The Donor Egg Shop

Diana Thomas knows from personal experience how hard it can be to get pregnant. So she found a way to make it easier — and women over 40 are reaping the benefits.

Photograph: Photo by: Brandon Sullivan

The Donor Egg Choice

In a Lexington, Kentucky, fertility clinic, in a lab not much bigger than a walk-in closet, 300 eggs sit in liquid nitrogen, waiting to be chosen for fertilization. They belong to, among others, 19-year-old Victoria, a brown-eyed college student whose special talents include lacrosse and tennis; Kymberly, a 24-year-old Korean-American with a passion for hunting; and Priyanka, a 27-year-old Indian who speaks fluent Hindi. Plucked from the ovaries of healthy women under age 30, the eggs will almost certainly find their way into the uterus of a woman over 40.

And Diana Thomas’s company may well be making the match. In the next two years, her agency hopes to corner 10 percent of the egg donor market in the United States. Thomas, 52, started X and Y Consulting in 1996 to provide her clients — 99 percent of whom are over 40 — with viable eggs; eight years later, she launched a division, Cryo Eggs International (CEI), to offer women the option of using the latest frozen-egg technology. For Thomas’s clients, having the choice — and the chance — to become pregnant with a donor egg is the ultimate gift. But it comes with a price tag: The company’s clients typically pay from $25,000 to $40,000 for each pregnancy attempt that uses fresh eggs. The fee covers donor recruiting, compensation, and insurance; screening tests (donors have to take genetic and psychological exams); and transportation. The services of CEI, whose technology eliminates the donor’s need to travel, cost less: from $15,000 to $18,000 per attempt.

By age 40, the probability of getting pregnant with your own eggs is about 10 percent. By that time the eggs that remain often have abnormal chromosomes, and the embryos that do form end in miscarriage more than half the time. Although birthrates for women ages 40 to 44 increased by 62 percent from 1990 to 2004, the rise is linked mostly to advances in technology and the advent of many fertility-enhancing therapies. "Beyond 45, it’s rare to get pregnant. We’re talking almost lottery odds," says Jamie Akin, MD, medical director of the Bluegrass Fertility Center and of CEI. "The Hollywood actresses who become pregnant in their mid-forties have almost certainly done it with donor eggs."

Diana’s Story

The struggle to get pregnant is one that Thomas knows personally. She first attempted to conceive at 25, when she was newly married to her college sweetheart. They had settled in Edmonton, Alberta, where Thomas worked as head of architectural history and preservation for the province. Unable to get pregnant after trying for a year, Thomas and her husband were tested. He checked out fine. Doctors performed laparoscopies on Thomas, in search of fibroids or endometriosis or anything that might inhibit implantation of an egg, and when they found nothing, they began a series of fertility treatments. "I questioned myself all the time," Thomas says now. "I would wonder, should I stand on my head after sex? Did I contract a disease while traveling?" None of the treatments worked, and after three years, her marriage failed. Thomas moved to Phoenix and took a job preserving historic structures for the state.

But the desire to become pregnant never faded. She married her second husband, Andre Best, an environmental compliance officer for the city, when she was 33. Within a year she was back in the babymaking game.

This time around, Thomas was better prepared for the doctor visits — and their inevitable emotional toll. Sitting in waiting rooms, she could easily pick out the angry, the grieving, and the women like her, many of whom were eager to share their stories. Thomas signed up for intrauterine insemination (commonly known as artificial insemination), and when that failed, in vitro fertilization (IVF), in which eggs are fertilized by sperm outside of the womb. She and Best drained their savings and relied on their combined salaries — under $100,000 — to help fund treatments, which eventually totaled $60,000. When a sick neighbor that Thomas had cared for in Canada left her $7,000 in his will, she used the money for her third and final chance at an IVF pregnancy with her own eggs.

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