Nina Sherman, a student at Los Angeles Valley College, said she had few qualms… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
It's technically called an egg "donation." But if you're a young Asian woman, donating your eggs to an infertile couple can fetch enough cash to buy a used car or perhaps a semester at college.
The same market forces that drive the price of cotton, copper and other commodities — supply and demand — have allowed Asian women to command about $10,000 to $20,000 for their eggs, also known as gametes or ova.
Women of other ethnic groups typically get about $6,000 when they can sell their eggs, but they often can't for lack of demand, according to donation agencies and fertility clinics.
Clinic operators say the premium paid to Asian women reflects the shortage of willing donors for the growing numbers of infertile Asian couples who want a child who looks like they do. But the competition among these clinics — including ads screaming "ASIAN EGG DONORS NEEDED" in college newspapers — has spotlighted the commercial aspects of what is supposed to be an act of benevolence.
Federal law bans the sale of human organs, but selling eggs is legal in the U.S., according to lawyers who work in the field. Nevertheless, agencies are careful in their choice of words, saying they are not paying for the eggs but for the women's time, pain and inconvenience.
That rubric makes it hard to argue that one race deserves more compensation than another, said Laurie Zoloth, who teaches bioethics at Northwestern University.
"A poor black woman or a poor Hispanic woman doesn't suffer less than someone who is Asian or Jewish or a Stanford graduate," Zoloth said. "The fact that we think of these gametes as having particular worth depending on race and class is really one of the starkest examples of how capitalism has entered the market in human parts."
Linda Kline says she is joking when she refers to her eggs as precious "inventory," but it's hard to argue with the term. Kline, who is Chinese and Vietnamese (her maiden name is Tran) said she has donated her eggs three times, for a total of $26,000, through the Baby Miracles agency in San Marcos, Calif.
"They told me they had doubled the compensation for Asian donors because they were so sought-after," said Kline, 26, a business major at San Diego Mesa College. "They said it was difficult to find Asian donors."
Roxanne Sarro, director of Baby Miracles, confirmed that account, saying Asian donors can command higher fees — especially "if a donor is 100% Chinese [and] highly intelligent with a degree in math, for example."
Clinic operators say Asian donors whose eggs are proved fertile with their first donation are typically able to increase their fee by large amounts with each subsequent donation, while other donors typically receive much smaller sums.
There's nothing illegal about offering higher prices to get donors of certain ethnicities, said Lisa Ikemoto, a law professor at UC Davis who has researched the human egg industry.
"There is an absence of regulation in pricing eggs, so it's not illegal to pay more depending on a women's race and ethnicity, where she went to school, what her SAT score is," Ikemoto said. "When you look at pricing practices, the eggs themselves are treated like commodities, with more valuable traits receiving higher compensation."
Voluntary guidelines are set by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, a nonprofit membership organization that makes recommendations to the fertility industry. Spokesman Sean Tipton said the guidelines say donors should not be compensated extra for "specific characteristics" such as ethnicity, beauty or high test scores.
But Ikemoto said that "to a fairly large extent, those guidelines are not being followed."
Andrew Vorzimer, a lawyer who specializes in reproductive medicine, calls the egg market "the wild, wild West of reproductive medicine."
"How do you find Asian egg donors? By offering more money," said Vorzimer, who also owns Egg Donation Inc. in Encino. "I have seen contracts where donors are getting $50,000 or $100,000."
Fertility industry experts say there are several reasons Asian eggs are in demand, including a cultural aversion to adoption. If a woman is infertile, they say, many Asian couples would prefer to use the husband's sperm with a donor's egg to conceive a child that carries at least half of the couple's genetic identity than to adopt a baby from other parents.
Demand is also high among Jewish couples, many of whom put off having kids to pursue higher education or careers, clinic operators say. According to a report from the United Jewish Communities, half of Jewish American women have college degrees and 21% have graduate degrees. They tend to marry later, the survey says, and have lower fertility rates.