand for natural childbirth and an industry selling illusion along with DNA.

Selling ova to another woman is at once impossibly intimate and wholly impersonal, a connected but highly distributed process of exchange. It is a transaction well suited to the Internet, which tends to provoke uninhibited sharing among strangers cloaked in anonymity. The Web sites I found, trolling through hundreds of Google hits for "egg donor," were similar, placing heavy emphasis on the motivation of donors. They spoke of fulfillment, of "making a difference," of "one of the most loving gifts one woman can give to another." The pictures were of babies, clouds, building blocks. The site I chose was among the most thickly written, its invitation to donate dripping with hyper-feminized expressions of motherhood and generosity. It was the linguistic equivalent of a doily.

The application invited me to "investigate the possibility of impacting a loving couple's life with the gift of egg donation." It promised that sharing genetic material is "one of the most powerful and rewarding decisions a woman can make." It demanded "a candid humanitarian desire to assist an infertile couple/individual in conceiving." It asked for all the basic facts: height, eye color, hair color, allergies, and ailments.

The application also asked, "What is the least amount of compensation you will consider accepting for an egg donation?" Elsewhere, the agency stated that it would not accept requests of more than $10,000. So I typed in: $10,000.

My picture was included in a donor database, a mail-order bride catalog with SAT scores. The Web-based list runs over 100 women long, listing our heights, weights, ages (all of us between 21 and 32), asking prices, standardized test scores, blood types, academic degrees, and whether we'd donated before. Later, I would find myself referred to as "Donor #15."

The first offer came almost immediately; another followed a day later. "We have one couple who definitely want to work with you, and they are bringing me a check to reserve you tomorrow," an e-mail message read. "The other couple…are [sic] deciding if they want to match with you for your next cycle." That I was selling something people actually wanted to buy did not become obvious until that message. I hadn't signed anything or talked to anyone; I'd simply answered a few questions and e-mailed a picture. And for what initially seemed a ridiculously inflated price, they were lining up.

It's easy to be flattered by women who want to have your children. Alas, the appeal likely wasn't that I stood out but that I blended in. I have brown eyes and brown hair; my height, at five feet, four inches, is exactly average. I am ambiguously ethnic, in turns thought to be Asian or Italian. Women look not for models but for mirrors; I was enough of a human Mad Lib that parents, scanning for pictures, could look at me and see themselves. One couple wanted to make sure my immediate relatives resembled me, reassurance that I wasn't hiding a genetic predisposition for green eyes, a prominent nose, or dark skin. "What do you really look like?" they were asking. Not me—my genes.

Two couples decided to look elsewhere after the agency revealed more details about my family's medical history, which is rife with drug and alcohol abuse, but a third looked past every skeleton in the closet and gamely agreed to move forward. "Match!" read a message in my inbox, agency-speak for "Sold!" The parents wanted an anonymous donation, and so it would be, although I had indicated to the agency that I was open to a more intimate relationship with the recipients. E-mail messages from the agency referred to an "intended mother" and an "intended father," so I knew I was donating to a heterosexual couple. I also knew that they were cheap. They asked that I lower my asking price after "reserving" me at the agency, not uncommon in a trade where the lines between commerce and altruism are left unclear. I refused.

"Match!"—that was how it started. The parents had chosen a Chicago-based fertility doctor, and the agency booked a September flight from D.C. to Illinois, where I would meet the man who would eventually perform the procedures on both of us. Before the parents signed a contract, he would make sure I was healthy, my ovaries normal, my egg-producing potential up to standard. When he gave the OK, they would ink the contract, a process not unlike buying a used car.

I had consulted the doctor's Web site before flying off to Chicago. It informed me that "the feeling of fulfillment from helping an infertile couple achieve the dream of having a baby is priceless."

I was the only patient in the place the Sunday morning I arrived at the Chicago clinic for the first time, but there was, as always, a wait. I passed the time by scanning the thank you letters and Christmas card baby photos tacked up all over the waiting room walls, effusive handwritten notes thanking the clinic for various children. The number of pictures was impressive, with photos covering the waiting room and bleeding down a hallway toward the examination rooms, as was the number of kids in each photograph; many came in twos, threes, even fours. Physicians usually implant more than one embryo to boost the chances of pregnancy. The National Fertility Directory, a non-profit organization that distributes information about reproductive technologies, estimates that IVF cycles average $12,400 a round, not counting the cost of a donor. At prices like that, you buy in bulk, and pray.

