May 11, 2010— -- Egg donation isn't supposed to be a get-rich business for donors, but young women across the country are selling their eggs and cashing in big.
A "World News" investigation into the growing industry found that not all eggs are made equal in donation agencies' eyes. Women with favored traits, like blond hair or high intelligence, can earn a much heftier fee for donating.
Sarah Gwaltney, 25, began donating her eggs after hearing a comment from a friend.
"A girl just happened to start talking about how someone had sent her something in the mail, saying she could earn a good deal of money doing egg donation," Gwaltney recalled.
Gwaltney's good looks allowed her to work as a model through college in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., but still, the bills were piling up, so she signed up. Gwaltney donated her eggs not once, but six times. In the two years she did it, she says, she made $100,000. Gwaltney found the business so lucrative that she is now starting her own egg donation agency.
The American Society of Reproductive Medicine, the group that oversees the field, suggests at $10,000 limit for donations, and they also say that women shouldn't be paid more based on their looks or intelligence.
But Lynn McDonnell, 45, whose twins came from donated eggs, makes no apologies for the amount of money she spent on the process or the way she picked her donor. She turned to donor eggs after attempts at IVF with her own eggs failed.
"I basically picked me, but younger and prettier," McDonnell said, laughing. "But everything else was like me -- we read the same books, we both ran marathons, we had the some outlook on life."
But which characteristics bring in the biggest money, overall? To find out, ABC News employees responded to advertisements for female egg donors.
One employee, Rachel, was told that her eggs were worth more because she's a blonde.
Another, Susan, responded to an ad for Asian donors and was told her degree from Wellesley made her eggs more valuable, to the tune of $25,000. That's more than $15,000 over industry guidelines.
A recent study from the Hastings Center looked at ads placed in college newspapers, finding that about a quarter required a minimum SAT score, and most contained appearance or ethnicity requirements. Some ads offered to pay more if you're tall or thin, and about a quarter touted payments over $10,000. One ad even offered $50,000 to prospective egg donors.
Because the guidelines are from a private organization and not the government, the agencies' practices aren't illegal. In fact, there are no laws governing egg donation.
Egg Donation Completely Unregulated in U.S.
Regulation has proven tough, because creating these kinds of laws would require a statement on the nature of the embryo and the origins of human life, which runs smack into the politically-sensitive abortion debate.
About 10,000 babies are born each year using donor eggs, a number that has doubled in just a few years.
Dr. Roger Lobo, the president-elect of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, said that while he's not surprised by these kinds of offers, he believes that most egg donation agencies do follow the guidelines.
But when asked whether his organization had any power over an agency that's not following the guidelines, Lobo admitted the simple answer, "No."
Critics say that the situation creates a generation of so-called "designer" babies, whose characteristics have been carefully selected, right down to their hair or eye color.
Lynn McDonnell said that the choice isn't about cosmetics, it's about fostering a connection between parent and child.
"You want the person to have some resemblance to you and your family, so they don't stick out. They blend in," said McDonnell. "And I think that a lot of people really pick something closer to home than designer."
She said handpicking the best donor is really just about giving your kids the best start.
"If this person is an Ivy-educated person and they have really great genes, why wouldn't you want to do that for your kids?" she said. "To have a fleeting chance at being intellectually superior to other people, and really providing themselves with a great life."