In 2000, a California nurse named Jennifer Lahl founded a nonprofit in the East Bay called The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network. CBCN is dedicated to educating the public about the troubling bioethical issues unfolding in the modern medical field.
Although she had no previous experience in filmmaking, Lahl managed to raise some money and set out to create a documentary. The resulting film, Lines That Divide, explored the stem-cell research debate, highlighting its terrifying connection to human cloning, and revealing how it required vast quantities of human eggs in order for the research to progress. As she began to write and speak publicly about egg donation and its risks, Lahl started to receive emails from women who had been harmed by selling their eggs.
Concerned for her three daughters, and for all young women, she began work on her second documentary Eggsploitation, which was originally released in 2010. Eggsploitation captured the attention of women’s advocacy groups around the country, including the National Organization for Women. It was the first film to shine light on the predatory nature of the fertility industry and its exploitation of college-aged women. It gave a voice to women who were lured by money and ended up sacrificing their health, fertility, and—in some cases—their very lives.
The original film had a low budget and was clearly the product of a nurse on a mission, not an experienced filmmaker. But, like a Bob Dylan song, the film’s powerful content broke through any aesthetic weaknesses, and it won Best Documentary in the 2011 California Independent Film Festival. So far, it has sold over 6,000 copies worldwide, with translations in Italian, French, and Japanese. Lahl has become an effective public advocate, making a huge impact and appearing on national TV shows such as Dr. Oz.
In the last three years, young women have poured out their stories, affirming Eggsploitation’s thesis that egg donation harms healthy young women. If you visit the film’s website you can read interviews with women like Y, who became infertile at 28 and suspects that her early menopause was caused by her egg harvesting, or Americus Dotter, who shares her frightening experience with postpartum psychosis.
In fact, so many more women came forward with their stories and concerns that Lahl felt she had to compile a second cut of Eggsploitation. The expanded film features new stories and updated facts and footage that show the unadvertised power dynamics and big money involved in this industry. The production value of the new Eggsploitation has dramatically improved. The cast is comprised of both familiar and new interviewees. The audience gets a helpful history of IVF, including its startling failure rate (70 percent) and price tags ($12,000+ per cycle).
The human stories are the heart of the documentary, and the egg donors in the film are given the compassion and generosity they deserve. Yet respect for scientific research and medical facts is equally central. It is this combination, undoubtedly a byproduct of Lahl’s decades of experience as both a nurse and a mom, that makes the documentary so extraordinarily compelling.
“Egg donors are not sick, yet they assume all the risk in order to help someone else.” –Jennifer Lahl
Kylee and Calla, two egg donors interviewed in the documentary, suffered strokes as a direct result of their egg harvesting. Alexandra lost an ovary and eventually developed breast cancer (a condition which does not run in her family). Sindy almost bled to death. Linda and Latoya were hospitalized with Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome. And Jessica was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 29, then died at 34.
One of the primary drugs used in egg harvesting is Lupron–which has never been approved by the FDA for fertility use. And in the thirty years the human egg trade has existed, there has never been one peer-reviewed study confirming that egg harvesting is safe long-term.
“Economic desperation causes healthy women to accept risks that are against their own health interests.” –Jennifer Lahl
The elite and wealthy who hope to further science or become parents may assume that these women undergo such invasive treatments altruistically, because $8,000 is an inconsequential sum to them. But a few thousand dollars can mean the world to a broke and ambitious young woman. It’s a needle-length journey into a whole new class—through a college degree, the “right” address, or travel experience.
The exchange of money is problematic because the commissioning parents may feel entitled to mistreat and use the egg donor as just another service-provider. And it is problematic to the donor, in particular, because she risks her health in exchange for money. But money can’t buy back her health once it’s gone. This is why we don’t sell organs. It threatens human thriving.
Leah Campbell, a former egg donor, wrote a book called Single Infertile Female: Adventures in Love, Life and Infertility detailing her inability to conceive and her struggles with IVF just two years after selling her eggs. Speaking publicly at a recent event, Campbell said that when she told the clinic about her infertility—probably caused by her egg donation—they delightfully offered to connect her with a similarly unsuspecting young egg donor to aid in her now-desperate efforts to have a baby of her own. They were happy to have her back as a customer.
The infertility industry works hard to recruit “smart” egg donors, because good grades and name-brand colleges sell better. But when those same young women use their intelligence to ask questions about proper dosages and try to advocate for their own health, their concerns are dismissed or ignored entirely. They are pressured to continue painful cycles against their intuition in order to have a successful harvest, because medicine wasted is money wasted.
I remember when I was twenty and sold my eggs.
That $8,000 seemed like the gateway to millions more. I had never seen that much money, and it seemed like the answer to all of my heart’s desires. I was small and compliant as I interviewed with the agency personnel. I didn’t want to make a fuss or be difficult in any way, because my eye was on the check. My only act of defiance was insisting on being open for contact if the children ever wanted to know my identity.
During the week of the egg harvest, my body cavity was as dense and inflexible as the trunk of an oak. I couldn’t so much as lightly jog due to the pain. I used part of the money to record my first EP—my musical debut. In the recording studio, I made my sound engineer uncomfortable as I writhed on the floor in pain, unable to sit in a chair for the pressure I felt in my abdomen. But I’m one of the lucky ones. I was still able to have children later when I met my husband.
But beyond the temporary physical pain, there is a guilt that lingers: the realization that I sold my children. To strangers. It’s a reasonable conclusion to come to when you start to unravel the euphemisms.
Eggsploitation is just what the doctor ordered—or fears, rather—in the debate on reproductive technologies and stem-cell research. Show it to every college-aged woman you care for. And if you’re trying to make a case against third-party reproduction to an audience you think might be antagonistic, this powerful documentary is the perfect place to start.
Alana S. Newman is the founder of the Anonymous Us Project and the author of Anonymous Us: A Story-Collective on 3rd Party Reproduction. Follow her work and blog at alananewman.com.