Doris Dunkel, a 32-year-old wedding planner, has no children of her own but she has helped bring about 18 babies into the world through egg donation. She calls these babies her “hatchlings” and keeps in contact with a couple of their families.
Dunkel began donating at age 18 while she was waiting tables to pay her way through college. Over the past several years, Dunkel has donated 11 times. Although the financial aspect originally propelled her decision to donate, she says she repeated the process several times because she enjoyed helping families bring a child into the world.
“I feel like most women want to experience growing a baby, and I certainly do too,” Dunkel says.
The demand for egg donations has risen in the U.S., according to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, which illustrates a nearly 70 percent increase in the number of cycles women have had with egg donations from 2000 to 2010 (learn more at http://www.advancedfertility.com/insem.htm). Dunkel says this increase is more about the recipient than the donor because the option of purchasing eggs is more accepted by society and openly discussed.
Dunkel had to find confidence in the decision to donate, conscious that not everyone is understanding or accepting of the process. Although she knows the children who have been born as a result of her egg donations carry her DNA, Dunkel recognizes that she is not their mother.
“The first thing that people say to me is ‘well those are your kids,’” Dunkel says. “That baby is way more hers than it ever is mine, even though it biologically is me. She grew it, she felt the pain, she had the nausea, she breast fed them. I’m just the lucky DNA that got to be put in there.”
For Dunkel, donating eggs has been rewarding in the sense that she has helped women have babies when they physically could not. But, she says her “why” goes beyond that. She also donates to give gay couples the opportunity to have biological children with the help of a donor and a surrogate.
“My uncle was gay, so I knew about gay people when I was very young,” Dunkel says. “It just didn’t phase me. I just thought okay well he has a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend and they love each other. So I thought about him a lot because he never had kids.”
Dunkel has been able to keep in contact with two families who’ve received her eggs. Both are gay men with twins who not only share Dunkel’s physical features, but also her mannerisms and characteristics. Dunkel enjoys FaceTiming her hatchlings. Although the children don’t understand the process of egg donation yet, they are aware that Dunkel has a biological connection to them. Dunkel thinks about having a family of her own someday, but sees these kids as family too.
MULTIMEDIA: Doris Dunkel talks about her relationship with her egg babies.
Breaking the stereotype of “family”
Craig Fields always wanted to have biological kids. As a gay man, the challenge was finding the right egg donor and surrogate to help create a family with his partner. After two years of unsuccessful attempts at a fertility agency in Chicago, Fields came to California and ended up with Dunkel’s eggs.
Since Dunkel had donated several times before and her eggs had been successful in the process, she was a “proven” donor. Fields paid a bigger price tag for Dunkel’s eggs.
“They were a substantially higher price because my eggs are pretty much guaranteed to work,” Dunkel says.
Out of all donations Dunkel has done, only two have not taken. One was due to the father’s sperm not fertilizing and the other was because the woman’s uterus was inhospitable, Dunkel says. Feeling that this was his last hope, Fields paid the toll. Finally, he received a successful outcome – twins! Fields felt connected to Dunkel through these new additions to his family and eventually he began to send her photos of them.
“You have a feeling for this other person because there’s this relationship even though you don’t know them,” Fields says.
When the kids were 5, Dunkel and Fields decided to meet for the first time and introduce the kids to Dunkel.
“A child has a right to know where they came from,” Fields says. “It was always in my intention that I would tell them the truth at some point.”
Fields looks back on the day they all met like it was surreal. His son and daughter, now 8 years old, did not completely understand who Dunkel was. But, Fields says, there was an instant bond between her and the kids.
“I don’t expect her nor do I want her to be the mother in a parental type of way, but I want them to know who she is and know her on a level that they’re comfortable with – both Doris and the kids.” – Craig Fields
The month-long process of donating
Becoming an egg donor is not something to take lightly or to do just for quick cash, Dunkel says. Egg donors can make upwards of $10,000 per donation. Although this is a big payday, there’s some sacrifice involved. Dunkel says the undertaking becomes more emotionally taxing than it may appear at the onset.
