Before this fall, it might not have occurred to Michael Aylesworth to swap his sperm for money.
But faced with rising bills, a dwindling budget and a fractured economy, the 30-year-old Seattle man took stock of some very personal assets — and decided to sell.
“I did it because I’m a student and I’m always broke,” said Aylesworth, who spent several delicate minutes in a small room at the Seattle Sperm Bank last month.
Apparently, he’s not alone. Seeking quick cash in a tanking financial market, would-be sellers of a variety of body products — sperm, eggs, blood plasma, even human hair — are filling waiting rooms and swamping agencies with inquiries.
Increasingly, industry officials say people are hoping to trade spare body fluids, tissues and other parts for payments that can range from $20 to $50 a pop for blood plasma to $60 to $100 for a shot of sperm, $200 for a shiny ponytail and up to $7,000 for a fertile egg.
At the Seattle Sperm Bank alone, donor applications have tripled from 50 to 150 a month during this financially precarious autumn, staff members said, while officials at egg donation agencies from Chicago to Houston estimate that calls are up at least 30 percent over last year.
“I am seeing a huge increase,” said Mary Fusillo, director of The Donor Solution, an agency in Texas. She says egg donor applications have jumped in the past six weeks from two to five a day to 20. “It’s people who suddenly see it as a viable way to make a chunk of change all at one time.”
Visits to BloodBanker.com, a Web site that lists locations and reviews of cash-for-plasma centers nationwide, are up 50 percent this fall, and TheHairTrader.com, a site that lets users shill their long locks, is about 20 percent busier with people desperate for cash.
“I just got laid off and I really need the money for house payments” is how the owner of a 32-inch reddish-brown braid put it on Nov. 3.
“They’re donating due to economic things,” said Jacalyn Elise, an executive partner with the Murietta, Calif., hair clearinghouse, whose clients range from college students to homemakers. “I’m seeing more ads from people saying they want money for the holidays.”
Donors may face disappointment
But agency officials caution that while they’re seeing a rise in queries, potential donors of all types may be disappointed. For one thing, most agencies insist that clients aren't selling body products at all. In plasma parlance, for instance, donors are compensated for time and travel, not for the blood products.
At the same time, only a fraction of candidates for many body products meet strict screening criteria, said Dr. Eric Surrey, medical director of the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine in Denver.
In the case of egg donation, Surrey said the process can be complicated, time-consuming and physically taxing — not an easy way to earn cash.
“We may have seen a spike in inquiries, but we — and hopefully others — do everything we can to discourage financial motivation,” Surrey said.
Sharon LaMothe, a board member of the Egg Donation and Surrogacy Professional Association, a trade group for donors and surrogate mothers, said it doesn't surprise her that more people would be looking to donate in a down economy. But, she added, age and medical and educational background can exclude even the most enthusiastic candidates.
“They get screened out on the first phone call,” said LaMothe. “A lot of egg agencies won’t take anybody over 32 — and many stop at 29.”
In Aylesworth’s case, the mechanical engineering student in Seattle says his sperm was rejected because it couldn’t withstand rigorous storage requirements. While he didn’t take the verdict personally, Aylesworth said he will miss the chance to donate 10 times a month at $60 a session.
“At a party I brought it up and people said, ‘You could pay rent on that,’” he said.
Tracking the economy’s impact on compensated donations isn’t easy and most measures remain anecdotal. In the case of donated sperm and eggs, the largely unregulated industry lacks a national data source. While the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 5,034 live births resulted from donor eggs in 2005, the latest figures available, that doesn’t account for failed conceptions or pregnancies.
"It takes us 1,000 applicants for nine donors," he said, noting that many applicants can't produce sperm of high enough quality or quantity for regular donation and others don't pass rigorous medical and other background screenings.
Current data isn’t available that might confirm a spike in egg and sperm donations, and fertility doctors haven’t reported a rise, despite media enthusiasm for the topic, said Sean Tipton, director of public affairs for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
“I guess I could imagine economic difficulty inspiring increased inquiries,” Tipton said. “But egg donation is so complicated, donors are unlikely to do it only for the money.”
