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June 25th, 2003 Amy Roe | News Stories
 

HUMAN RESOURCES

Young? Healthy? College-educated? You're so money.

     
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DONATION FAQ

Once or twice a week, Kevin Daniels reclines comfortably--albeit with a needle stuck in his vein--on an ergonomically designed, powder-blue vinyl chaise. Sometimes he flips through the sports pages; sometimes he just chills out. All around him, others sit silently in tidy rows of identical chairs, doing the same.

The process takes about 45 minutes. In return, he collects two $10 bills.

Daniels, who is studying to be a paramedic at Clackamas Community College, says he's unfazed by the sight of his own blood.

At his side, a clear plastic bottle slightly smaller than a Nalgene flask hangs from a pole, slowly filling with a viscous liquid that has the color of apple cider and sometimes, when it is being packaged, the faint odor of burnt plastic.

It is Daniels' blood plasma.

In April, Daniels was scanning the classifieds, looking for work. He didn't find any jobs, but he did see an ad for plasma--the protein portion of blood. As a high-school senior he'd given whole blood at blood drives, and he figured plasma wouldn't be much different.

A laconic, spiky-haired 19-year-old, Daniels doesn't realize his twice-weekly donations put him on the supply side of a multibillion-dollar global industry, and he doesn't much care. Like the company that pays him for plasma, which grossed roughly $2.7 billion from blood plasma products in 2001, Daniels is motivated by cash.

"This is, like, my gas money and stuff," he shrugs. "Why not?"

Federal law prohibits the sale of human body parts and organs. You can't sell your liver on eBay, although someone has tried (it was later revealed to be a hoax). You can't broker bone marrow, either, and while hair is a legal renewable resource, it pays only around $10 an inch and takes a long time to grow.

But the government has long permitted payment for the donation of blood and plasma, and with the advent, in the late 1970s, of in-vitro fertilization, it allowed the sale of eggs and sperm as well. Market forces and human biology have thus collided in a surprising paradox. At a time when more and more young Oregonians like Daniels are finding it difficult to find a conventional job, some have turned to harvesting their own bodies. They are, in this way, actually made of money.

The Alpha Therapeutic clinic off of East Burnside Street where Daniels donated his plasma is owned by Mitsubishi, the Japanese conglomerate that also manufactures automobiles. Once drawn and packaged, Kevin Daniels' plasma is shipped to Memphis, Tenn. From Memphis it may be sold to buyers as far away as São Paolo or Kuala Lumpur.

Plasma, like soybeans or aluminum, is a commodity. Thus it's subject to market forces. A post-9/11 surge in whole-blood donation depressed the worldwide price of plasma, but it hasn't affected the rates paid to donors like Daniels, for whom donating plasma is like a part-time job. He's even referred a few of his friends. "They need money, too," he says. "To me, it's normal."

It doesn't matter whether plasma comes from a tall person or a short person or a brown-eyed person, so long as the donor is healthy. Sperm is different story.

Because it contains genetic material that may be passed on in reproduction, sperm is distinguished by the characteristics of its donor.

In terms of their sperm, all men are not created equal. Few know this better than Barbara Mixon. As Oregon Health & Science University's andrology supervisor, Mixon is the gatekeeper. She tells donors whether they have made the cut and are accepted into the donor program, and she tells them when they'll be "retired."

Mixon is thus charged with the tricky task of bringing into the clinic a constant stream of potent men willing to masturbate for 50 bucks.

Good sperm, it turns out, is hard to find. That's why a process that presumably is more enjoyable than giving plasma pays more than twice as much (see chart, below). Mixon does about four or five donor interviews a month, only about 20 percent of whom will end up being accepted into the program, she says.

"We can't sell samples from donors outside a particular height and weight range," Mixon explains. While such characteristics have no bearing whatsoever on sperm count or motility, recipients simply won't pay for sperm from men who are fat or short.

"There's no market for it," Mixon sighs, "it's sad to say."

Prospective sperm buyers aren't told the identity of OHSU's donors. They can peruse on-line profiles that paint surprisingly intimate portraits of donors (www.fertilityoregon.com/lab/donorlist.htm). Take donor 9836, for instance.

A published author, 9836 toured Europe playing jazz, and was drafted by a professional baseball team. A lawyer for an environmental nonprofit, he wears size 13 boots on his monthly hiking trips. He's left-handed and grew up in rural Southwest Washington, playing in the fields and tussling with his older brother, who is now a doctor.

His high school GPA was 3.8, and his earliest memory is of eating a toadstool in his backyard and getting his stomach pumped.

Why is a successful lawyer selling his sperm? In his profile, he explains that he knows people who've experienced infertility, and the extra cash comes in handy since he just bought a new house. Then again, Mixon acknowledges OHSU makes no effort to confirm many of the biographical details provided by donors.

It may not really matter, anyway. Mixon says most sperm buyers are looking for one simple thing: height.

