It's technically called an egg "donation." But if you're a young Asian woman, donating your eggs to an infertile couple can fetch enough cash to buy a used car or perhaps a semester at college.
The same market forces that drive the price of cotton, copper and other commodities — supply and demand — have allowed Asian women to command about $10,000 to $20,000 for their eggs, also known as gametes or ova.
Women of other ethnic groups typically get about $6,000 when they can sell their eggs, but they often can't for lack of demand, according to donation agencies and fertility clinics.
Clinic operators say the premium paid to Asian women reflects the shortage of willing donors for the growing numbers of infertile Asian couples who want a child who looks like they do. But the competition among these clinics — including ads screaming "ASIAN EGG DONORS NEEDED" in college newspapers — has spotlighted the commercial aspects of what is supposed to be an act of benevolence.
Federal law bans the sale of human organs, but selling eggs is legal in the U.S., according to lawyers who work in the field. Nevertheless, agencies are careful in their choice of words, saying they are not paying for the eggs but for the women's time, pain and inconvenience.
That rubric makes it hard to argue that one race deserves more compensation than another, said Laurie Zoloth, who teaches bioethics at Northwestern University.
"A poor black woman or a poor Hispanic woman doesn't suffer less than someone who is Asian or Jewish or a Stanford graduate," Zoloth said. "The fact that we think of these gametes as having particular worth depending on race and class is really one of the starkest examples of how capitalism has entered the market in human parts."
Linda Kline says she is joking when she refers to her eggs as precious "inventory," but it's hard to argue with the term. Kline, who is Chinese and Vietnamese (her maiden name is Tran) said she has donated her eggs three times, for a total of $26,000, through the Baby Miracles agency in San Marcos, Calif.
"They told me they had doubled the compensation for Asian donors because they were so sought-after," said Kline, 26, a business major at San Diego Mesa College. "They said it was difficult to find Asian donors."
Roxanne Sarro, director of Baby Miracles, confirmed that account, saying Asian donors can command higher fees — especially "if a donor is 100% Chinese [and] highly intelligent with a degree in math, for example."
Clinic operators say Asian donors whose eggs are proved fertile with their first donation are typically able to increase their fee by large amounts with each subsequent donation, while other donors typically receive much smaller sums.
There's nothing illegal about offering higher prices to get donors of certain ethnicities, said Lisa Ikemoto, a law professor at UC Davis who has researched the human egg industry.
"There is an absence of regulation in pricing eggs, so it's not illegal to pay more depending on a women's race and ethnicity, where she went to school, what her SAT score is," Ikemoto said. "When you look at pricing practices, the eggs themselves are treated like commodities, with more valuable traits receiving higher compensation."
Voluntary guidelines are set by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, a nonprofit membership organization that makes recommendations to the fertility industry. Spokesman Sean Tipton said the guidelines say donors should not be compensated extra for "specific characteristics" such as ethnicity, beauty or high test scores.
But Ikemoto said that "to a fairly large extent, those guidelines are not being followed."
Andrew Vorzimer, a lawyer who specializes in reproductive medicine, calls the egg market "the wild, wild West of reproductive medicine."
"How do you find Asian egg donors? By offering more money," said Vorzimer, who also owns Egg Donation Inc. in Encino. "I have seen contracts where donors are getting $50,000 or $100,000."
Fertility industry experts say there are several reasons Asian eggs are in demand, including a cultural aversion to adoption. If a woman is infertile, they say, many Asian couples would prefer to use the husband's sperm with a donor's egg to conceive a child that carries at least half of the couple's genetic identity than to adopt a baby from other parents.
Demand is also high among Jewish couples, many of whom put off having kids to pursue higher education or careers, clinic operators say. According to a report from the United Jewish Communities, half of Jewish American women have college degrees and 21% have graduate degrees. They tend to marry later, the survey says, and have lower fertility rates.
Clinic operators say there has been a shortage of Asian eggs for several years but that the deficit has been exacerbated by two factors: rising Chinese wealth, which has given more couples the means to come to the U.S. for surrogate parent programs, and this year a surge in Chinese couples interested in having babies in the Year of the Dragon, considered the luckiest year in the 12-year zodiac calendar.
One reason for the lack of supply is that Asian women are less likely to go through the discomfort of egg donations out of financial need. On average, Asian women earn higher salaries and are more likely to be college-educated than their counterparts in other racial groups, according to Labor Department statistics. Asian females out-earn white women by 13%, black women by 31% and Latinas by 52%, the agency said.
"A lot of young women who elect to be egg donors do so for financial reasons," Vorzimer said. "But many Asian and Jewish donors who are in such high demand are young ladies who do not need that financial compensation. They are financially secure, so they don't need to donate their eggs to fund a college education or a down payment on a first home."
Big fees aren't enough to attract Asian donors, in some cases. Last year, Jackie Gorton, owner of an egg donor and surrogacy agency in San Rafael, Calif., placed an ad in a local Chinese newspaper on behalf of a couple from Hong Kong. The ad offered $25,000 but got no response.
"Asians are very private, and this is a big shame for them," Gorton said. "It depends on how westernized they are."
After finding an egg donor ad on Craigslist, Nina Sherman, 25, had few qualms about donating her eggs three times in exchange for $21,000. Sherman said the egg agency lavished her with attention.
"I'm 100% pure Filipino," said the Los Angeles Valley College student. "They seemed to like that."
But many Asian donors are like Reina Arai, 27, who grew up in Pasadena and is now going for her master's degree at the University of Maryland. She has yet to tell her Japanese American parents that she is a four-time egg donor.
"If they found out about this" Arai said, "they would probably be like 'What the hell are you doing?'"
Some agencies are so desperate for Asian donors that they are looking beyond the U.S.
Surrogate Alternatives in San Diego has about 400 potential donors on its roster, but only two are ethnically Asian. To bring up its Asian numbers, the agency plans to start flying in women from China and Japan, Chief Executive Diana Van De Voort-Perez said.
"Even if we didn't have a couple immediately interested, which is highly unlikely, we would have [the donor] come over and freeze her eggs," Van De Voort-Perez said. "There is no doubt we'll have an Asian couple later who will pick the eggs we have frozen."
For Latina, African American and non-Jewish woman, the number of willing donors often outstrips demand.
Heart to Heart Egg Donations in Beverly Hills is an agency that specializes in African American donors. It has a roster of about 125 women willing to be paid donors. But the agency had only 22 black or mixed-race couples last year seeking black donors.
Agency owner Fran Williams said many African American couples don't have the means to spend thousands of dollars with no guarantee of a baby.
"Some other agencies won't even bother putting these [black] donors in their database," Williams said, "because they'll just sit there for years."
Chimere Dickson, 31, an African American executive assistant from Philadelphia, waited four years before getting selected, then was paid $6,000 for one donation cycle.
"I would be up for doing this again," she said, "but I don't know if I'll be picked again."
Robyn Dedeaux, 28, also African American, is probably getting a second payday. After being paid $6,500 for a donation in September, she was selected by a couple to donate again later this year. But Dedeaux knows she won't get the kind of pay bump offered to Asian women.
"That kind of sucks, but I guess it's supply and demand," said Dedeaux, an insurance claims adjuster in Ontario. "At the fertility clinic I was going to get shots, the majority of the couples going in there were Asian, and most of the baby photos on the walls were Asian."