There’s been a dramatic rise in young women donating their eggs to couples desperate to have children. So what drives someone to share their most precious resource – for no personal gain? Jo Macfarlane investigates egg donation.
It took Alice Bisset three days to find the right words to say to her future children. The heartfelt letter, penned over the summer, now sits in a locked file at the London Egg Bank.
‘I wanted to do it properly,’ she recalls today. ‘I realised how much those words could mean to my children. It took several days of crossing out, rewriting bits. In the end, I went for wisdom. I wrote that they should be confident about being a nice person. That if everything was going wrong, as long as they were a good person they would have something to be really proud of.
‘And I told them that if they wanted to, they’d be more than welcome to try to find me.’ It isn’t a typical letter from a mother to their child, but Alice is not a typical mother. She has no idea if anyone will ever read those carefully planned words. And she knows that, even if they do, she may never get to meet them.
The bright, articulate 22-year-old is part of a growing army of very young women volunteering to become egg donors– giving their most precious resource – for no personal gain, to help infertile couples have children.
Most donor eggs available in the UK used to be left over from fertility treatment cycles and donated by women in exchange for a reduction in IVF fees. But the latest data from the UK’s fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), suggests that the number of ‘altruistic’ egg donors– women like Alice– is soaring.
Unlike in the US (where donors can earn thousands of dollars), it’s illegal in the UK for women to be paid for their eggs. They are, however, allowed up to £750 compensation.
Any healthy woman aged between 18 and 35 (when egg quality naturally starts to decline) can donate. But the upward trend is being driven almost entirely by younger women – and the statistics are striking.
Donors between the ages of 21 and 24 doubled between 2012 and 2018 from 166 to 332, while those aged 20 and under increased more than four-fold from just 17 to 71. And while the HFEA cannot separate the figures for altruistic donors from IVF donors, experts acknowledge that these younger women are less likely to be donating eggs from treatment– most will be altruistic. More recent official figures aren’t yet available. But reports from clinics suggest the pandemic may have had an even more galvanising effect. Altrui, a company which matches donors to couples going through fertility treatment, says the number of and 21-year-olds keen to donate has risen by one third since the start of the Covid In 2020, the average age of its donors was 26.6 – it is now 24.3.
It was being a young mother herself that led Jaya Chingen to donate. The 26-year-old from North London, who is studying to be a counsellor, says her two young children mean ‘everything’ to her. ‘I wanted to give other people the chance to have what I’ve got,’ she says. ‘I have a brother and a sister, but we all have different mums, so the idea of a mixed family feels normal. I’ve considered scenarios where it’s not ideal – maybe the child is angry they’ve been born in these circumstances. But the fact that most people using donor eggs will have been through so much to have a baby gives me hope that any resulting child would be loved in the same way I love my own children.’ Jaya has since recommended donating to her friends.
Search for #egg donor on Instagram or TikTok and there are thousands of videos and photographs charting young women’s ‘journeys’. Alice’s one-minute video of her experience was liked more than 20,000 times, and Jaya has written a blog post.
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The invasive procedure, performed under sedation, is not without risk. Would-be donors must inject themselves with hormones in a rigid daily routine, and travel to hospitals for regular scans. There is discomfort, bloating and the emotional side effects from administering huge doses of hormones. But most significantly, there is no anonymity. The law in the UK means any children born from donation have the right to contact the donor when they turn 18.
One British 18-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous, says several of her friends – all of whom have only recently finished school – have discussed donating their eggs. ‘They want to give something back after the pandemic,’ she says. ‘We’re young, fit and healthy and we’re not planning to use our eggs for a very long time. There are adverts for clinics seeking donors on social media so it’s definitely something women my age are considering.’
For Alice, who is training to be a chartered surveyor, the reasons were equally simple. ‘I’ve got lots of friends and family who have either had miscarriages or struggled to conceive,’ she says. ‘I’ve got a cousin who’s had cancer and had her ovaries removed, so she could carry a baby but can’t use her own eggs. There are people out there who are so desperate to have a child they’ll do anything. I’m not using my eggs – in fact, I take them for granted, which seems really unfair.’