The doctor swept in later, a middle-aged Indian obstetrician who brushed past a nurse to shake my hand. He was friendly and talkative, but most of all paternal, a second father to the many, many kids he'd help conceive. We headed straight to the examination room for a quick ultrasound, where he chattered excitedly at the sight of young ovaries. That test passed, he jumped into our information session with Socratic zeal. "What's the biggest risk to a donor?" he asked, falling into a routine. "Infertility?" I asked, half-hoping. He paused for effect before saying, "Pregnancy." The Q&A serves two purposes: to reassure me that I will make it out of this process alive, and to scare me into celibacy. For donors hopped up on fertility medications, stray sperm pose a heightened danger of unintended pregnancy in the midst of protracted attempts to create a different child: right eggs, wrong womb.

When I suggested later that the egg-for-dollars swap is hardly a donation, he looked genuinely confused and changed the subject to my egg-producing potential. "You exercise," he said, as if my ovaries made this obvious to him. We moved on; I'd been OK'd. He led me into another small room—this one crowded with books and diagrams—where two nurses would lay out the specifics of the donor drug regime. The "stimulation" would require four different injected pharmaceuticals over four weeks. From across a wooden desk, a woman composed a long list of dates to be kept and dosages to inject. Every instruction looped back to the importance of scrupulously following each step of the process, the danger of putting off a dose for an hour and imperiling the entire undertaking. A nurse beside her appeared to serve no purpose other than to nod in agreement with everything the first nurse said.

All of this sounded little more harrowing than taking vitamins until the first nurse pulled out a single, tiny syringe as she continued to provide monotone commentary on the importance of timing. She dipped the needle in water, pulled back to draw in the fluid, flicked it twice, and plunged it into a pink piece of rubber. I leaned forward as if to ask a question but said nothing. She pushed a DVD on self-injection across the desk.

Heather Has Two Mommies and a Daddy

The last paragraph on Page 13 of the 21-page contract I signed in November asserts, bolded and underlined: "It is expressly understood that this Agreement in no way constitutes payment for any genetic material, a child or children, or payment for relinquishment of parental rights to any child or children."

The United States is one of many countries in which legislation and social norms proscribe the selling of body parts. It is also the world capital of the genetic material market: No other nation trades in DNA so widely and freely. Hopeful mothers and cash-strapped college students have been trading cash for eggs for 20 years, calling the ova a "donation" and the money compensation for time and discomfort, thus avoiding the ban on sales. Outside Food and Drug Administration mandates regarding the importance of testing donors for specific diseases and monitoring their progress, there are no federal laws restricting egg donors in the U.S.; elsewhere, the laws reflect a surprising lack of consensus on the issue. In Germany, Denmark, and Italy, egg donation is completely illegal. In Israel, payment for eggs can cover only the direct expenses related to the procedure. In the U.K., eggs are classified as organs, and payment is banned.

The birth of Louise Brown in 1978 was considerably less complicated, both logistically and ethically, than many in vitro births today. The researchers who oversaw Brown's conception simply circumvented her mother's damaged fallopian tubes—the most frequent cause of infertility—by combining her mother's ova with her father's sperm outside of the body, and implanting the resulting embryos in the womb. Had Mother Brown's eggs been inadequate, due to age or abnormality, her daughter would not have been born. A live birth from a donor egg was first reported in Australia, a pioneer in fertility treatments, in 1984. It took time for doctors to use ova from other women, and more time for the offer to extend to strangers rather than sisters and best friends. American couples began advertising for healthy young eggs by the early 1990s.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) estimates that each year 10,000 babies are born from donated ova in the United States. For the near future at least, it seems likely that demand for donor eggs will continue to grow alongside the fertility industry. In 1985 there were 30 fertility clinics in the United States, and that number has grown to more than 400 since.

The mainstreaming of fertility treatments contributes to a larger concern among cultural conservatives, who worry egg donation is a step on the way to the much-feared designer baby. "Do you really want to pick a kid the way you shop for a car?" Reader's Digest asked in 2001. Feminists, too, find the mixture of capitalistic enterprise and female bodies disturbing. The Nation's Katha Pollitt has called surrogacy "reproductive prostitution." Sexual anxieties make for strange bedfellows: In 2004 National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote a column slamming egg donation, approvingly quoting Pollitt.

While egg prices range from a few thousand dollars to $30,000 or more, ASRM guidelines recommend donors receive a maximum of $10,000, above which compensation is deemed "inappropriate." Paradoxically, such guidelines are sold as being in the interest of the donor, usually portrayed as cash-strapped and naive. In the words of the President's Council on Bioethics, such women tend to be from "financially vulnerable populations," which implies they need protection from the temptation of incurring bodily risk for profit. Keeping prices low might seem to be a compromise between banning sales and embracing them, but half measures defy the logic of both extremes. The same people who complain ova are too valuable to be sold complain that the market price is obscenely high.

