“Are you a student with some free time this term?” reads an Instagram advert for one of the UK’s 70 fertility clinics. “Do something amazing: become an egg donor.” The millennial-pink targeted ad goes on: “Your generosity would make someone’s dream a reality.”
Ellie Asquith was 19 when she first came across one of these adverts. She was scrolling Instagram when it cropped up. It touched a nerve. At the time, Asquith was in her second year of university and living with two gay friends.
“I knew that they would never be able to have kids unless they adopted or had a surrogate so I thought egg donation would be a good thing to do,” she says. Asquith wanted to help: “I got £750 for it although I would not say that’s enough for what I went through.”
In the UK, it is illegal to pay an egg donor for their eggs. The £750 Asquith received is instead compensation for the time and effort it takes to undergo the procedure.
However, the hundreds of adverts on Facebook and Instagram that target young women usually highlight the financial reward: “Egg donors make dreams come true. Apply today and get compensated up to £750 per donation,” reads one clinic advert.
Another reads: “Do something amazing – become an egg donor and make someone’s dream a reality. Anonymous & easy. £750 compensation.”
It’s definitely not easy, no matter what the Instagram adverts claim, says Asquith. Over a two-week period, egg donors inject themselves twice a day with follicle-stimulating hormones to mature eggs so they can be retrieved.
During this time, donors will have three to four ultrasounds. Once the ovaries have produced enough eggs, the donor will be put under anaesthesia and they will be extracted.
“These procedures may have risks such as bleeding and pain along with possible injury to internal organs, although the chance of that is less than 1 per cent,” says Dr Amit Shah, leading gynecologist and co-founder of Harley Street clinic Fertility Plus.
“Hormones can also give side effects such as headaches, tiredness, mood swings and make them feel bloated, though this again is temporary.”
The operation is fairly quick, and most women are able to go back to work the next day. For Asquith though, the process was harder than she expected.
“You are extremely hormonal. I had bad cramps for two weeks while I was doing the injections,” she says. “Then, on the way to the clinic to get the eggs extracted, you look about three months pregnant. I was so bloated. I had this little bump. When I came round after the operation I wanted to cry. I felt stressed out. I was very overwhelmed.”
Elsewhere, the laws around egg donation are different. In the US women have reported payments of up to $20,000 (£16,000) a cycle.
“Donating in the UK has limited financial compensation when compared to mainland Europe and the USA. It should be considered mainly an altruistic process here,” says Dr Shah. “Targeted adverts should always be taken with a pinch of salt.”
While the number of women donating their eggs dropped during the pandemic, donation numbers have generally been on the rise. New egg-donor registrations have tripled from around 500 a year in the early 90s to around 1,500 in the late 2010s. Now sperm or egg donor-conceived births account for one in one in 170 of all births.
Still, there is a long wait for women hoping to receive an egg, with some reporting up to two years. “We are definitely seeing more and more women requesting eggs,” says Shah. “Generally, women are choosing to start families later in life for various possible reasons— personal choice, finances, finding the right partner.”
This year marks a new era for those babies born through donation. Thanks to a legal change in 2005, donor-conceived children will be able to request information about their donor parents once they reach 18. In 2023, the first generation of these children will come of age.
This lack of anonymity doesn’t scare Asquith though, who is pretty relaxed about her decision. She is pleased that her donation produced a haul of 30 eggs.
“The nurses were like, ‘this is an insane number of eggs. We never usually extract that many.’ Most of them went to families as well which is great, some worse-quality eggs went to research I was told,” she says.
“I’m not really freaked out by the idea of creating lots of children. You don’t really owe the children anything. I’m not their parent.”
Lydia David, now 30, first heard about egg donation through a friend in sixth form. She researched clinics to see if she would be eligible when she turned 18 but her BMI wasn’t high enough. Then, aged 28, she saw a Facebook advert. “I was just sort of scrolling,” she says. “I hadn’t been talking to anyone about a donation or anything like that. But the ad just came up. And I thought to myself, is that just a sign that maybe I should go for it?”
David had already given birth to two children and wanted to do something kind. “The process of donating my eggs wasn’t as bad as childbirth, let’s put it that way,” she laughs. “It was gruelling at times of course but the actual feeling that you get after you’ve done that donation, is like why you have babies again after the pain of labour. I felt an overwhelming sense of achievement. I knew it would really help someone.”
All donors are encouraged to take up free counselling sessions: legally, these have to be offered by clinics before the procedure to make sure donors know what they are committing to.
“They just want to check you’re not just in it for the money, and make sure you understand the legalities of children contacting you in the future,” says David.
David wasn’t fazed. If anything, she was enthusiastic. “I’d be happy to meet any future children if they wanted to meet. I know for a lot of people; identity is very important. Knowing where you come from is important,” she says.
“The way I see it is, I’m only giving my egg. I’m not giving away a baby. I’m just giving my egg the chance to become a baby when the time is right.”
For David, this is a very different thing to being someone’s parent. “Some people sort of say, ‘I can’t believe you’re giving away your own children. But I mean, I don’t see it as giving away my children, because I have my own children already,” she says. “I know for a fact that DNA does not make someone family.”
After going through IVF and successfully conceiving, Lisa Armstrong-Mayne, 30, couldn’t stop thinking about the women who were unable to retrieve eggs during their own IVF process.
Most people that use donated eggs are women aged over 45. “I decided I didn’t want any more children and wanted to help. Compared with going through IVF for five years, I thought it was easy,” she says.
“Two weeks and it’s all done. Plus, I didn’t have the added anxiety about whether the conception would be successful, because it wasn’t for me this time.”
Asquith isn’t keen to donate her eggs again, but she is glad she did it. She is proud that she helped create potentially dozens of children for potentially dozens of families. She spent the £750 wisely. “It went towards travelling,” she remembers. “I have dipped into that pot for various things since then.”
Sometimes even now, targeted donation ads pop up during Asquith’s daily scrolls. They no longer strike a nerve.