The Spanish Prisoner

A computer screen showing the moment of conception at a the Institut Marquès in Barcelona.

A computer screen showing the moment of conception at a the Institut Marquès in Barcelona.

Although Cyprus may have the highest percentage of egg donors in the world with almost one in 50 eligible women donating their eggs, most people are afraid to come forward and speak about their experiences with a journalist. Over the course of ten days I located fifteen women—all Russians and Romanians—who had either sold their eggs at Cypriot medical clinics, or were flown in from foreign countries to donate eggs. None of the women would speak on or off the record. Through intermediaries several women told me that they were scared to speak with the press because "Cyprus is a small island," and that if word got out that they spoke against clinics that they would be in danger of losing their children. What I do know about their lives was relayed to me second hand—often from a friend that they had confided in for advice. One commonality that linked all the women was that they had sold their eggs for money alone on the recommendations of a friend or by responding to one of the many ads that appear in the classified sections of Russian language newspapers.

While I was not able to speak directly with donors in Cyprus where the market is largely unregulated, I was able to locate numerous women in Spain. While in Barcelona, I contacted two women and one clinic worker who gave me an inside look at how clinics recruit and cultivate donor pools of primarily immigrant students who have few other opportunities to earn money legally in Spain.

"I was an immigrant working illegally. I had just arrived. I didn't have permission to work from the government yet," said Nicole Rodriguez who had emigrated from Chile. "It seemed like easy money." But she had to learn the clinic's language in order to receive the payment she was after. She said that she called the clinic and said "How much do you pay for eggs? So the woman corrected me saying 'you mean for the donation of eggs,' I said "excuse me excuse me, the donation of eggs' Of course you are not supposed to call and ask how much they pay you. You are supposed to understand that this is only a detail." The payment of 1000 euros fell within Spanish guidelines.

She signed a contract with the clinic renouncing her right to know about the children born to her eggs and went through two weeks of hormone injections to prepare the eggs for extraction. She went under general anesthesia for the actual procedure and woke up alone in a room with an envelope of cash next to her. "It was like they had thrown cash on a bed stand after seeing a prostitute," she said.

A second woman, Kika, an immigrant from Argentina said that when she gave her eggs she was surprised to see a room full of other south Americans waiting to sell their eggs "They weren't Spanish. They were immigrants for sure because I have a memory of thinking about this as an immigrant thing to do, like looking for a salida (a way out), a way to survive for money and this kind of thing." But when she went through with the injections something went wrong. "All of the eggs they harvested were too big, the doctors called them super-eggs, and they decided to stop the treatment. They only paid me half the money they promised because they weren't able to get the full batch."

Claudia Sisti, a former patient assistant and international coordinator at the clinic Dexeus in Barcelona, said that these women's experiences match what she saw after working in a clinic for two years. "Most of the donors were from Latin America, it was easy money for them," she said. In the course of her every day interactions she knew of donors who tried to sell their eggs professionally "One Brazilian woman I knew sold her eggs four or five times in the course of a year and got sick. She was very thin, but they always accepted her into the programs."

Spain performs well over 20,000 IVF cycles a year, and though regulations are far more strict here than in Cyprus, donors are almost universally recruited on the basis of the financial compensation, and are a necessary crutch for immigrant women who have few other options to legally make money.