Eggonomics

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 10 2008 7:44 AM

Eggonomics

Looking for some extra income to make ends meet during the recession? Try selling eggs. Not chicken eggs. Your eggs.

Melinda Beck has the story in today's Wall Street Journal :

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

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Here's another sign of the tough economic times: Some clinics are reporting a surge in the number of women applying to donate eggs or serve as surrogate mothers for infertile couples.
"Whenever the employment rate is down, we get more calls," says Robin von Halle, president of Alternative Reproductive Resources, an agency in Chicago where inquiries from would-be egg donors are up 30% in recent weeks—to about 60 calls a day. "We're even getting men offering up their wives. It's pretty scary." James Liu, a reproductive endocrinologist at University Hospitals, Case Medical Center, in Cleveland, says there is no waiting now for egg donors since his roster has swelled from the usual 4 to 17. Andrew Vorzimer, an attorney who represents prospective parents in Los Angeles, says the usual six-month wait for a surrogate in California has vanished as well. "Many of these women have college loans to pay off or they want to help buy a house or provide for their own kids' education," says Mr. Vorzimer, who is also CEO of Egg Donation Inc., a recruiting agency.

So the good news is, you have an exploitable asset in your ovaries. The bad news is, you have to compete with all the other young women—and apparently their husbands—who have realized the same thing. Did I mention the daily hormone shots? The prohibition on intercourse? The needle extraction?

Still, it's a better deal than lots of people in the developing world are getting. They're selling kidneys ; you're only selling eggs. And you can make a lot more money than they can. Beck lays out the numbers:

The going rate for a surrogate is about $25,000. Egg donors generally receive $3,000 to $8,000. But a few agencies advertise that they'll pay much more for specific characteristics. One ad running in campus newspapers promises $25,000 for a donor who is "100% Jewish with ... High SAT Scores... Attractive, at Healthy Body Weight and Free of Genetic Diseases." ... "Now that we have more donors, it's become a buyer's market," Ms. von Halle says. "Some people are looking for a 6-foot Swedish volleyball player with 39 ACTs, and they'll take their time." ... Darlene Pinkerton, executive director of A Perfect Match in San Diego, which offers up to $50,000 for egg donors with high SATs ... [has] seen a doubling of inquiries recently. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine considers compensation above $10,000 to be inappropriate; Ms. Pinkerton argues that the offer brings in donors who might not otherwise be interested.

In other words, the egg market is working like any other market. A Perfect Match is offering big bucks for exactly the same reason the ASRM opposes this practice—because money can persuade people to do things they otherwise wouldn't do. Actually, the 50 grand supplies only half the persuasion. The other half comes from the recession. You need money; you're running out of options; here's a way to get it.

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But ordinary eggs won't get you the 50 grand. For that, you'll need the SAT scores, and the face, and maybe a bit more height. You'll need to be tested for the wrong genes—and maybe for the right ones, now that we can project athletic potential from specific variants.

Do you find this scrutiny degrading? Does the whole tiered pricing system offend you? Then go look in the mirror. Catering to buyers' tastes is part of selling. I know it's a lousy economy out there. But if you don't want others treating your eggs as a commodity, don't treat them that way yourself.