Infertile women, too, are not infrequently portrayed as helpless before their desires and vulnerable to a fertility industry selling false hope at exorbitant prices. Women are "desperate" to conceive; they will "do anything" to have a child. Infertile couples "will mortgage their houses, sell their cars, deplete the family savings," warns Harvard economist Debora Spar, author of the 2005 book The Baby Business. The prevailing narrative of the infertile woman is that she will sacrifice health, career, and life savings at the altar of childbirth. It is pregnancy as suttee.

As one would expect, where compensation is prohibited or capped, "donations" dry up. Waiting lists in Britain, where donors are compensated with £250 for expenses, reportedly stretch from two to eight years. California clinics claim to regularly help British, Canadian, and Australian women—reproductive tourists fleeing egg shortages.

The range of regulatory regimes in Western nations with roughly similar legal traditions suggests there are no obvious or intuitive answers. The questions being raised are entirely new ones, but they provoke old anxieties about female sexuality and the commercialization of the human body. Even longtime supporters of IVF sometimes draw the line at egg donation, suddenly voicing objections as the technology barrels forward to its logical extension. When a British talk show host asked Louise Brown how she would feel if she found out she were the product of a donor egg, she replied, "I would be disgusted."

Harvesting a Dozen Eggs

The fertility drugs arrived in a small brown box, packaged crisply with clear tape and bearing the name of the pharmacy that had sent them. Above my apartment address, the box read "Donor #15." I cut it open carefully, dipped my hand into the styrofoam, and pulled out vial after vial, ice cold from the freezer pack that lay at the bottom of the box.

There was more, buried under packing peanuts: dozens of translucent syringes with orange plungers and a thick, stapled wad of receipts indicating the $1,622 all of this had cost someone else. The nurse's assistant had said to keep most of the pharmaceuticals chilled. Not knowing what else to do, I placed each vial in the fridge, next to a half-empty bottle of diet Sprite.

The drugs would manipulate the menstrual cycle into an obedient and predictable pattern. Over the course of 14 days before ovulation, ova start as invisible cells and bubble into highly complex systems barely visible to the naked eye. Two weeks after it has begun to mature, a single ovum will burst out of its skin, float through a spaghetti-sized tube, plant itself in the uterus, and wait. But once the egg is released, it is useless to another woman. A fertility doctor hoping to transfer it must capture the egg when it is fully mature but just before the follicle erupts.

It's no easy thing to predict when an egg will escape, and there are no guarantees that an egg will respond to sperm outside the body. Subcutaneous injections induce the donor to "superovulate," producing not just one mature ova but as many as 20. They also help the donor and doctor gain control over the process. No one can say exactly when the eggs will be fully mature, so as the date approaches, the donor must be monitored for progress almost daily. I would have to fly to Chicago a week before the extraction so the doctors could watch the follicles multiply and expand before removing an egg from each one.

Three days later, the intended mother would take my place on the operating table and the doctor would implant a number of fertilized embryos. There would be a 50 percent likelihood that none would "take"; IVF is always a risky investment. Because doctors usually implant a large number of embryos, the opposite danger applies as well: The risks were laid out right there on the doctor's wall of thanks. More than half of IVF babies are multiples, and are therefore more likely to be born prematurely and abnormally small. Parents worried about the risks inherent in carrying a litter of children sometimes opt for selective termination, usually between 9 and 12 weeks. The weaker ones are selected out in hopes of keeping a stronger one or two healthy.

Because the mother's womb must be prepared to accept the fertilized embryo shortly after the ova are extracted, her menstrual cycle is timed in tandem with the donor's, a strangely intimate harmony of bodies between strangers. Beyond cycle synchronization, the anonymity in such relationships is oddly asymmetrical; the donor is a prisoner in front of a one-way mirror. The mother knew what Donor #15 looked like, her exact age, the addictions that plague her family. She knew that her blood type was O and that her undergraduate major was philosophy. About the future mother of my genetic children, I knew just one thing: She was on day three of her cycle.

