As a millennial who spends a lot of time on social media, I assumed I was desensitised to adverts. I thought I was ad-blind, until I started being bombarded with posts asking me to donate my eggs.
It was a post from the London Egg Bank which first caught my eye, offering a ‘freeze and share’ scheme. In this country egg donors are only allowed to be paid £750 in compensation, but there’s nothing to stop them being given treatments in lieu of cash – and egg freezing is expensive. The average cost to collect, then freeze a woman’s eggs is around £3,350. Medication and yearly storage add at least another several hundred pounds. To have the eggs thawed and implanted into the womb costs another £2,500 on average.
The Egg Bank was offering me egg extraction and two years of storage for free, in exchange for donating half of the collected eggs for use in its IVF clinic. It’s presented as an altruistic project – though in 2021 (the last year for which data is available) the London Egg Bank registered £784,603 in profit. Couples struggling for a child will pay almost anything for a chance at a family.
It’s not just the London Egg Bank that’s on the hunt for donors. Almost all my young female friends have noticed a rise in the number of egg donation adverts they’re being served across many social media sites, from places such as Altrui, Care Fertility, Manchester Donors and many more.
One friend tells me she sees them ‘all the time’ and feels as though the companies are ‘competing with one another for business’ by offering the best services – posts push the £750 compensation alongside a host of other incentives such as fertility monitoring and health checks, often illustrated with smiling families urging women to ‘gift a miracle’. Another friend says she thinks the advertising frames egg donation ‘like it’s something you can do as a second income stream’.
It’s all presented so breezily as if this is an entirely uncomplicated business, but it’s not. Young women are asked to give their eggs (an invasive procedure not without risk) without having any of the downsides flagged to them. Here, everyone is #inspirational, but these egg banks make little reference to the fact that a child may be born sharing your DNA – and that child, your biological son or daughter, may well be in touch in later life. None of the adverts immediately mention the psychological impact of becoming a mother to a child who won’t be yours. Legally, egg banks have to offer donors counselling – but that’s only once they’ve started the process of donation, and not everyone accepts it.
Around 2,700 children are born using donated eggs every year. Since 2005, these children have had the legal right to contact their genetic mother once they turn 18. The first wave of children this applies to will turn 18 this year, and many will exercise this right. Biology and curiosity are a powerful mix. I’ve never known my father and, although I was born into a brilliantly loving family on my mother’s side, a part of me will always wonder where I got my small nose or my wavy hair, or whether I’ve got a relative who laughs like I do.
Professor Allan Pacey, a researcher on fertility at the University of Sheffield, worries that the repercussions of this law haven’t been fully considered – although he agrees that it’s the right thing to do for those children born using donated eggs or sperm. He says: ‘I worry about whether we have the right support mechanisms in place to make sure this takes place in a safe and supportive environment for all concerned… I am still not convinced that we have properly thought this through.’ He also tells me that he thinks there will be a rise in the number of young women turning to egg donation to ease the strain of the cost-of-living crisis – women who perhaps haven’t quite understood that, all things being considered, a child will be born using their eggs at the end of it, and that it carries more serious consequences than can be conveyed in a chirpy social media advert.
To help me understand the draw for donors, I call on Dr Shailaja Nair, clinical lead at the London Egg Bank. When I visit her at her London Bridge office, she is kind and warm, softly spoken with deep brown eyes. She insists the donors are altruistic, and that the financial incentive doesn’t play a part. ‘Some of our donors just want to help. Those using “freeze and share” may want to have a child in the future… they’re doing something to help, but they’re also getting help. Egg freezing is expensive – younger women are coming forward.’
But whatever Dr Nair says, it seems to me a dangerous business. An extremely expensive service is being offered as a lure to people who couldn’t otherwise afford it. What no one seems to think about is the child that the egg becomes, or whether the donors may come to regret their decision.
And what I still hadn’t got to the bottom of was why I was seeing the posts in the first place. Why would advertisers think I’d be interested in egg freezing? I don’t have children or interact with accounts filled with baby content, nor do I spend time browsing the internet for toddler clothes. I’ll ‘like’ the odd picture of a friend’s child, but that’s about the extent of it. Then it dawned on me: it’s simply that I’m 28 and female – and social media sites understand this.
Digging around in a tab marked ‘ad interests’, I hit upon a treasure trove of everything Instagram knows – or thinks it knows – about me. There must have been hundreds of entries. Nestled among (fairly) relevant key-words such as ‘labrador retrievers’, ‘Vincent van Gogh’ and ‘BB creams’ were ‘Mothercare’, ‘infant bed’ and ‘baby bottle’.
This scattergun approach to advertising – under which women don’t have to have searched for egg donation to be incessantly served these adverts – means there is no way of ensuring that the women being targeted are ready (or even interested) in becoming mothers to children who aren’t legally theirs.
Would-be mothers need eggs, and social media is seemingly playing the middleman in their delivery. It’s impossible to know whether, almost two decades down the line, potential donors are ready for a knock at the door from a stranger who has their eyes.