Commercial egg donation is strictly prohibited in China, according to regulations issued by the country’s Ministry of Public Health, which views the procedure as an illegal form of human-assisted reproductive technology. However, a quick search on Chinese social media will reveal that the industry of egg donation is very much active in China, with plenty of aspiring parents battling with infertility issues and young women willing to sell their eggs.
To bring the dark business to the light, the Beijing Youth Daily recently published a feature story (in Chinese) exposing how the murky market operates, especially how matchmaking agencies carved a lucrative niche in connecting egg seekers and donors while employing special language to escape legal responsibilities and lying about the potential risks associated with the medical procedure.
Published on May 12, the article was written by an undercover journalist from the newspaper, who started her investigation by pretending to be a potential donor intrigued by the proliferation of donation ads on the internet. In marketing materials created by agencies, egg donation is often branded as a shortcut to make money, specifically made for young cash-strapped women who are “caught up in debt” and “hate working but like spending money,” as one advertisement states. Careful about their words, such online posts rarely, if ever, describe money transactions involved in the process as payments. Rather, prospective egg donors are promised to receive “compensation” for their nutrition losses, which usually varies from 20,000 yuan ($2,900) to 100,000 yuan ($14,500), as well as full reimbursements of their accomodation and travel expenses.
In order to help intended parents find the perfect match, agencies often impose arduous screening processes on candidates. Different clients have different requirements, as one agent told the journalist, adding that the norm in the market considers educational background as the most important factor in selecting donors, followed by height and appearance.
In the investigation, the reporter noticed that the agencies she talked to never brought up the risks or common complaints about donating eggs. When asked about the short-term and long-term impacts of the procedure, agencies either evaded the questions or gave false promises that the donation was “complete safe” and “pain-free.”
But the reality tells otherwise. In the medical world, it’s widely acknowledged that egg donors may suffer from a string of health problems caused by the procedure, including a rare but serious condition known as ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which can be fatal in extreme cases. Meanwhile, there is no lack of news stories about potential side effects of egg donation in Chinese media. In March, it was reported that a hospital in Zhejiang Province accepted a female patient whose ovaries were painfully swollen after going through the egg-donation process. Three years ago, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported on a 17-year-old egg donor who almost lost her life because of the procedure. Two agents involved in the case were sentenced to jail in 2017.
In the journalist’s interviews with agency staff, these concerning facts were totally glossed over. Instead, as the article states, agents often bragged about how many women were in the queue to sell their eggs in their conversations with potential donors. One agent told the reporter that as the industry thrived, many freshmen students at college had come to him asking for opportunities per recommendations from seniors at school. Another agent even told a story of a woman making a down payment on a home in Chengdu after selling her eggs on five separate occasions.
The journalist also found out that the medical procedures usually take place in private clinics that have established deep, long-term relationships with agencies. “We ask donors to remain silent during their stays in clinics, but apparently these doctors know what’s happening,” an agent said. But when interviewed by the newspaper, a clinic that the journalist visited as a potential donor later denied its cooperation with agencies, saying that it was unaware of the commercial nature of the medical practices.