In situations this unmapped, the instinct is to follow cues both verbal and psychological, to slip into the behavior of white-coated experts who treat the situation as unremarkable. I certainly didn't know what to call the woman who had recruited my genes for the generation of her fetus; I used the agency's term, Intended Mother, IM for short, even among friends. I had no words for the cornucopia of pharmaceuticals to grow the ova or the surgical procedure to remove them; soon the terms stim med and retrieval were part of my daily lexicon. Miss Manners has naught to say on social niceties between women who have contracted for a surgical procedure; the etiquette of egg donation is protean. Some agency Web sites suggest mothers send donors an "appreciation gift" of flowers after the retrieval.

Halfway through, the agency e-mailed to say the donor mother was uncomfortable saying "the donor" and wished to know my first name; could they share it? The agency was trying to preserve the illusion that this was a completely natural pregnancy, and anything so intimate as a first name risked chipping away at that facade. I had no such illusion to maintain; there was nothing remotely normal about this process on my end. Sure, I said—if she tells me hers. We traded first names through the agency, which felt, even through our convoluted e-mail chain, like whispering secrets behind a locked door. Our mediator, party to the indulgence, even threw in a terse description of the IM: "She is very sweet."

By late November I was injecting three times a day, and I'd moved from one drug onto what I'd started calling "the hard stuff." I experienced no side effects, and the precisely timed injections were painless. The only evidence of progress appeared in black and white in the office of a D.C. fertility doctor, who counted and measured the eggs as they appeared on the ultrasound.

On screen the follicles were roundish black holes tightly packed and framed in white, something between monochromatic honeycomb and a bunch of grapes. On my second visit, the nurse stared at the screen and mumbled "five" with a frown. Five eggs.

Five was not enough. My flight to Chicago and hotel stay there for the harvesting were already booked. But despite weeks of injections, celibacy, and sobriety, the ova were few enough to cancel the entire cycle. Hours later, the agency e-mailed that the mother "is really upset right now (as I know you are as well)."

By this point, the intended mother had already spent perhaps $10,000; she had paid the agency to find me, paid for my drugs, paid for a visit to Chicago, paid for a lawyer to represent me in our contract negotiations. Had I not known her name, it might have been possible to write off the loss of time and money as the price of doing business, easier not to feel guilty in the name of a woman who had bet on me and lost. Instead, I obsessed over every meal, every workout, every injection from the previous weeks, searching for something that might have weakened my—her—ova.

But we forged ahead. An unnamed nurse in Chicago called and told me to ratchet up the drug dosage and get on the plane. This was in violation of clinic policy, which sounded vaguely alarming, but I obediently injected and began packing for Chicago in December; scarves, thick socks, snow boots. In my purse I carried a handwritten note from the doctor to the airline, explaining why my carry-on was stuffed with syringes.

Once there, I spent five mornings being poked, prodded, monitored, and ordered to inject. I appeared at the clinic every morning at 9, extended an arm, and watched translucent tubes turn dark red with my blood. I followed a nurse technician into an examination room, where she counted and measured each oocyte; by now there were a dozen. According to the technician, they would only "take the larger ones." In the afternoons, after my blood work had been processed, I called an automated system for instructions before injecting again.

The retrieval would take place at precisely 10 a.m., just before the follicles would burst. My last visit to the clinic was my first visit to its operating wing, which is physically shut off from the warm waiting and examination rooms. Walking through the door felt like walking from a home into a hospital, the carpet replaced by spartan white flooring, pictures of pink babies replaced by a bare wall and a ticking clock. A nurse's aide led me to a wheelchair, touching me as I sat down, an oddly delicate gesture.

A small, nervous-looking anesthesiologist sat next to me and carefully asked a number of direct questions, as if speaking to a child. When she was satisfied with the answers, she held my arm and gently inserted an IV. We both watched a clock on the opposite wall. At 10, a nurse wheeled me into the operating room, where the doctor waited at the foot of the bed with white surgical gloves on his brown hands. The nurses helped lift me out of the chair and onto the same table the mother would lie on, unconscious, in three days' time.

I caught a glimpse of the probe before I fell asleep, the plastic sheath hiding a needle that would pierce the vaginal wall, plunge into each follicle, and suck in each egg. The doctor would take only the big and promising ova, leaving those that were unlikely to survive their test tube futures. The whole procedure, from start to finish, took 20 minutes.

When I woke up outside the operating room, I asked the doctor how many of the 12 he'd taken. Pleading confidentiality issues, he said only, "I can't tell you."

Here's My Gift, and Here's the Bill

The most remarkable thing about the egg trade is that it exists. The market takes place within what is arguably the most heavily regulated economic sector in modern America—health care —in a society that regularly chooses prohibition over individual autonomy. The impulse to ban extends from soda in schools to card games in cyberspace; it hovers over abortion and stem cell research. For whatever reason, infertile women have not been held hostage to this impulse: Thousands buy eggs every year, and no one expects that to change.

