Egg Donation and Surrogacy – Guest Post from Kat Howard @RadFem_KatH (short read)

After being a three-time egg donor through a British based egg clinic, and whilst preparing for my fourth round, I recently withdrew from the donor programme. Why? I had a few reasons – questionable treatment of my health by doctors, concerns over my own health, a changing attitude towards egg donation – but most of all, the support by egg donation clinics of surrogacy.

To provide some background, I became a first time egg donor at the age of 24. Whilst I admit freely my main motivation was money, I saw the decision as something positive, a choice I was making that would help another woman somewhere in the country. And I will acknowledge that the British egg donation process is far more transparent and far less exploitative than other countries. At all stages of the donation process, I had the probable risks explained to me, both long and short term. I was given genetic counselling, to make sure I fully understood the implications of egg donation should my eggs be used successfully. And whilst I know I donated for the money, egg donation in Britain carries a flat fee- £750. A good amount, yes, but nowhere near the exploitative amounts that egg donation can reach in countries such as America, where donations can be paid by amounts upwards of $7,500. Women are also limited in how many times they can donate- with 10 being the maximum. So yes, you can earn £7,500 in all, but this would be over a number of years, and few women donate this many times. I can honestly say I left my first egg donation cycle feeling happy with the process, and proud of what I had chosen to do, and I planned to donate the full 10 times (naïve, I know).

So why did I change my mind? I mentioned above a number of reasons, some of which have been spoken about by others. The long-term health risks for example are raised often by organisations, given that there have been links suggested between the egg donation process and increased risks of breast cancer due to the ovarian stimulants used in the process. Egg clinics and egg donation centres have attempted to argue against these, citing poor studies or external factors, but the potential for risk remains, given that there are few to no long term studies. In addition, my changing attitude towards egg donation has been one shared by many other feminists. I recognised it more as exploitative, especially in countries outside of the UK, where women can be coerced into the process either through external pressures, or financial means. These are often young women for whom the money may be a lifeline during a difficult time, and so feel they must donate despite the health risks. I noticed also how this was true even in the UK, with egg clinics targeting their adverts towards young women, some as young as university age.

On a more personal level, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with how my own physical health had been treated during the egg donation process. The average number of eggs usually taken per cycle is 12-16 I was told, yet during my first cycle I had 24 eggs taken. This left me so dehydrated that I had to be put on a drip, and the half-hour recovery time I had been scheduled for turned into 2 hours. The clinic needed no additional written permission to do this, I was simply deemed a ‘good donor’. During my second cycle, my heart rate dropped so much in the surgery that I had to be woken from the anaesthetic. This was only after however the surgeon debated putting me back under, so all the eggs available could be collected. This was decided against eventually, so I was sent home with only one ovary having had the eggs collected. The experience left me with a sense of guilt, as if I was responsible for this surgical failure. I remember breaking down in tears after they let me leave. Physically meanwhile, my body had to get rid of the other eggs in my next period, resulting in a far more painful and heavy experience than usual.

But the fundamental reason I am no longer an egg donor is the link between egg donation and surrogacy. In the UK, you cannot ask your donated eggs to be withheld from use in surrogacy. When you initially donate, you are told that you can ask for your eggs to not be used in any case, as long as it does not contravene the Equality Act 2010 protected characteristics. Yet, when I asked just before I planned to start my fourth cycle, if I could withhold usage from surrogacy, I was told no.

Well, not quite ‘no’ initially. I was actually initially told I could restrict the usage of my donated eggs. It was only when my partner (going through the process for the first time) asked and received a contradictory answer, that it became clear that there had been a ‘mix-up’ or ‘unintentional miscommunication’ in letting me know that I could restrict how my eggs are used, something that I suspect was an attempt to get me through a fourth cycle before letting me know.

Apparently, to withhold from surrogacy would be ‘indirect discrimination’ towards male homosexual couples, and single men. This is despite the fact that single men are not a protected characteristic, and it is not discrimination to be opposed to surrogacy. Being opposed to surrogacy is in no way a reflection of how I view gay parents (or single male parents, or heterosexual couples, all of which access surrogacy) but a moral stance against a practice that can have immense harm on women. I believe there is a huge difference between egg donation in the UK and surrogacy, the latter of which carries much greater risk to the woman carrying, emotionally, mentally and physically, and it should not be automatically assumed that all egg donors are supportive of such a harmful practice. The refusal to separate these two is incredibly alarming- women are ‘recruited’ into being egg donors through the promise of helping a fellow woman, and are at no point informed their eggs may be used for surrogacy unless they directly ask (as I chose to). Many women would feel less comfortable being egg donors knowing this means they would be supporting the practice of surrogacy, and this I believe is why this is not mentioned during discussions with egg donation clinics.

I would not complete an egg donation cycle again, and am in the process of having my eggs destroyed by the clinic so they cannot be used in future. It’s hard to say if I regret the process. I like to think I have helped women somewhere be able to have the child they want, and if so I wish them well. I would certainly not advocate for egg donation, or ever tell another woman to go through the process themselves however. It carries far too much risk, and actively supports the narrative that women’s bodies and their reproductive capabilities are consumerist products, and that is not a narrative that can exist in a world of sex equality.

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