"How could you write such a disgusting article. You should be ashamed of yourself," one woman wrote.
Said another: "I can't believe you would write such a heartless and disrespectful article. But I guess since you're from Los Angeles that should be expected."
The offending article was my June 3 column about the competition among wealthy, infertile couples for the "donor" eggs of beautiful and brainy college coeds.
Some readers thought that by focusing on the handful of couples willing to spend as much as $50,000 for the "right" set of genes, I had tarnished the motives of thousands of women struggling with infertility.
"For many of us, this is a last-gasp chance," one woman wrote. "I'm not trying to get something I don't deserve. I'm not trying to create some sort of uber-child. I want a baby. I want to be a parent. I want to be pregnant. I want to give birth."
In her Los Angeles home, Vanessa "sat at the dining room table and cried" as she read my column, she said. She and her husband have been trying for seven years to have a baby. "From thermometers to injections and in-vitro fertilization, we've done it. I simply do not have the eggs to . . . have my own genetic child."
Now, they are exploring the option of donated eggs. And it is not some grand shopping expedition for the prettiest, smartest offspring money can buy.
"How can I make you understand the level of grief that I feel in never being able to see my mother's face in my child. . . . what I feel like every time a friend speaks with pride of his child's accomplishments and says, 'She's just like I was at her age.' I am blindsided and grief-stricken every day by little things that pass you by."
My column struck a nerve among women like her, unable to conceive for a variety of reasons. They passed along the column through support groups, posted it on Internet sites, railed against it in chat rooms and anguished telephone conversations.
It was just one more example, they told me, of how their private and very painful struggle is often publicly portrayed as the domain of egomaniacs and oddballs.
"It is obvious in our society that the infertile population is suspect," wrote Jessica Martin, a producer with the Oregon public broadcasting system. "Articles like this only further society's suspicions that somehow infertile people are shady characters undeserving of children."
I'm not sure the general public holds that perception, but I understand the sensitivity. We all view the world around us through the prism of our own vulnerabilities. Just as I feel under personal attack whenever I read of the "bleak prospects" faced by children of single moms, infertile couples must cringe at stories that expose the growing commercialization of reproductive technology.
Because behind the handful of Ivy League coeds peddling their eggs to pay tuition are women like Stacey, a mother of five--now pregnant with her sixth--who has given her eggs eight times, producing five babies for couples in Michigan, Maryland, California and Israel.
She began donating three years ago, after watching her sister struggle with infertility. "I just feel so lucky to be able to just get pregnant and pop them out so easily," she said. "I wanted to help other women experience the joy of having a baby, of being pregnant."
The American Society of Reproductive Medicine recommends that donors be paid no more than $5,000 for the time and discomfort of egg donation, which requires weeks of fertility shots and the surgical removal of eggs.
Stacey says she "sure didn't do it for the money." Her husband makes more than $300,000 a year, and they live in a gated community in a Los Angeles suburb. She was paid $2,500 for her first egg donation and has never received more than $3,500. "I put the money away for my kids, and I only use it for really special things." Her most recent--and final--donation was done for free, because the couple had not gotten pregnant on a previous try and could not afford to pay a fee.
"People don't realize it's not just the egg donor payment," she said. "It's $15,000 to the doctor, another $3,500 in medication, another couple thousand in agency fees . . . . This is something that can put a couple in debt for years."
And few would-be parents are like the big-money couples I wrote about, able to pay $50,000 for a shot at a made-to-order baby. "We didn't spend a lot of money to try to create a child with NBA potential or supermodel capability," wrote Katie, 31, whose eggs never functioned normally because of a rare anomaly. She and her husband borrowed $5,000 from her grandmother, picked a donor from a set of written profiles and now have a 3 1/2-year-old son.
"I have no idea what the donor looks like," she said. "And I couldn't care less."
Stacey said some would-be parents she's met are searching for donors with a specific set of qualities--"high IQ and good looks"--but most are primarily concerned about a donor's health and family medical history.
That's because "we're not really any different from the rest of you," says Terry, a 44-year-old New Yorker who has spent four years trying to conceive and is now on a waiting list for donor eggs. "We want the same thing for our children . . . good health, a good life, a happy family."
They have learned to keep their struggles private, to insulate themselves from prying questions and thoughtlessness that feels like ridicule. They talk a lot of "family-building options" and very little about the pain they feel at having failed at one of life's most basic jobs.
Articles like mine, which focus on the narcissism that drives some couples, "seem so cruel to us," Terry says.
"By the time we get to this point, we've lost so much. You've tried it on your own for a few years; you go to [in-vitro fertilization] and that doesn't work. By the time you get to donor eggs, you've spent several years and thousands of dollars and you've already lost your dream . . . that child who'll have your eyes and your hair. Getting there takes you through a lot of grief."