Sat, May 06, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The murky trail of the fertility trade

British women who desperately want to have babies are going to eastern Europe and Cyprus. There, clinics are thriving on the profits of fertility tourism. But donors in this egg harvest run hidden health risks.

By Antony Barnett and Helena Smith  /  THE OBSERVER , KIEV, UKRAINE AND LARNACA, CYPRUS

Svetlana has a big family secret: she sold her eggs for US dollars. Svetlana did not tell her husband what she was doing because she knew he would be furious. Nor did she tell her mother or her two young children. Every day after lunch this 27-year-old unemployed cook would sneak out of her cramped, Soviet-era tower block on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to go for hormone injections that would stimulate her ovaries into producing dozens of eggs. Each one of these had the potential of becoming a relative that her family would never know about.

Desperate for money after the birth of her second child, Svetlana had applied for work in the canteen of one of Kiev's growing number of fertility clinics that charge infertile women from Britain thousands of pounds for help in getting them pregnant.

Svetlana didn't get the job, but was told that if she needed cash she could sell her eggs. She was told that the process was straightforward and that she would be given US$300 -- more if she was a good donor and produced lots of eggs.

For Svetlana, like a growing number of Eastern European women, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Since the birth of her second child she had been surviving on less than US$15 a month. She turned out to be an excellent donor. By the time of her fifth donation, her ovaries, stimulated by the injection of a hormone, produced a batch of 40 healthy eggs. This is four times more eggs than a woman undergoing IVF treatment would produce.

The medical staff gave Svetlana an extra US$200 as a reward. For the clinic, Svetlana was a cash cow, a woman whose eggs could be sold for profit. Older women from Britain, the US and other Western countries whose ovaries can no longer produce healthy eggs are happy to pay more than ?3,000 (US$5,550) for donor eggs that could be fertilized into an embryo. The hope is that, once implanted back into the woman, they will conceive the "miracle" baby that has so far eluded them.

Yet what Svetlana didn't know is that donating eggs is not a straightforward matter like donating sperm. It can be a lengthy, painful and potentially dangerous procedure involving the injection of a powerful drug known as follicle stimulating hormone (FSH).

Medical experts believe 1 percent of women undergoing this can suffer serious side-effects know as ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome (OHSS) that in extreme cases can prove fatal.

One leading British fertility expert, Adam Balen, Professor of Reproductive Medicine at Leeds General Hospital in England believes the fact that Svetlana produced 40 eggs is evidence that she was being hyper-stimulated by the clinic and her health was being put at risk. At no time did the medical staff at the Kiev clinic explain anything to Svetlana or give her any counselling on the psychological impact of donating eggs. Svetlana found out she was being injected with hormones only when, on the fourth time, she had to be put on a drip. She was told the injections were to "clean her blood." Other complications included missing her period for two months and stomach pains.

A year after her last donation, Svetlana meets at a secret location to tell her story. She is scared of being seen speaking to a journalist near her home. She has had no physical problems, but is affected psychologically. "I feel like I sold part of my body," she explains.

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