The first time I heard about egg donation, I was studying in the United States and was sitting in on a lecture about social aspects of gamete donors. My lecturer was describing how – for various cultural and socio-economic reasons – there is a lack of egg donors of Black, Asian and racialised descent and the result is an overwhelmingly long list of parents to be, waiting for donations.
Growing up, whenever I heard stories about infertility or families struggling to conceive, they always seemed to be white families. I’d hear a lot about the heartache that they go through. So it did feel like a shock when it occurred to me that, of course, people of colour are experiencing the same thing. The only difference being, they don’t have the privilege of the media representing their stories.
The lecturer described how egg donation centres were looking for young, healthy women from non-white backgrounds, and added a detail that for some reason, people really wanted tall donors too. At 5’10”, it was like the professor was talking to me personally.
I started looking into egg donation in the US, but I didn’t get very far. I was screened on the phone, and as they prohibited everybody who had been living in the UK in the late 90s during the Mad Cow Disease era from donating, the call ended there.
“I thought about how there are so many people who would make good parents out there, and they just needed an egg donor.”
For the next few years, I put egg donation to one side. I continued with college, graduating in 2015 when I came back home. I never forgot that I wanted to donate, so around 2017 I began the journey again. Probably only astronauts get more vigorous health checks. I filled out family trees of health conditions, blood tests. There were lots of forms, and psychological assessments to check if I was resilient enough to go through with the procedure.
When the doctor asked me why I wanted to donate my eggs, the question totally stumped me; I had gone through the process without having thought about it properly. It definitely wasn’t for money – egg donors in the UK get a flat rate of £750 for the expenses during the donation process. I thought about how there are so many people who would make good parents out there… and they just needed an egg donor. I eventually wrote down ‘to help complete families.’
“I was injecting hormones into my abdomen twice a day. Once I messed up, injecting even though the medicine had run out. Another time I was fumbling with the needle in the dark bathroom of a well-known restaurant.“
The physical process was hard. I put on a lot of weight because of the hormones I was injecting into my abdomen; twice a day, three fingers away from the belly button with a needle that kind of resembles those pens with different colour inks. The area gets bruised and tender. Once I messed up, injecting even though my medicine had run out. Another time I was fumbling with the needle in the dark bathroom of a well-known restaurant.
I definitely found the lead up to the donation uncomfortable – I was bloated and emotional. The day that I went into the clinic to donate, each donor was put in cubicles with curtains drawn for privacy. I heard a nurse say something about ‘the Chinese lady in there’, which hit home that I was likely the only Chinese woman on the ward that day. It reminded me why I was donating my eggs in the first place.
I was put under general anaesthetic, and I was told that it took ten minutes to retrieve the eggs. I was taken to the ward to rest and I got a ‘thank you card’ and a box of chocolates.
The professor didn’t specify what the reasons were that resulted in less non-white donors. Even as someone who is of Chinese heritage, I cannot pinpoint why there aren’t more Chinese egg donors. There are no specific religious doctrines or culture that would explain the reluctance of people donating. Maybe we just don’t talk about what we don’t understand, which perpetuates struggling in silence.
I didn’t tell my family that I was donating my eggs as I didn’t want them to dissuade me. My mum eventually noticed that I had gained weight so I told her about it. She was cool about it, but said hopes that I won’t do it again – not because the process would affect my health or fertility in any way – but because she doesn’t want me to go through such an uncomfortable process.
“Kids born of gamete donation tend to reach out less than we think… but I left my email for them, just in case.”
Sometimes people say to me that donating my eggs was a very selfless, altruistic thing to do. I understand the sentiment, but honestly, I really struggle to connect emotionally to what I did. It’s like I divorced myself from feeling too strongly about it. I think about egg donation like it was life admin, something I have always intended to do. I think that this is because if I did properly stop to think about everything – that there are kids out there genetically similar to me, it would be too overwhelming. Plus you see so many changes to your body throughout the process that even now, five years later, I don’t know if I would donate again.
There is a baby boy. The egg donation centre said that there had been a live birth in 2018, he is a toddler now. I did some mental maths when I found out and it seems that my eggs went immediately to a family – which makes it all the more likely they’d been waiting for a long time.
I donated 11 eggs, nine were viable. The rest of the embryos were frozen for sibling use for up to ten years. In 2005, the law around UK sperm and egg donation changed so donors can no longer give anonymously. If the embryos become people, they can contact me when they turn 18 years old.
I mentioned this to my friend who is a family lawyer. He told me that actually, kids born of gamete donation tend to reach out less than we think. It’s not like in the films, and I respect that, if that’s what they choose.
But I left my email for them, just in case.
Elaine Chong (she/her) is a British Chinese journalist. She writes and makes films about second generation immigrants and their place in British society.
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