At the Fertility Center of Colorado, a small clinic on Tutt Boulevard, women between the ages of 21 and 32 sign up to be part of a kind of egg bank in waiting.
Recipients (who include gay couples, single moms and straight pairs) visit the sea-green office, decorated with frosted glass etchings of sperm- and egg-like shapes. There, they choose a donor based on her profile in a catalog, which includes three photos from different points in the woman's life as well as philosophical but not identifying personal information. The couple initiates the pricey donation cycle and, if all goes well, a pregnancy.
The process is markedly different from the egg donation of the early '90s, when the operation was largely confined to the East and West coasts. Childless couples would advertise for donors in college newspapers, navigating the genetic waters to find a match with the right SAT score, hair color and temperament. Today, egg donation has crept into the nation's interior, bringing with it a host of new questions.
Trina is 31 and a former Fertility Center employee. (Her last name has been withheld to protect her anonymity.) Unlike the several dozen women who market their eggs to the center each year, Trina was approached to donate by a colleague. A couple had come in soliciting an egg; Trina, who has straight brown hair, a round face and a quiet disposition, matched the pair's desires.
After some thought, Trina decided to enter into a cycle.
"It's not like I'm giving them a baby," she says, repeating the justification she gave her friends and husband at the time. "It's like I'm giving them pregnancy."
Like all women who visit the Fertility Center (or either of the other two centers in town), Trina had to attend a counseling session where the process and its emotional impacts were explained.
"You want to make sure women aren't attached to their eggs," says the center's Dr. Eric Silverstein.
He, like other staff members at the clinic, draws a line between donating eggs for the "right" reason (altruism) and the "wrong" reason (money).
"It's a real commitment," he says.
Yet whether or not a woman asserts selflessness in the counseling session, she still stands to make quite a bit of money from egg donation. At the Fertility Center, first-time donors are typically awarded between $3,000 and $4,000, with next-timers getting $5,000 per cycle. (Recipients pay for the eggs.)
When Trina was cleared for STDs and debilitating genetic diseases, she began the cycle, synchronizing her body with that of the recipient by self-administering shots to stimulate egg development. The eggs were retrieved using a suctioning needle.
The Fertility Center prefers to fertilize eggs using a kind of sperm blitz, saturating the egg with hundreds of thousands of sperm. Silverstein then waits between five and six days to transfer the embryo to the recipient's womb, averting early embryo failure and other problems. Only a fourth of the embryos typically take.
Trina, who never met her recipient couple, received a telephone call several weeks later saying the pregnancy had worked.
"If the pregnancy failed, I would have felt that I failed," she says. "It's an amazing gift, to go through pregnancy and be able to breastfeed and nurture."
Trina, who has two children of her own, plans to enter into another cycle with a new couple in June.
While the Fertility Center's practices tend to mirror other small egg-donor clinics nationwide, the office takes on a particularly local shade. Donors are prohibited from giving more than six times, a precaution that is less about the donor's health than the risk of incest. Since egg donation is a fairly new practice, most donor egg children are still quite young. The incest gamble could appear later on if clinics in smaller cities don't vary their egg pool.
"It's no different than living in an area with a sperm bank," says Phelps. "There is always that possibility."
On the other end of the process, there's the question of what to do with leftover embryos, frozen cells that could make fetuses someday. Of all the ethical issues (the monetary value placed on eggs, the perceived "artificiality" of In Vitro Fertilization), the spare fertilized eggs have raised the most questions in Colorado Springs an extension, perhaps, of the national stem-cell debate.
"The controversies I see in the community are, "How many embryos are you making?' and "Are you discarding embryos?'" says Silverstein.
That decision falls to the recipient couple, who can keep them frozen, use them or donate them. Most couples rent storage space from the center and freeze their leftover embryos, which hosts hundreds of the cells.
Though Trina and other donors retain no legal right to frozen embryos, or any eggs retrieved, for that matter, she says she doesn't mind.
"It feels like something I am supposed to do."