- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Selling parts of oneself, including plasma, eggs or sperm, may sound like a great way to make ends meet during the recession. Think again. While donations to plasma banks are up, as are calls to clinics by women interested in becoming egg donors or gestational surrogates, the actual payoff for these donations generally is either small or comes only after rigorous screening and extensive testing.

Sean Tipton, spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), says it will take a while to see if the economy has any long-term impact on egg donation. Anecdotally, the number of women actually going through with such donations has grown only marginally because most clinics and agencies have strict criteria for donation.

“At this point, we simply don’t have the data that would allow us to draw conclusions about economic impact,” he says. Mr. Tipton says numbers are calculated annually.

Kara Flynn, spokeswoman for the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, the trade group that oversees plasma banks, says donations have increased from 10 million in 2007 to 18.8 million in 2008. It is tough to say, however, whether that is a result of the economy or public-awareness campaigns.

Either way, it would take a lot of plasma donations to make a significant dent in one’s finances. The average compensation runs around $20 to $35, and donors can only donate twice in a seven-day period, Ms. Flynn says.



Meanwhile, many sperm banks say donations have remained steady over the last few years. Sperm donors receive $60 to $100 per donation, however it is a process that goes far beyond the actual donation. There are health considerations (potential donors must meet certain health criteria), as well as ethical issues (do donors, in effect, want progeny).

While egg donation and gestational surrogacy may provide the biggest financial payoff, the criteria and long-term implications are taxing. So taxing that 90 percent of women seeking to become egg donors never make it past the initial screening, says Kathy Benardo, director of the egg donor program at Northeast Assisted Fertility Group, a New York egg donor agency that recently opened offices in the District.

“I can get up to 100 applications a week,” says Ms. Benardo, who says initial inquiries are indeed up from a year ago. “Some don’t follow through when they see the screening they have to go through. Some are out of our age range [of 21 to 29 years old]. I even once got an application from a man. We also have a body-mass index qualification and an educational level qualification.”

Donors accepted in Ms. Benardo’s program usually are compensated about $10,000. But the payoff comes only after rigorous psychological and physical testing, shots of fertility drugs, repeated sonograms and a surgical process to retrieve the eggs.

Jenn Machovina, director of the donor-egg program at Genetics & IVF Institute in Fairfax, says inquiries about donations are up, but the 60-page application tends to narrow the field. GIVF usually has a steady pool of 200 egg donors.

“Usually the response is, ‘OK, this is way too much work,’ ” Ms. Machovina says. She says she tells her patients they need to be emotionally prepared for donation.

Most women won’t list money as the motivating factor for their donation on their application, but it certainly is a consideration, Ms. Benardo says. There are no laws governing egg donations, just guidelines issued by the ASRM about how much compensation should be and how often women can be donors.

“In England, there is no compensated donation, and they cannot find any donors,” Ms. Benardo says. “Most women will say to us ‘It is a wonderful thing to help someone. … And I can pay off my student loans.’ ”

In Chicago, Robin von Halle, president of Alternative Reproductive Resources, a donor and surrogacy agency, says a 50 percent uptick in initial calls has yielded an additional 20 to 30 eligible donors this year.

“One trend we have seen is the number of donors returning to do it again,” she says.

Because egg donation and surrogacy is a relatively new business - Ms. von Halle is a pioneer; she opened her agency in 1992 - clinics and agencies have not really been through tough economic times before.

Ms. von Halle says she has seen an increase in the number of women applying to be gestational surrogates. A gestational surrogate is compensated from $25,000 to $30,000, depending on many factors, she says.

Overall, surrogate births in 2007 rose to 1,000, up sharply from 260 in 2006, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology.

“It is not a quick way to make money,” she says.

In fact, the biggest change with the economy may be the number of once-wealthy couples who were looking at laying out $50,000 to $100,000 for a gestational surrogate and the accompanying medical treatment.

“I canceled a cycle when a couple both lost their jobs,” Ms. Benardo says.

Says Ms. von Halle: “I have had many people cancel when it came right down to the wire and we laid out the numbers. Several said ‘Keep our deposit. We’ll save some more money and come back next year.’ ”

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