Jan. 11, 2008— -- Maryland resident Lisa Mullins wishes she had photos of all the babies that have been born from the eggs she has donated. Lisa has been through the donation process seven times, giving more than 100 of her eggs.
"It's addicting. It's the feeling." she says, "The gratification that you get from it."
Mullins says she derives joy from helping parents who are not able to conceive children on their own. She has also been paid handsomely for her trouble: as much as $8,000 for a single donation. Mullins has used the money she has made to create a college fund for her own four children.
But Mullins is not the only one profiting. Egg donation is a $38 million a year industry. Prospective donors advertise themselves online, listing everything from photos to IQ scores. The demand is staggering. It's estimated more than 6,000 babies are born in this country every year from donated eggs.
Some ethicists have called egg donation "the Wild, Wild West" of the fertility market. That's because there is no national registry or database to identify the donors and track how often they donate. While the American Society for Reproductive Medicine cautions women not to undergo the process more than six times, there are no laws to regulate this, and therefore no ways to really prevent women from possibly endangering their health by undergoing the process more times than is recommended.
Donating eggs is a very extensive procedure. A woman has to inject herself with fertility drugs every day for up to a few weeks so she produces multiple eggs instead of just one a month. Then when she's ready she goes to the operating room, where a doctor uses a thin needle to remove the eggs from her ovaries while the donor is under sedation.
Manhattan resident Julia Derek says she has donated eggs 12 times. "It's dangerous," Derek says, "because it's too much money involved so it's easy to get carried away and do it more times than is recommended."
In her book, "Confessions of A Serial Egg Donor," Derek writes that she developed a serious hormonal imbalance as a result of her donations, and she claims that a donor agency, which gets a commission for each donation, helped push her into it.
"[The donor agency representative] said other people have done it up to 16 to 18 times. And they are totally fine," Derek said.
Fertility doctors say that women who do this more than recommended are taking a serious risk.
"You're playing Russian roulette with your future fertility and your future health," says Dr. Robert Stillman, director of the Shady Grove Fertility Center in Rockville, MD, who has not worked with any of the egg donors mentioned in this article. "The more you ovulate, the greater the risk of ovarian cancer. So if these stimulated cycles are more risk, then there may be more potential as [these donors] age in their seventies and eighties to get cancer."
The risk raises questions about whether the money these women are paid is worth the ultimate cost: their health.