That’s true, said Robin Von Halle, president of Alternative Reproductive Resources in Chicago. Still, from conversations with potential candidates, she believes the economic downturn is behind a 30 percent increase in her agency's egg donor inquiries and a 20 percent rise in women wondering about becoming surrogate mothers.
It’s equally hard to trace the failing economy’s effect on compensated plasma donations, even in an industry that has burgeoned by 48 percent in the past three years. Plasma donations jumped from 10.3 million in 2005 to 15.3 million in 2007, according to the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, a trade agency.
(Donations exceed the number of individual donors, because people can give plasma up to twice a week. Ninety percent of plasma donors have given before, officials said.)
Money's not the only motivation
But Josh Penrod, a vice president of the source division for PPTA, said the jump could be attributed to an expansion that has created more than 340 centers nationwide and growing uses for plasma products. It won't be clear until early next year whether there has been an increase fueled solely by economic factors this fall.
Meanwhile, Christine Kuhinka, a spokeswoman for ZLB Plasma, which operates 66 centers across the country, said she believes more donors are being motivated by altruism.
“There are many reasons to donate plasma,” she said. “At the end of the day, most people recognize that they’re saving lives.”
But blood industry experts said it’s disingenuous to claim that compensated plasma isn’t tied to a faltering economy.
“I am confident that paid plasma increases in tough economic times as a direct result of the economy, and would love to see the data used by plasma companies that says it is not,” said Dr. Louis M. Katz, executive vice president of the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center in Davenport, Iowa.
One of his regular platelet donors recently missed an appointment, said Katz, a veteran industry leader. “When we called to find out why, he said, ‘I gave plasma,’ and he implied the 20 bucks was part of it.”
That’s the case for visitors to BloodBanker.com, the site started in 2003 by Phil Maher, 31, of Denver. Traffic typically rises by about 10 percent to 15 percent in the fall, said Maher, a former plasma seller who created the site as a clearinghouse for others who wanted to donate for quick cash. This year, traffic’s up by 50 percent.
Reviews on the site and elsewhere report crowded waiting rooms and long lines at plasma centers from Chicago to Seattle. Privately, some donors say they’re more desperate than ever, Maher said.
“I’m having problems paying rent, food, car insurance, bills,” wrote one poster. “$20 or $10 or $40 is a little help I’m glad to accept. I wouldn’t have thought going this low.”
Still, for donors willing to stick with it, the payoff can be huge. One 24-year-old egg donor, for instance, expects to graduate from college debt-free this year, having paid tuition with $28,000 in compensation for four cycles of eggs.
“My credit score will be great and I’ll be able to move forward,” said Rebecca M., a nursing student at the University of Illinois at Chicago who also works full time as a baby sitter. She asked to withhold her last name for fear of being harassed.
“I went into this before the economy got bad,” said Rebecca, whose first eggs were retrieved in February. Now that the financial situation has worsened, she’s glad she did it, though she emphasized that she was drawn by the urge to help people become parents.
“The people who do this for the money, maybe they’ll do it once,” she said. “This isn’t something you could do without the mindset I have.”
‘Donors’ vs. ‘Sellers’
Ethicists, however, contend that the rise in such services during an economic downturn underscores problems inherent in the transaction.
“The uptick gives lie to the system that invokes ‘donors’ when it’s really a system of ‘sellers,’” said Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and a frequent contributor for msnbc.com.
“Altruistic motivation isn’t going up,” he added. “The drive to get paid is going up.”
Caplan worries most about donation of genetic material such as sperm and eggs. People who need cash may not be truthful about their medical background, for instance. Or they might be so desperate for money, they don’t think through the potential for physical and emotional complications.
“In economic hard times, if somebody went out to sell a baby, there would be moral contempt,” he said. “But if you sell the ingredients for a baby — and the oven — we don’t pay attention.”
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