Charles Kingsland, clinical director of the Care Fertility group which has seen an influx of young volunteers over the pandemic, says: ‘Some of these girls are just brilliant. You ask, “Why are you doing this?” and they’ll say, “I’ve got a neighbour who’s going through IVF and I felt so sorry for them.” We had a whole chamber of barristers who came in wanting to donate because they thought it was a nice thing to do.’
There has always been a shortage of donor eggs in the UK and demand is still increasing. Women are starting families later – the average age of first-time mothers is now nearly 31, compared with 27 in 1991– and many over-40s using IVF need donor eggs to boost their chances of success.
There is also demand from male couples hoping to use a surrogate. But waiting lists for an egg, particularly for those having fertility treatment on the NHS, can be long so organisations such as the London Egg Bank and Altrui now advertise to encourage more women to donate in the UK.
Sarah Pallett, egg donation lead at Altrui, says: ‘We advertise a lot on social media and our young donors post about their donation journeys which, from a marketing perspective, is useful. If young women see someone doing it, they’re more likely to want to do it themselves. Celebrities speaking out about their IVF journeys and needing donor eggs or surrogacy to have a child has also helped make this more acceptable.’
Clinics make a profit from the eggs, too. Altrui gets a ‘referral fee’ for matching a donor to a potential couple at one of its partnered fertility clinics, while the London Egg Bank, which has its own IVF unit at the London Women’s Clinic, charges £4,800 for six frozen donor eggs.
For Alice, knowing couples were paying huge fees to use donated eggs was hard but she says, ‘I’ve spoken to people since who’ve told me they have a baby from a donor egg and it was the best thing that had ever happened to them. That makes it worthwhile.’
Kamal Ahuja, scientific and managing director at the London Egg Bank, acknowledges that it does make ‘some profit’ but adds, ‘The rest we invest in research. You may save money going abroad, but treatment here is among the most tightly regulated in the world so it’s far better.’
It’s a rigorous process to become an egg donor in this country. Women must be aged between 18 and 35 and in good health. Their medical histories are checked and they have a battery of blood and urine tests, ultrasound scans of the ovaries and counselling to make sure they fully understand the implications.
Menstrual cycles are tracked and, on day three of their period, donors start injecting with hormones to prompt egg follicles to produce eggs. In a normal cycle, only one egg– usually the most viable – will mature and travel down the fallopian tubes into the uterus where it will either be fertilised or dissolved. In a donation cycle, many eggs will mature. When they reach around 20mm in size, women are given a ‘trigger injection’ of a hormone which releases them, and the eggs are collected, under sedation, 36 hours later.
‘I felt completely normal throughout,’ Alice says, ‘although I did get a bit emotional over the last few days– agitated and bloated. A day before the surgery it’s a bit gnarly, with a lot of cramping. But it wasn’t unbearable.’
Jaya also says it was worth all the discomfort and inconvenience: ‘Walking out, having left 22 eggs for someone else to have a baby with, was a great feeling.’
The information couples get about their donor is basic: their racial profile, hair and eye colour and details about their interests and education. And the donors themselves can only find out the sex of any children born and the year of their birth.
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Neither Alice nor Jaya is aware of any successful pregnancies yet. But for Hollie Bennett, finding outa girl had been born from her first donation – arranged through Altrui when she was 20– was ‘amazing’.
Now 25, the Formula One team coordinator from Rochester, Kent, says: ‘I could pass her in the street and not know. Obviously that’s strange. But I don’t really feel like she’s part of me. I just feel really happy that I could help.’
Hollie was inspired to donate because her grandmother couldn’t have children so adopted Hollie’s father. ‘She’s so proud – my whole family are,’ Hollie says. ‘My nan cries every time it’s mentioned.’
The same family are now using eggs Hollie donated a second time to have another child. Both times they have sent her gifts – cards and jewellery– to say thank you. ‘It was so emotional receiving those,’ she says.
Donors have no legal responsibility for children conceived through treatment. But all know that when any child turns 18 they have the right to seek contact details for their donor. ‘I’d welcome them with open arms,’ says Alice. ‘Not as a mother but as a friend or an auntie. I’m convinced that if they’re my egg, they’ll be a good egg.’