Aug. 11, 2008— -- Strapped for cash and looking for some extra money to pay for rent and college tuition, Stephanie, 23, decided to put all of her eggs in one basket.
A bartender from Chicago, Stephanie works two jobs and wants to go back to college to study biology. After her roommate donated her eggs to a fertility clinic, Stephanie, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her privacy, said she decided to help an infertile couple and make $7,000 in the process.
"I want to go back to college, and it is really a matter of needing the money," she told ABCNews.com. "I go to the doctor tomorrow to get put on birth control, so that my cycle matches whoever ends up carrying my egg. Once I'm on it for three weeks, then I'll have to start injecting myself with hormones."
Stephanie said if not for the faltering economy, she would not be donating her eggs. Fertility clinics across the country from Atlanta to Los Angeles told ABCNews.com that they have seen an increase in the number of women seeking information or actively donating eggs in the past six months, with many women claiming the lagging economy as their motivator.
"I make roughly $800 a week. The $7,000 will help, but its not going to pay for an education. I'm still going to have to take out loans," Stephanie said. "Having the extra money alleviates some of the stress of being able to afford college. I'm worried that my rent keeps going up, and I feel like this gives me a cushion. I don't have a car, so I don't need gas money, but I really need it for rent money."
In Chicago, Robin von Halle, president of Alternative Reproductive Resources, an agency that pairs egg donors with infertile couples, said several of the clinics in the area have reported an increase in women looking to donate.
"In my 16 years in this field, I've noticed a trend that when the economy or unemployment rate starts slipping, we start receiving way more calls. Lately, we've been very busy -- much more than usual," she said.
Von Halle said her agency receives 30 to 50 inquiries a day by phone and on the Internet, up from 10 to 30 a day six months ago.
"The calls and Internet inquiries right now are astronomical. We're looking for specific donors between 21 and 29 years old, but a lot of these people are pushing that. They call and say, 'Well, I'm only 32.' In 50 phone calls, we might get one suitable donor," she said.
Chicago donors make $7,000 for their first donation and are allowed to donate up to six times.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, a nonprofit trade organization that represents reproductive health clinics and doctors, said it would be another two years before there was enough data to verify anecdotal reports that the economy is affecting donation rates.
"There has certainly been an upward trend over the past 20 years in the number of donors," said Eleanor Nicoll, spokeswoman for the ASRM.
In 2005, the latest year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has data on egg donation, some 134,260 women had assisted reproductive procedures. Of those, 16,161 women, or 12 percent, received donated eggs. In 1995, there were 4,783 eggs used in 59,142 procedures, or 8 percent of the total.
"It stands to reason that women looking for a source of extra income would look to egg donation," ASRM's Nicoll said. "But just because there is increased attention expressed, doesn't mean there are more completed donations. This is not a simple or casual decision. There is first a medical and psychiatric evaluation and then what amounts to outpatient surgery."
She said on average donors make $7,000 to $10,000, with larger sums paid to women in wealthier regions of the country, such as the Northeast.
Dr. Dorothy Mitchell-Leef, an ob-gyn and partner at Reproductive Biology Associates in Atlanta, said she has seen a 20 to 25 percent increase in the number of women inquiring about donating in the past six months.
"We have certainly seen an uptick in the number of ladies coming to our seminars over the past six months coming to hear about programs and wanting to participate," she said.
Mitchell-Leef said many of the women expressing an interest in donation are graduate students or professionals, a shift from the undergraduates who typically looked to donate in the past.
"It's great for our patients who are looking for educated individuals; and graduate students often have more flexibility in their schedules," she said.
At her clinic, donors receive $6,000 for the first donation, $7,000 for the second and $8,000 for the third.
Clinics on the West Coast have noted a similar trend, said Shelly Smith, director of the Egg Donor Program in Los Angeles.
"We always hope people are donating for altruistic reasons, but we know money is part of it, too. We are seeing more people looking to donate and we've definitely gotten more inquiries through the Internet recently than ever before," Smith said.
Despite the economic meltdown, clinics said they have not seen a downturn in the number of women looking to receive donor eggs.
Von Halle said insurers in Illinois are required to pick up the tab for fertilization treatments so money for recipients is not an issue there.
In most states, however, recipients have to pay out-of-pocket for treatments. That cost, according to Smith, has not stopped patients from seeking to get pregnant.
"In California, insurance almost never covers these treatments even though they are enormously expensive. It is not something that women and couples hoping to get pregnant see as an option. People want to build families, and they don't think of it as a luxury," she said.
She added, "This isn't like people deciding not to buy that new car. People feel very deeply about this and are willing to pay the money."
In California, she said, donors are typically paid $7,000 for their first donation. Fees for a recipient can exceed $50,000.
Smith said another impact of the weak economy on the ova industry was that more foreigners were looking to the United States to purchase eggs.
"Now that the dollar is so weak, recipients from overseas can afford to come here. We've heard from many people overseas in Australia, the U.K. and Europe," Smith said. "The euro stretches much further now, and people who could not afford previously to come here, now think it's a deal."