28 August 2012
ByAppeared in BioNews 670
More4, Monday 13 August 2012
Presented by Storm Theunissen
In this documentary of extremes, freelance journalist and documentary producer Storm Theunissen finds out how cash-strapped Britons can make money using their bodies. On one side, you have Storm's outlandish plans to make money by selling urine and earwax for medical testing. On the other, there is an altogether more interesting and insightful look at egg donation in both the UK and USA.
Storm visits Dr Peter Bowen-Simpkins, medical director of the London Women's Clinic, to see if she would make a viable egg donor. He explains that as a healthy 32-year-old she would be ideal. Storm asks what's in it for the donor; Dr Bowen–Simpkins explains under the current law only reasonable out-of-pocket expenses of up to £750 per cycle of donation can be paid. She questions him as to whether this is really a competitive market, with the UK paying £750 and the US paying up to $15,000, but Dr Bowen–Simpkins responds by raising the ethical issue of inducing (a polite word for bribing) young women - particularly those with debts from university - to donate their eggs. Storm concludes that the UK law is 'well meaning' but asks whether 'if we have a shortage [of donors] and payment increases willing donors, surely the USA markets a good thing?'
So Storm decides to go to USA and explore what her body's worth across the pond. Armed with professionally done photos, Storm launches herself on Los Angeles - the 'Egg Donor Capital of the World'. It seems that US parents want it all - Miss World with brains and the virtue of a nun.
Storm meets Shana, an egg donor and part-time actress who gushes platitudes about how great egg donation makes her feel - and that it's not about the money. Seemingly convinced by Shana's testimony, Storm then meets Shelly Smith, a thin, blond-haired and clearly botoxed egg broker, who runs a 'top' egg donor program. Donors are ranked and on her books are elite athletes, actresses and PhD students. Shelly says that only two percent of applicants are successful in becoming donors with her and her explanation that no-one comes in wanting a five-foot-five egg donor weighing 160 lbs, left an awkward sense of eugenics in the selection of donors.
Having been turned away by Shelly (at 32, Storm is too old to be a donor for most doctors, apparently), Storm turns to PlanetHospital - who take on egg donors that other agencies won't. She meets the bumbling co-founder and former movie producer, Rudy Rupak. At $5,500 plus travel and accommodations costs, PlanetHospital offers much lower compensation then other agencies. Rudy openly admits that the reason why most donors come to them is because they need the money now. 'No-one wakes up one morning and decides I am going to be this benevolent', he says.
In no time at all Storm is being examined by a US doctor. The juxtaposition of this examination, compared with Dr Bowen-Simpkin's, needs to be seen to be believed. Dr Freinman does not like answering Storm's quiet, routine post-examination questions and does not appear to explain any risks to her - Dr Freinman states that it's not normal to have these types of conversations. Storm is then shown how to inject herself with the relevant hormone to stimulate her egg follicles, with the treatment expected to start the next day.
It then becomes clear that Rudy has already promised Storm's eggs to an infertile couple in Texas, who are getting tickets to fly to Los Angeles to meet her. Storm is concerned by the pace things are developing, including video chats with the couple, and after a long, difficult conversation Storm decides not to donate her eggs. For her, it would be too much like 'giving up her baby'.
I found this latter half of the documentary extremely enlightening and thought-provoking. It was very interesting to see the somewhat naïve Storm wrestle with the complex medical, legal, social and ethical issues of egg donation. My biggest criticism is that the documentary was only 30 minutes long and the speed with which the issues were dealt made it superficial in areas. My advice is to miss the first eight to ten minutes of the documentary on fetish websites and the selling of urine, as what's left is a compelling, if brief, look at egg donation in the UK and USA.