The Sunday Times

Lois Rogers reports that a FERTILITY clinic is raffling a human egg in London to promote its new “baby profiling” service, which circumvents British IVF (in vitro fertilisation) laws.

The winner will be able to pick the egg donor by racial background, upbringing and education. Payment for profit is illegal in Britain, but the £13,000 of free IVF treatment will be provided in America.

The raffle, to be held on Wednesday, is to promote a tie-up between the Bridge Centre, a fertility clinic in London, and the Genetics and IVF Institute (GIVF) in Fairfax, Virginia.

The Anglo-American commercial venture was set up last autumn and is aimed principally at women in their forties and fifties who have little prospect of a successful pregnancy with fertility treatment using their own eggs. A handful of women from Britain have so far been treated, with 10 more booked in over the next three months. The clinic expects this number to rise to 25 or more a month and says it achieves “take-home babies” for about 60% of clients.

The eggs are provided by American donors aged between 19 and 32, all of whom are university students or graduates. Overweight women or smokers are not accepted onto the donation programme Before picking a donor, the British women scan detailed anonymised profiles, including the donors’ motives for selling. The profiles include recordings of the women talking about their attitudes, as well as pictures taken of them in their childhood. They only provide an up-to-date photo if they enter serious negotiations.

Women egg donors in America can make $10,000 (£6,600) a time if they are well educated and with desirable physical characteristics. The sale of their eggs was condemned yesterday by Josephine Quintavalle, founder of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, a pressure group, who said the infertility market had plumbed new depths.

“In no other branch of medicine would the ruthless exploitation of the vulnerable be tolerated. These women selling their eggs are taking a huge risk with their health and future fertility simply because they need the money.”

In Britain, donors have to agree to be identified and contacted by any resulting offspring when they reach the age of 18.

Payments are restricted to a maximum fee of £250 for expenses, and as a result donors are in extremely short supply.

One of the first Britons to use the US service is Celia, a 38-year-old married businesswoman from the Midlands, who received two donor eggs in America at Christmas. Last week the prospective mother underwent a three-month scan that confirmed the twin pregnancy, which has cost her a total of £13,000, is progressing normally.

Her donor was a 27-year-old, whose eggs have produced four babies and three pregnancies, including Celia’s twins.

“I wanted someone who looked a bit like me as an adult, but the main consideration was the quality of her eggs,” said Celia. “This woman produces 30 at a time, and they were split between me and another woman, otherwise the cost of donation would have been double the £9,000 we actually paid.”

“I don’t want anyone to know these babies are not mine. Not my family or any of my friends. We don’t intend to tell the children, either.”

The lure of payment means there is no shortage of would-be egg donors in America. GIVF receives up to 500 applications a month, but only about five will pass the two-month screening programme.

“Although it is anonymous, they get asked a lot of questions. We want them to understand this is something bigger than a process with a cheque at the end of it,” said Jennifer Machovina, its donor egg programme co-ordinator.

“We have about 200 donors on our books and they cover a big range of ethnicities and backgrounds, so people have more chance of getting a donor who looks like them.”

In Britain, only 956 of the 36,861 women who had IVF in 2007 received donor eggs. Half of those were egg sharers and of the remainder many were friends or relatives of the women being treated.

The number of donors is boosted by an arrangement whereby women receive free treatment if they agree to share their eggs with another patient who has no useable eggs at all. The drawback is that anyone undergoing fertility treatment necessarily has inferior eggs, so the chances of pregnancy for both women is relatively poor.

Egg donation is a protracted and painful process that requires treatment with potentially dangerous drugs. A donor has to undergo a course of treatment aimed at stimulating her ovaries to produce a dozen or more eggs in one menstrual cycle, instead of the single ripe egg released every month in natural conditions.

Bridge Centre staff admit they were bemused by the GIVF free egg offer from America. “They are much more market-driven than we are, and they do have some rather more creative techniques,” said Michael Summers, a senior consultant in reproductive medicine at the Bridge.

He believes a relaxation of restrictions on payment for egg donors in Britain will depend on the results of the next election. If the ban stays in place, he predicts infertility tourism to America will grow steadily.