The entire process of one donation takes up to a month of doctor’s appointments, injections. During that month, donors are required to abstain from sex and alcohol. In order to sync the donor’s menstrual cycle with the intended mother or surrogate’s cycle, the parties involved must take medication. After the cycles are synced, which takes about two weeks, the donor starts taking a stimulating medication, Dunkel says. At this point, the donor has to give herself two injections of medication in the morning and one in the evening.
Stimulating medicine makes each egg follicle larger, which allows the eggs to mature, Dr. Samuel Wood, director and lead fertility doctor at the Reproductive Sciences Center in La Jolla, says. Next is the retrieval process. While under local anesthesia, the doctor goes into each follicle with a needle to retrieve the eggs.
Dunkel says she went to the the doctor every other day while taking the stimulating medication. Every checkup requires getting blood drawn to check estradiol levels and a vaginal exam to monitor the ovaries and make sure everything is on track. Once the doctor decides the follicles are big enough, the doctor gives the donor one more shot of the pregnancy hormone. After one day of no injections, the donor goes in for retrieval.
“Could I say that I would have altruistically just said ‘you know what, let me give up a month of my life to donate eggs?’ No,” Dunkel says. “I wish I was more Mother Teresa like I suppose. But it was the financial aspect. I was in college and it’s helped out a lot.But as the years have gone, it just kind of became part of me.”
Some women have paid their entire way through college by donating eggs, according to Wood. However, some people have strong negative reactions to the decision, Dunkel says. She’s received cold shoulders from friends. Mainly, Dunkel says, the people who oppose egg donation are usually those who are against abortion and stem cell research or who believe that conception is the most important part of procreation.
Although Dunkel did not have religious conflicts with donating, she had many factors to evaluate. From her time, to her travel, to what her body went through, Dunkel said it was important to consider if donating was going to be worth the money. Yet, according to Wood, over 90 percent of women who donate once, do elect to donate again.
“I would do it forever, truthfully, if I wasn’t older now,” Dunkel said.
Clinics usually limit women to no more than 10 donation cycles because there’s potential for scarring on the ovaries after several donations, and there’s incestual reasons.
“Say I’m based in San Diego and then I’m donating to all these San Diego couples and the kids grow up and start mating with brothers and sisters that they didn’t know they had…you’re suppose to limit that,” Dunkel says.
For her, this isn’t a problem since she’s donated to families dispersed widely apart from each other.
A donors’ must-haves
Egg donation is not something that every woman feels comfortable doing. However, Dr. Rochelle Perper, a San Diego therapist, says donating eggs can be therapeutic for some women.
“For a lot of women, it’s about giving back or feeling like they can fulfill a role of motherhood or contributing to a baby’s life,” Perper said.
She says infertile women can suffer from feelings of loss and grief for not being able to create a child in the “natural” way.
“Some women I’ve heard think ‘I’m not woman enough,’ or ‘What’s wrong with me that I’m not able to do what comes naturally for a woman, what I’m built to be doing,’” Perper said.
Women are commonly portrayed as wanting a family, and egg donors, especially those with the innate desire to help others, are able to give in this way. But more than desire is required to become an egg donor. Fertility specialists, as well as potential recipients, look for good genes, along with physical and mental health.
In general, egg donors who are accepted into the agency are not overweight, according to Wood. They cannot have any medical complications. He also says they need to have the “right” kind of personality. Every potential donor is required to go through a psychological evaluation, partly to gage whether or not they will regret the decision later in life.
After the screening process, donors are required to sign detailed, lengthy contracts with many stipulations, Dunkel says.
“I’m not even allowed to contact any of the couples,” Dunkel says. “They’re allowed to contact me because I put in my contract that if they ever want to talk to me, see me, or tell the kids about me, that they can because I’m open that way.”
Dunkel says that many women will choose her as a donor if she has similar features to them, wanting their kids to look like them too. She says people will live their entire lives thinking that they came from their mother’s DNA, not knowing that a donor ever existed as a part of the equation.