If you are thinking about becoming an egg donor, you should know that egg donation comes with certain risks to your health and well-being. The egg donation process can take several months and includes time-consuming appointments with doctors, counselors and egg donor agency staff. Some of the medical procedures can be physically uncomfortable and the process itself brings emotional challenges for even the most enthusiastic donors.
Donating eggs is hard work, and anyone thinking about egg donation should know the potential health risks. Good donor egg programs are upfront with egg donor applicants about the risks involved and are happy answering questions. Stay clear of donor egg programs that don’t want to discuss potential risks, including health, legal, and emotional risks.
The short-term risks of egg donation
In general, the short-term health risks from donating eggs are similar to those infertile women face when they get IVF (in vitro fertilization) treatments, the medical procedure that creates human embryos from eggs and sperm outside a woman’s body.
Once the process is started, egg donors begin giving themselves daily injections of gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonist analogues such as Lupron, a medication used to temporarily “shut down” the egg donor’s ovaries by suppressing her reproductive hormones. Other gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonist analogues include Buserelin, Suprefact, Goserelin, Zoladex, Nafarelin, Triptorelin, Synarel, and Prostap.
The side effects of these medications are known to cause mood swings, headaches, abdominal bloating, weight gain, nausea, and stinging pain at the injection site for some women.
After the egg donor’s and recipient’s menstrual cycles are synchronized, it is time to stimulate the donor’s ovaries to produce multiple eggs, a process known as ovulation induction. This process involves the injection of either follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) or human menopausal gonadotropin (hMG). These medications go by the brand names Gonal/f, Pergonol, Urofollitropin, Metrodin, Humegon, Menagon, and Clomid (which also goes by Milophene, Serophene, Clomifert, Fertomid, Siphene, and Omifin).
Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome
The biggest risk of ovulation induction is the possibility of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a medical condition which can range from mild symptoms such as bloating to severe ones like kidney failure, and even death. Some studies estimate the risk of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome as high as 10 percent, easily the most common side effect of egg donation. Thankfully there are medical treatments for it, but it still poses potential health risks for egg donors.
The egg harvesting procedure
When it comes time for the harvesting of the eggs, donors are given a local anesthetic and a transvaginal ultrasound aspiration is performed. Make no mistake, though, egg retrieval is invasive surgery, and donors may be suffer injury to the organs near the ovaries. The Stanford University Egg Donor Information Project estimates that
“major injury to the bladder, bowel, uterus, blood vessels or other pelvic structures occurs in approximately 1 in 500 to 1000 surgeries… Surgical risks include acute ovarian trauma, infection, infertility, vaginal bleeding, and lacerations. Additionally, anesthetic complications may occur, although they are rare in healthy women. In one study of 674 women who underwent egg retrieval, 1.5 percent required hospitalization due to complications occurring during or after surgery.”
The long-term risks of egg donation
Since it’s only been used in the last several decades, the long-term health effects of egg donation are unknown, and no long-term studies of egg donors have been performed. Much of what we know about egg donation risks is culled from studies of infertile women who use IVF treatments.
Can egg donation cause future infertility?
Since no long-term studies have been done, doctors can’t say with any certainty. But that means that they can’t rule out the possibility that egg donation can result in an increased risk of infertility.
Can egg donation cause cancer?
Since we have no long-term studies of egg donors, fertility doctors extrapolate from studies of women who undergo infertility treatments. These studies are inconclusive. The largest and most comprehensive one found “a significant 30-year increase in various cancers among women who underwent fertility treatments, with the highest risk being for uterine cancer.” As the author of that article points out,
… studies like this establish only an association, not a cause; fertility doctors note that infertility itself is associated with elevated risks of uterine cancer. “It’s hard to say if the cancer was caused by the disease, the treatment of the disease or some combination of the two,” says Elizabeth Ginsburg, a fertility doctor and president of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology.
Time will tell.
Are the rewards of donating eggs worth the risks?
Becoming an egg donor may come with risks, but it also comes with rewards. Helping others create the child they’ve been dreaming of can be a wonderful experience. For some, the warm feeling that arises from generous acts like egg donation is worth the risk.
Also, the money earned from egg donation can be an important part of the decision to donate. Women who fit very strict qualifications like high SAT scores or who are Asian or Jewish may be able earn $10,000 or more from donating.
In the end, egg donation is a very personal decision that women should make with their eyes wide open.
For more tips and advice on becoming an egg donor, check out our Beginner’s Guide to Donating Eggs.