Students cash in on

Ingrid Skjong

As a strapped-for-cash University medical student in the late 1970s, Jon Pryor needed to make some extra money. Instead of flipping burgers he took a less conventional approach.
Pryor started donating sperm and produced six samples per month netting him $4,500 over three years — a fairly decent payoff for a starving college kid.
“It really helped me through three years of medical school,” said Pryor, now a male infertility specialist at Fairview-University Medical Center.
With infertility affecting one in 10 women in the United States, assisted reproductive technology, which includes sperm as well as egg donation, is a popular alternative. And college students are an increasing part of the equation, despite the personal nature of the procedures.
“It’s a bit of an invasion into their privacy,” said Hugh Hensleigh, director of the fertility laboratory at Fairview-University.
Potential sperm donors undergo a six-month period of evaluation including extensive medical tests and lengthy personal interviews concerning family background and sexual history.
About 5 percent of applicants make the grade, and most are motivated by money, said Russ Bierbaum, technical director at Minneapolis’ Cryogenics Laboratories Inc., where half of the donors are college students.
Donators usually give one sample per week, and are reimbursed between $150 and $200 each month.
Although recipients page through detailed donor profiles including blood type, physical characteristics and even hobbies, Bierbaum said a donor’s physical appearance is not critical.
“Biological characteristics are not the determining factor,” Bierbaum said. “If we can qualify the donor for all the other reasons, we don’t really care about their physical characteristics.”
What is important is sample quality. Donators producing subpar samples are not reimbursed.
Although donated sperm has been a long-standing alternative for infertile women, egg donation is increasingly gaining popularity. Similar to sperm donation, potential donors are thoroughly screened, but the overall procedure is a bit more intricate.
If accepted, donors take a variety of medications for a one-month cycle to stimulate egg production, and then undergo surgery at the end of the cycle to retrieve an average of 10 eggs.
Unlike sperm, which can be frozen, donated eggs must be used fresh. The eggs are fertilized within four hours of retrieval, and soon after implanted in the uterus.
Because of the high demand, many egg recipients stay on a waiting list for six months to a year and are dealt with on a first-come, first-serve basis, said Kristin Stream, coordinator of the Midwest Center for Reproductive Health’s donation program in Minneapolis.
University senior psychology major Anna Noel become a donor two years ago at the center. She said the opportunity to help someone have a child motivated her, but added that it is a time consuming effort.
“It’s a lot to go through and it requires a lot of commitment,” Noel said.
She experienced side effects ranging from moodiness to hot flashes, and was required to administer injections twice a day and take other various medications. Besides the side effects, there is a concern that the procedure might increase a donator’s chance of ovarian cancer, but solid answers will not be available for another 15 to 20 years, said Randel Korfman, director of the Midwest Center.
Donors at the center are paid $1,500 for each cycle. Noel participated four times in two years making $6,000, which she admitted came in handy when it was time to pay her tuition.
But there are concerns as more and more students look to egg donation as simply a way to pay the bills. Turning donated eggs into reproductive commodities — or worse yet initiating a black market — is at the heart of looming ethical dilemmas.
“It gets very commercial very quickly,” said Jeffrey Kahn, director of the University Center for Bioethics.
The commercialization of donated eggs has skyrocketed during the past few months as various clinics are locked in actual bidding wars — some paying in excess of $5,000 for viable eggs. Korfman said egg recipients now pay between $12,000 and $14,000, and a price jump could make the procedure impossible for some to afford.
To make certain donors are at the center for the right reasons, they are almost immediately asked to explain their motivation.
“If their primary reason is money, they’re out,” Korfman said.
Although men are more likely than women to donate solely because of money, Hensleigh warned it’s not a decision to be made hastily.
Along with the probing background checks, donors are asked to remain abstinent for two days before producing a sample and to refrain from multiple-partner sex.
With samples collected every two to three weeks, this could be a lot to ask a virile young college student.
“We’re asking a person to be celibate basically until we get the sperm,” Hensleigh said.