Even donors who are the right height may have a limited career. OHSU has a policy that one donor's sperm can impregnate no more than 12 women.

The 12-women rule of thumb is intended to prevent saturating the local gene pool with one person's DNA. (OHSU also sells to recipients in other parts of the country, but so far the sales are small enough, and spread well enough throughout the region, that the clinic does not feel the need to track these sperm samples.)

There are no laws, state or federal, limiting the number of times a man can donate sperm, and there's no way to tell if a man has donated before at this point. There is no national sperm registry, either, although some sperm banks and egg-donation agencies have joined forces to put their "products" on line, in searchable databases.

Nils Lennartson, a blonde haired, blue-eyed former OHSU sperm donor, did it for the cash and never asked what became of his sperm. "It seemed like prying, and I don't think I really wanted to know the answer anyway."

Men can make money masturbating, and both genders can make fast cash on their plasma. But ladies looking for a lump sum have a built-in advantage--their ovaries.

Becoming an egg donor at OHSU has the tedium of applying for college. Prospectives must first fill out a "profile," which is 14 pages long.

Those who pass muster are invited to OHSU's monthly two-hour orientation, where donors meet, en masse, at the clinic to watch a 90-minute PowerPoint presentation and take a tour.

For every entering class of about 15, only about five will pass the screening process. In 2002, the clinic did about 70 donor egg "cycles," the term used for harvesting the eggs from a donor. At the end of the long road is $3,000.

"Many of them do it for the compensation, because many of them are students," says egg-donor coordinator Terri-Lynn Dennis. "Others just want to be helpful. If they were doing it for the compensation, there's all sorts of donor agencies where they could get far more money."

Indeed, gold-digging donors could sign on with private egg agencies, which tend to pay higher fees. Some may even sign up with more than one agency to better their chances at getting paid.

"It's not regulated. There are people out there who make this a career. And there's no way to know whether they've donated before unless they disclose that to you. It's like anything--you could do what you want," Dennis says. "You could market yourself on the Internet as well."

Money permeates the egg trade. It's mentioned in ads for donors, on the websites of clinics and agencies, and in the profile packets mailed to wannabes. Compensation is a perennial hot topic in on-line discussions among prospective donors.

Even so, it's a touchy subject. Some donor coordinators even claim to reject women who don't seem sufficiently altruistic, as if a donor's interest in doing it for the money taints her.

"If I have a donor call me and ask, 'What do you pay?,' I'll tell them, but I'll never send an application," says Dawn Hunt, director and founder of the California-based egg-donation agency Fertility Alternatives, "because it shouldn't be about the money."

Annie, a Portlander who sold 21 eggs for $2,000 at the University of Washington's IVF clinic, didn't want the clinic's screener to know she was donating only for the cash, so she added that her parents had had trouble conceiving.

This happened to be true, but she says it had nothing to do with her donation: "I bullshitted my way through it."

Egg-donor coordinators prefer donors who donate for other reasons: Women who have children themselves and want to share the joy of parenthood. Or women who cite friends or family who've experienced infertility as their motive for selling their eggs.

Some coordinators say they see donors seeking karmic relief: "Compensation is, of course, important," agrees Andrea Jacobson, who runs a Coos Bay egg agency called Creating New Generations, "but a lot of donors have had abortions and are making up for that."

Donor coordinators like Jacobson and Hunt are fertility matchmakers, and they are paid by recipients--not donors--for this service. In addition to providing the donor's compensation, recipients pay for the doctors, the drugs and the attorneys involved--including the one who supposedly represents the donor. If a donor travels to donate, the recipient also pays for her transportation, hotels and meals. Donors may have the missing link to fertility, but recipients hold the purse strings.

And recipients are typically repelled by the idea that they are "buying eggs."

They don't want to think they are taking advantage of cash-strapped young women. A Portland man whose twins were born last year using donor eggs insists it's a gift of love, not a class thing: "It's not like some guy selling blood down on Burnside."

PLASMA SPERM EGGS WHAT IS IT FOR?

Plasma is used for hemophiliacs and in manufacturing medicines. Sperm is used for in-vitro fertilization when a man is shooting blanks. Eggs (also called ova) are used for in-vitro fertilization when a woman's eggs are unhealthy due to disease, age, injury or early menopause.

WHAT IS IT?

The odorless, honey-colored portion of blood that contains the proteins. It makes up about 55 percent of blood's total volume. The male reproductive cell, which...oh, go ask your father. The mature female reproductive cell, which, after fertilization, develops into an embryo.

HOW DOES DONATION WORK?