Yet this extraordinary permissiveness operates within a constrained and misleading language of altruism, barriers erected to hide the reality of commerce behind narratives of womanly generosity. The immediate concern of egg donors—most probably, money—is downplayed in order to emphasize an improbably abstract, universal desire to help other women conceive.

The idea that money taints whatever it touches probably has less hold on the human psyche than it once did, but the myth is most powerful in the realm of female sexuality and reproduction, where discussions of exchange inevitably devolve into those of exploitation. "Infants and babies are indeed being sold," the Harvard economist Debora Spar insists in The Baby Business, illustrating a not uncommon failure to distinguish between the sale of genetic material and the subjugation of human beings. Listening to fears about the intersection of babies and markets, it is easy to forget that bearing a child is always costly. Virtually no part of a pregnancy exists completely outside the market, yet no one asks obstetricians or even midwives to have purely humanitarian motives when they provide their services, or faults them for benefiting financially from the business of human life.

As far as I can tell, there is only one group of people who talk openly and honestly about assisted reproduction: those who would prefer it be stopped, or at least regulated. The Leon Kasses and Debora Spars of the world articulate the technologies of reproduction in cold, sterile, and impersonal terms that can seem both dehumanizing and unsettling. But so can the embryology lab.

The strongest response to such opponents is not that IVF is natural or altruistic, but that it can be neither of those things without detracting from the dignity of the child-to-be. My experiences bear no resemblance to the nightmarish scenarios thrown out by those who portray egg donation as a clumsy eugenics scheme. Strip away the nexus of fertility doctor, donor agency, and donor, and two would-be parents were hoping for a kid who would look something like them. They weren't looking for a "designer baby," so much as a close approximation of the homegrown variety.

Before we ask IVF opponents to accept the implications of new reproductive technologies, though, we might ask the same of IVF supporters. From the recipient's side, the egg donor process can be an extended effort to pretend that the donation never occurred. Straddling the natural and the artificial, egg donation embodies a contradiction. It glorifies the experience of natural pregnancy and the gift of biological children, while it in fact produces neither: Egg donor babies are the product of foreign genetic codes, and the "natural" pregnancy is manufactured in the lab. The approximation of natural pregnancy also entails a studied psychological distance from the donor who made the pregnancy possible.

Opponents of IVF have long warned that the bond between mother and child will be eroded by further advances in assisted reproduction, the implication being that mothers will eschew the time and labor of traditional pregnancies once they can outsource to the lab. In practice, IVF seems to demonstrate the opposite extreme: Women value pregnancy to such a degree that they will spend lavishly to approximate the ex­perience, adding expense, discomfort, and ethical quandary to the already burdensome ordeal of childbirth. The desire to stick to the traditional script of family is surprisingly robust, and reproductive technologies allow potential parents to follow that script even when nature erects barriers. Though IVF entails risk, discomfort, and the prospect of having to abort multiple fetuses, many parent apparently prefer it to what might seem a far less ethically complex response to infertility: adoption. Natural motherhood is not obsolescent, as The Atlantic once predicted, but ascendant, in vogue to an almost disturbing degree.

Those who worry reproductive technologies will destroy the family probably haven't had much contact with parents who will spend many thousands of dollars to create one. If there is a risk, it is that IVF might instead ossify the definition of family, stressing insularity above openness, the appearance of a "natural" pregnancy over adoption, genetic legacy over less rigidly defined familial bonds. For all the otherworldliness of egg donation, parents who choose the process cling to the traditional: children who appear to be their own, who are born through what appears to be a natural pregnancy. It's a bold new path to very familiar territory.

Perhaps unblinking honesty is too much to ask of IVF's early adopters, who are breaking sacred taboos even while conforming to norms of the nuclear family. And given that donor agencies are in the business of selling illusions, the blurring of economic exchange and altruistic venture is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. That's not reason to object to technologies consumers increasingly want, but it's enough for me to want my eggs off the auction block. I never objected to being grist for the pregnancy mill or considered it dehumanizing to sell body parts for profit. But there is something strangely degrading about being lauded as a humanitarian and paid handsomely on the side.

Shortly after the procedure, I e-mailed the agency to ask that they remove my picture from their gallery of donors and asked in passing whether my genetic children were developing somewhere on the other end of our e-mail chain. "I'm sorry to say that your donation did not result in a pregnancy," read the reply. It reassured, "Your gift was very precious."