Donating your eggs to infertile couples to help them fall pregnant is a noble gesture, yet one which is now being exploited by unscrupulous egg donor agencies who are advertising in South Africa. These agencies offer women an all expenses-paid overseas trip in exchange for their eggs, an offer which generally is too good to be true, and highly illegal.
One Stellenbosch woman, who wished to remain anonymous, found this out the hard way after answering an advertisement. She travelled to India to donate her eggs but ended up developing hyperstimulation, a very serious health condition caused by the incorrect administration of hormone medicines.
Illegal market growing
As the demand for egg donors increases internationally, so has the illegal international market in which childless couples are prepared to pay for eggs. However, international law prohibits payment for any live human matter, including human eggs and sperm.
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Egg donation is a legal practice, provided it is done through a legal and certified clinic. But clinics may not pay for the eggs they harvest and cannot charge infertile couples for the eggs that they have donated to them.
Cape Town fertility psychologist, Lizanne van Waart says that the illegal situation is getting worse and her clinic is seeing more and more cases of women returning from overseas with complications associated with egg donation. She believes this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Van Waart runs Wijnland Fertility Clinic in Cape Town with her husband Dr Johannes van Waart, who says that “In our discussions with other gynaecologists and fertility specialists, they are also seeing patients as a result of mismanaged egg donations overseas and it appears South African girls are being targeted quite specifically.”
However there is no need to travel overseas and put yourself at risk as egg donation is legal and practiced in South Africa.
According to Dr Johannes van Waart it is governed by strict national laws and international best practice.
No money can be paid for eggs, although donors can be reimbursed for their time. Donors are screened before the process begins. The recipient of the eggs will never meet the donor but an image of that donor as a child can be supplied along with some character and vocational details.
“Egg donors go through a process much like that of an IVF patient. They are prescribed a course of medication which they take to stimulate the ovaries into producing more eggs. When the time is right the eggs are harvested. The donor will be under sedation at this point. There is no pain after the procedure. Currently there is no legal recourse for the child of a donor egg to seek its biological egg mother.”
Read: What are the legal aspects of IVF and donor eggs and sperm in South Africa?
What are the risks?
Legal egg donation through a certified clinic in South Africa is considered safe. But Dr Johannes van Waart says the risks of travelling to countries such as India for egg donation are high.
“There are varying levels of healthcare in India, from state-of-the-art hospitals to side-street clinics and the industry is not as well-regulated as it is in South Africa, so it is difficult to predict what sort of healthcare you will have access to. Aside from overstimulation, you may be exposed to infectious diseases and septicaemia, which is deadly.
“In our patient’s case (the woman from Stellenbosch) she was in a decent enough clinic but they didn’t treat her complications. This could have been life-threatening.
She was alone, afraid and ill – in a country she didn’t know and she had no one to turn to and no one to hold liable as the law and medical aid liability becomes blurred with cross-border procedures.”
In this instance, the woman developed ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a condition that affects some women when they take the hormone medication that stimulates the body into producing eggs. Women who are sensitive to the hormones or who have other complications may end up with this. The symptoms include breathlessness, vomiting, rapid weight gain and abdominal pain.
Fortunately the Stellenbosch woman is back home and safe now, but the trauma of the incident should serve as a warning to other women considering answering an egg donor agency advertisement.
Dr Lizanne van Waart said her physical rehabilitation took about two weeks, but the emotional healing will require three to six months in therapy.
“Patients who have been through something like this, often manifest symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The experience can bring up feelings of guilt and shame, anger - because the medical system has let you down - as well as fears about one’s own fertility and what has happened or will happen to the eggs that have been donated. The whole situation is exacerbated by the hormone treatments that are still in the body – making the patient more emotional and emotions can even creep into anxiety and depression.
“This woman was lucky, she will still be able to have her own children.”
Questions? Ask our fertility expert
Lizanne van Waart advises anyone who is considering egg donation, to get counselling.
“All would-be donors should receive counselling before donating their eggs or sperm so that they are fully aware of the physical and psychological implications.
She says that before people donate a counsellor needs to talk to them about the following things:
- Their motivation for wanting to donate;
- If they have unrealistic expectations of the outcome, and
- Whether they are doing this because of financial pressures.
“We also screen for whether the person is inclined to obsess about unknown outcomes; we look at how the person reacts to loss and grief and whether there is some guilt in the past around elective abortion. We look generally at how the patient will cope with emotional losses; what are their sources of happiness and satisfaction and what sort of stresses they are under.”
All things which an unscrupulous egg donor clinic overseas might not be so diligent about, which is why the Van Waart’s feel so strongly about raising awareness about unscrupulous egg donor agents and schemes.
“We would also like to point out that there is a legitimate need for donor eggs. Many warm and loving couples are desperately awaiting donated eggs to end their infertility journey, so we would like to stress that there is a genuine need for eggs but that those willing to give this very special gift of their own eggs, should do so in a safe, legal and ethical environment with full awareness of what they are doing.”
Van Waart says that anyone wishing to donate their eggs or sperm should be provided with counselling around the legal and emotional implications of doing so.
In South Africa, potential egg donors can check in with the South African Society of Reproductive Medicine and Gynaecological Endoscopy (SASREG) for a list of accredited clinics. SASREG has also published a guideline to egg donation.
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