“Don’t sell your soul or your eggs, Sonja,” a friend wrote in Sonja O’Hara’s middle school yearbook.
Even as an adolescent, O’Hara had drive. She was a spunky Nova Scotian with an actress for a mother who, unlike the lot of mothers, whispered like the harsh wind into Sonja’s ear:
“Follow your dreams, little one!”
And she did, all the way to the U. S. of A.
Sonja soon realized chasing her acting dreams nearly three thousand miles away in Los Angeles would equal financial frustration. Seeking answers, she turned to Craigslist.
She was not looking for an acting job. She had dipped her toes in the water, only to find horny filmmakers looking to use her Canadian breasts for their senior thesis. She was a qualified actress determined to do what other qualified actresses do: get a restaurant job.
On her hunt for a day job, Sonja chanced upon an ad for an egg donation clinic. They were offering thousands of dollars for “the role of a lifetime”, and she was running out of ideas. She applied to be a donor and never heard back. “[Is] it because I’m not blonde enough?”
She wasn’t going to wait around in California for an answer to that question. She considered herself a real artist, a writer, a thespian; she craved the hustle, the romance, the promise of living free or dying instead. In a truly dramatic move that would change the course of her career, she picked herself up by the bootstraps, packed her bags, and bought a ticket out to New York City – where she would find even more difficulty paying the rent.
While browsing the pages of Backstage.com, a website that helps actors find work, Sonja found yet another egg donation ad. Sonja was reminded of what was described as “the role of a lifetime” in Los Angeles, a city with several roles-of-a-lifetime, and applied once more to be an egg donor. This time, she got an interview.
The allure of egg donation is simple, especially to the financially struggling: fast cash. In New York City, an egg donor is compensated between eight to ten thousand dollars in one installment for one procedure alone. The added altruistic perk of helping a desperate, want-to-be mother is also heavy incentive, especially for women who have witnessed the struggles of infertility within their close circles. Designer egg clinics tend to target a very particular demographic – that is, the young, the beautiful, and the broke. Down south, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology found over a hundred ads soliciting egg donors in just 63 college newspapers. In cities like New York and Los Angeles that teem with young talent, actresses and models are sought after relentlessly.
Sonja is no stranger to objectification. She constantly refers to her time in LA as the time she spent taking her top off for student films. As an educated woman who has dedicated more time than most to making her career happen, she finds her idealism left in shards when powerful people – like casting agents – prioritize what she looks like in spite of her talent and wit. This was not behavior exclusive to the entertainment industry, that Sonja found soon enough, when an upscale fertility clinic called her in after receiving nothing more than her headshot.
“They didn’t know any of my health stats. They had no idea I was healthy at all. I got called in because they thought I was pretty,” she said.
Seeking a donor agency felt similar to her life as an auditioning actor. She wore makeup to her doctor’s appointments to assert her “healthy glow” was worth investing thousands of dollars in. She was taken into a nearby alley by an associate of the clinic for an impromptu photo-op. Odd as this may sound, this is standard practice. Once accepted by an agency, donors are put up on a database full of nameless women, their bright smiles offset by their assigned donor number, medical history and ethnic heritage.
Ultimately her stats checked out. She was healthy. She was beautiful. She was young and ready to ovulate.
To remain faithful to the fertilization process, Sonja described scurrying off from auditions to inject vials of hormones into her body via the nearest public restroom. These injections, received in either the stomach or the less dignified buttock, carry hormones similar to those produced naturally by the female body – only in a much higher dose. She was instructed by her clinician to refrain from – or rather, totally abandon – any sexual activity within her ten-day fertilization period. This is a precaution clinics take to prevent a compromise in their product. Sonja spoke of being constantly reminded that she, the “egg mother”, was being paid for her time, effort and any discomfort she might endure during the process – and that she, the egg mother, wasn’t actually a mother, as they constantly reminded her of her relationship with the egg. “Kin, they said,” Sonja recalled exactly. “They told me to think of myself as kin.”
Another donor like Sonja experienced a different sort of limitation.
Michela Marsh, a graduate of NYU in recent years, is a woman who likes to keep herself informed. She was startled by the lack of literature on the long-term effects egg donation had on women. She was going through her first donation cycle, and was experiencing difficulty going down stairs.
“They said it would be hard for me to exercise – it was hard for me to walk!” – she says in protest of a gross understatement.
In spite of being faced with a desert, Michela dug deep. She learned that being an egg donor put her at risk of Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome, which explained the tenderness in her stomach that made it hard to walk; the “controlled hyperstimulation” her ovaries were undergoing had lost control. They had swelled to the point of excruciating pain.
Michela was twenty-one when she first donated her eggs.
The effects of OHSS include rapid weight gain, vomiting and shortness of breath, and if left ignored can leave its victims in critical condition. Complications like ovarian torsion arise. Radiating lower back pain, diarrhea and fevers that signify an obstruction of blood flow to the ovaries sound hellish to listening ears; but Michela, chin up, volunteered an absent gaze. She recounted her physical experience as an egg donor as though remembering a distant dream.
As risky as egg donation sounds, egg clinics will often try to reassure potential donors. “Of these side effects reported, most were not severe enough to dissuade a woman from considering a future donation,” says a donation agency called An Angel’s Gift. They continue on to say that long-term effects on donors have indeed not reached any solid conclusions, but that they still continue to fight the good fight. Of the latter claim one can be doubtful. One reason why egg recipients opt for egg donation agencies is for the legal leverage they gain over their egg donors. Donors are required by agencies to sign an anonymity agreement that will dispel any potential custody battles between the giving and receiving parties. The downside of this? A future in which we know more about egg donation and its long-term impact may not a feasible one – because all our egg donors are anonymous.
Scary health risks aside, Michela has earned $24,000 over the course of her three donations. But by her third cycle she was hesitant to go through it again.
“I didn’t want to do another donation. But in this really short two-week timeframe, I was getting back from a road trip, I didn’t have a job, and basically my parents – I was living in their house at the time – said [they] would be back in three weeks and that I needed to move out.”
After conceding to a third donation cycle, Marsh was able to put down a security deposit, broker’s fee and first and last month’s rent on a two-bedroom house in a yuppie Massachusetts town laden with picturesque streets and brick buildings. She now works in two marketing positions: at a car dealership and at an ad agency in Salem.
Sonja O’Hara has since found success at local and international film festivals as humble as the Brooklyn Girl Film Festival and as established as Cannes. Her film Ovum was inspired by her own experiences with egg donation, from being complimented on her “precocious eggs” to shooting up hormone serums in public restrooms. “I looked like a pin cushion,” she says, smiling with sad eyes.
“I would do it again though.”
“You would?” I clarify.
“I know that I should say no, because there were risks that weren’t explained to me. But for me it was a career launcher. I don’t think I could have written a film that was poignant and strange and weird and real like that if I hadn’t gone through an experience that was so different from the experience that most women have.”
O’Hara used $18,000 in pre-taxed egg earnings in the making of her SAG Ultra Low Budget Film. Her work was well-received in the festival circuit, and pummeled her through a series of small victories: a production office on Bedford Avenue. Meetings with HBO for her next project. Showcasing her talent instead of her tits.
But was it worth it? I ask her.
“If you’re willing to go through anything to make your career, then [egg donation] is a good thing. But if you have other ways to make the money, don’t do it.”
Sonja isn’t smiling with sad eyes anymore.
Instead, she beams.