A small amount of blood drawn from the finger is tested for protein and blood-cell levels. Staff ask screening questions and check weight and vital signs. The donor is then hooked up to a machine that separates about a liter of plasma from the blood, returning the red blood cells through the same sterile, intravenous line. Donation time lasts a half-hour to an hour, but first-timers may have to set invest several hours. A donor must save his seed for two days prior to his date with the specimen cup. After passing a medical and psychological screening, the donor visits the clinic twice a week. In a private examination room stocked with magazines, he shoots--he scores! Wannabe donors complete a medical and psychological screening process including blood test and ultrasound. Once matched with a recipient couple, the donor synchronizes her period with the recipient's, which usually involves a month or two of birth-control pills. Then come the meds. The first shots stimulate the ovaries, and the donor begins menstruating seven to 10 days later. After an ultrasound, she begins another series of fertility drugs that stimulate the egg follicles, allowing a bumper crop of eggs to grow. Once ultrasound and a blood test show eggs are mature, a final hormone shot is given and eggs are harvested 35 hours later. Egg retrieval takes about 20 minutes and is performed under local anesthesia. Using ultrasound for guidance, a needle pierces the vaginal wall into the follicles and sucks out the eggs and fluid. Ten to 20 eggs are usually collected.

WHO IS ELIGIBLE TO GIVE?

Healthy, drug-free adults aged 18-65 who weigh 110 pounds or more and have not donated whole blood for two months. Men who have had sex with another man are barred from donating, as is anyone who has traded sex for drugs or money. Lay off the KFC before donating: Donors with lipemia, a high level of fat in the blood, may also be turned away. No ID? No current address? No dice. Height-weight proportionate (that's code for "no fatties"), drug-free males between the ages of 20 and 39 with no history of STDs, who are at least 5 feet, 8 inches tall, have had at least one year of college and have lived in the Portland area for at least one year are eligible for screening. No go for adoptees or children of adoptees; men who have had sex with another man or traded sex for drugs or money; and men who have had Hepatitis B or C or herpes. On the pudgy side? Not tall enough? Like many clinics, OHSU may make exceptions in the case of donors of color, who are in short supply. In general, programs welcome women aged 21 to 32 who are healthy, height-weight proportionate nonsmokers and have no history of drug abuse or significant medical illness. Some family medical history is necessary. College education is a plus, and often a requirement. Donors will also be screened for STDs. Because recipients look through extensive donor profiles (which sometimes include photos), traits like talent, athleticism, appearance and intelligence may give some donors an edge. In some cases, a donor must be willing to hop a plane so a far-flung clinic can gather her eggs.

HOW OFTEN?

Up to two times every seven days, but no more than once in a 48-hour period. OHSU's donors are guaranteed a minimum of 32 money shots. They are asked to donate twice a week but not more than once in a 48-hour period. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommends that women donate their eggs no more than six times, and many clinics are more restrictive. The entire donation process may take several months.

WHAT IT PAYS

As much as $110 in the first two weeks. Extra cash for referring a plasma pal and for repeat bleeders. $50 per sample: $40 up-front and $10 paid when the donor returns to take an HIV test. Compensation ranges from $2,000 to $3,000 at clinics, more through private fertility agencies or consultants, some of whom cater to clients willing to pay big buck for donors with, for example, an Ivy-league education or previous donation experience.

WHO BUYS IT

For-profit plasma centers like Alpha Therapeutic. Eastside donor center: 2705 SE Ankeny St., 231-1950. Westside donor center: 11 NW 5th Ave., 224-1227. OHSU sperm bank: Recorded message, 418-3780. OHSU Fertility Program: recorded message,
418-5333.Portland Center for Reproductive Medicine: 241-0979, www.portlandivf.net.

SIDE EFFECTS

First-time donors may feel a chill when the saline solution used to replace the volume lost from the plasma is returned to the body. Wooziness happens, so donors are encouraged to chow down and drink up after donating. The long-term health impact has not been studied None. Some donors say spanking the monkey in a clinic takes the pleasure out of pleasuring oneself. Donors may experience a PMS from Hell--bloating, moodiness, pain--caused by the hormone injections, and some donors find the retrieval surgery painful and feel nauseated and sore afterward. Egg donation is not believed to have any long-term effects on a woman's fertility, but much is still unknown.


America so dominates the blood trade that it is often referred to as the "OPEC" of the global blood industry.

The IRS considers donor compensation taxable income, if it amounts to more than $600 per year.

A 1999 study of plasma donation among Ohio University students found paid plasma donors were far more likely to smoke or drink than students who donated blood or those who did not donate.

Plasma centers have been criticized for accepting plasma from the poor, the homeless, and drug and alcohol addicts. They've turned to student donors in an effort to shake this stigma.

Oregon artificial- insemination law states that donors have no right, obligation or interest with respect to offspring, and that the recipients of the donation are the sole legal parents of offspring.

The trend toward open donation for both sperm and eggs is constantly debated at OHSU's fertility clinic. So far, the clinic has maintained a policy of anonymity.

Scandinavian Cryobank www.scandinaviancryobank.com , which imports and sells the sperm of anonymous Danish graduate students, opened a Seattle distribution center last year. Like furniture at Ikea, the donors are given fake Scandinavian names.

 
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