Myths about Egg Donation - and the Realities
You probably studied human reproduction in your high school biology class and learned even more if you or a loved one have gone through fertility treatments. Many have heard of intrauterine insemination (IUI) or even in vitro fertilization (IVF), but there is often silence and even confusion about ovum donation, one of the most successful technologies out there. Here’s a review to clear up the three myths that I hear most often about making a baby with a donated egg.
Let’s start with the basics: To create an embryo that will grow into a healthy child, you need genetic material from two different gene pools – fifty percent delivered by a sperm cell and fifty percent by an egg. The pairs of combined genetic material then instruct the developing fetus to become a boy or a girl, tall, short, have curly hair or straight, blue eyes or brown. Sounds simple, right?
Most men and women think their sperm and eggs are carrying their own characteristics. This is the first myth. Actually, our sperm and eggs are carrying genetic material from our entire gene pool (parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.).
If the particular sperm that delivered the genetic material for your ovum donation baby is carrying DNA characteristics expressed in the father or sperm donor, the baby many resemble him. If, however, that particular sperm is carrying certain characteristics from Great Uncle Harry for curly blonde hair and brown eyes, the son or daughter may look nothing like the source of the sperm. It’s the luck of the draw. Each sperm cell carries a unique combination of ancestral genes.
The same, of course, is true for eggs or ova. Any given egg can contain genes from any group of the donor’s ancestors – those that resemble the woman donating the eggs or those ancestors who look nothing like her. So your child could develop with very different features than the egg donor herself.
Besides, once the two sets of genes combine, one set delivered by the egg and one delivered by the sperm, they all interact: some turn on and some turn off, some are dominant and some are recessive. There’s really no telling which will do the instructing and who your child will act like, look like, and sound like.
Think of the families you know. If each genetic contribution in a child were an exact duplicate of their parent’s genes, all the girls and all the boys in every family would be clones of one another. Instead, since each egg and sperm contains a different combination of genes, each time they unite, a unique individual is created. That is why in the same family there might be some tall children, or short, some brown hair, or blond, some looking like one parent, or some who look like neither – even when no egg donation is used!
Myth # 2
Although this medical procedure is called “ovum donation,” the recipient does not receive someone’s egg in her uterus. That is, however, a common myth. The egg just delivers some DNA instructions from the donor’s gene pool, as does the sperm. In fact, since every woman starts her pregnancy with sperm donation, egg donation can be thought of as a case of “double donation”.
Once the genetic material from the sperm and the egg has melded, the work of the sperm and the egg are done. The set of combined genetic instructions duplicates itself and two new cells are created. The material duplicates again, and now you have four cells. They double and there are eight. Soon there will be a ball of new cells – the beginning of a new human being. It is that ball of cells, not someone else’s egg, that hopefully implants into the recipient’s uterine wall and begins to grow into a fetus.
Perhaps the greatest myth is that many believe the uterus during pregnancy is simply an incubator. Nothing could be further from the truth. The most important aspect of all pregnancies – including egg donation pregnancies— is that as the fetus grows, every cell in the developing body is built out of the pregnant mother’s body:
- Tissue from her uterine lining will contribute to the formation of the placenta which will link her and her new child.
- The fetus will use the pregnant mother’s protein to build its muscles and she will replace it.
- The fetus will use her sugars for energy, her calcium to build its bones, her minerals, nitrates, and fluids and she will replace them as well.
So, although her husband’s aunt Sara or the donor’s grandfather may have genetically programmed the shape of a new baby’s earlobe, the earlobe itself is made from the pregnant woman’s “flesh and blood.” That is why she is the child’s ‘biological’ mother. That is why this child is her ‘biological’ child.
Many recipients ask, “is the baby actually my flesh and blood?” Not literally. No baby is really its mother’s flesh and blood because every fetus builds its own flesh and its own blood. Still you might wonder, “If it was my own egg, wouldn’t the baby then have my blood?” No. The baby might inherit your blood type, but would still be making its own blood, just as it makes its own skin and hair texture, and nails and teeth. Besides, with or without ovum donation, the baby might have inherited his or her blood type from the father’s gene pool anyway.
But wait – there’s more. Although every baby needs a set of genetic instructions to begin their development from a zygote to a fetus, these genes can be expressed (turned “on” or “activated”) or silenced (turned “off” or “dormant”) during the pregnancy by interacting with the mother’s environmental cues. After nine months, this baby is uniquely yours.
So here’s the reality of successful ovum donation. Thanks to egg donation and sperm contribution, you become pregnant, you build your child’s body, you shape their development, you give birth, and you give life to your child!