LOS ANGELES – More and more people have literally found life on the Internet as the estimated $3 billion fertility industry moves increasingly online.
But as with all online commercial ventures, shopping on the Web can carry risks.
In this case, the Internet may provide consumers — often people desperate to have a child — a faster and more discreet way to find egg or sperm donors. But it can also lead to lost money and broken dreams, say fertility experts.
"It's not surprising that much of this business is migrating into Cyberspace. Most people don't mind buying a Lands' End item at the store, but it's awkward to buy eggs in public," said Professor Debora Spar of Harvard Business School, an advocate for regulation of the U.S. fertility industry.
While procuring an egg online still involves more than simply clicking on a shopping cart, says Spar, many people do not realize all the steps and attention required to adequately match, screen and coordinate recipients with donors.
Other experts say hopeful recipients may be asked by less reputable egg donor sites to pay large, nonrefundable sums upfront to see profiles, or be made to wait for months for donors that never materialize.
The cost of a donated egg has soared from about $2,500 a few years ago to as much as $35,000 in some cases as lack of regulatory oversight has enabled a new breed of marketers called "egg hunters" to act as Internet brokers between recipients and donors, said Dr. Drew Moffitt, co-medical director of the Arizona Reproductive Medicine Specialists, an infertility practice.
Indeed, a random Google search of the phrase "egg donor" called up nearly 1.2 million links. Some proclaimed things like "Hot & Smart Egg Donors," while others bore ads aimed at students by offering sums like $7,000 for eggs to pay for books, college and "elective" surgery.
"The introduction of the egg hunters has been one of the things that has led to the escalation of fees. The real loser in this whole game winds up being the recipient," said Moffitt.
Experts say women should also be wary of big payoffs that often blind them to the realities and risks of being a donor, which can be a time-consuming and invasive process. Some may also later regret that another woman is raising children they helped to create, they said.
"I am shocked because every time I go online, there are another five egg donor agencies, promising things like lots of instant money and even plastic surgery in exchange for eggs," said Shelley Smith, director of Los Angeles-based The Egg Donor Program, established in 1992.
To be sure, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does regulate the handling of any human tissue, while two professional groups; the American Society of Reproductive Medicine and the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technologies provide standards for the practice of reproductive medicine. But Moffitt said many of these so-called egg hunters are usually not SART-certified.
"As far as the Internet is concerned, the good news is that we can work with couples from as far away as Australia and allow them instant access to hundreds of donors," Smith said.
"But the bad news is that it objectifies the donors and takes away the human contact people should feel when they are building their families. It's not like buying a car from a catalog," she said.
The egg donation process at certified centers takes various steps. The potential recipient and the sperm of the would-be father are tested to make sure a pregnancy is viable.
Donors are screened psychologically and for infectious diseases and take hormones to induce the production of several eggs, while the recipient takes hormones to get her menstrual cycle in sync with the donor's.
The recipient undergoes anesthesia when eggs are retrieved and then prepared for fertilization in a lab. Two to three days after they are fertilized, the embryos are ready to be transferred to the recipient's uterus.
Smith said her program usually takes two to three months, starting with a consultation with the recipients, who then select a donor with the help of a coordinator. The $5,550 fee covers attorneys, insurance and meetings with a licensed geneticist.
Smith said some red flags to watch for when searching egg donor sites is whether or not they have a post office box, carry liability insurance or have licensed practitioners.
"There are Web sites built by people who are profiting from the desperation of infertile couples and who walk away in the middle of the cycle," she said, adding that she knows of couples who have lost almost $25,000 in some cases.
She also warned of the bait-and-switch tactic used by sites which often post a beautiful egg donor who in fact is no longer donating eggs despite their claims to the contrary.
"It's absurd that we have this business involving the creation of life and it's completely unregulated," said Harvard's Spar, author of "The Baby Business: How Money Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception." The book, she says, is an argument for regulation of the industry.
"While most people tied to these sites are from the medical industry, there are some bad players, which is why I argue that regulation is in the best interest of all players," she said.