Extreme ways to tackle debt
Debtors become egg, sperm donors or experiment subjects to pay bills
By Jeremy M. Simon | Published: April 20, 2009
You've given your blood, sweat and tears to pay off those credit card bills -- but what about your sperm and eggs?
In a difficult economy, some cardholders are choosing to pay off debt using something they still own outright: their bodies. These consumers see the cash offered by participation in medical experiments, and sperm and egg donations as a viable way to attack credit card or other debt.
And while an economic downturn may be prompting interest on the part of consumers, that isn't necessarily viewed as entirely positive by the industries in search of qualified candidates.
Medical test subject
Although there is scant national data on the use of earnings from medical study participation, some consumers say it's a solid option for paying off credit card debt.
"There's nothing legal I could do to make as much money as doing a medical experiment," says Corinne, a 29-year-old cardholder from Austin, Texas, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy. "It's a good way to pay down debt."
Corinne says she participated in about 10 medical studies between 1999 and 2007 for contract research organization PPD, which conducts studies at its Austin clinic to "determine how new medicines act in the bodies of healthy volunteers." After running up credit card debt by what she describes as living beyond her means -- "making low wages and doing the stuff that young people do, traveling and visiting family" -- Corinne initially considered medical studies after hearing about the option from co-workers and seeing ads in the newspaper.
The studies she took part in generally required healthy people, who were screened via a complete physical exam. More people are qualified than accepted for participation, she says, making the process quite competitive. After making the final cut for studies she participated in, Corinne checked into the testing facility, where she spent 20 days in her longest study and earned $6,000 for testing an antibiotic.
There's nothing legal I could do to make as much money as doing a medical experiment.
Medical experiment participant
Although the pay is good, participants are hardly going on vacation. Corinne describes entering a "militaristic environment" where participants are told when they can eat and drink and are barred from having coffee, cigarettes or any other medication. A close eye was kept on participants. "Otherwise, you could be drinking coffee or shooting up heroin," she says.
Despite the difficulty of being in such a clinical climate, it wasn't all bad. "I never had anything that gave me side effects or had any bad reaction," Corinne says.
In the end, according to Corinne, cardholders can do pretty well for themselves by taking part. "You get a huge chunk of money all at once for not that much time, and you can throw it at debt," she says.
As to whether she would do it again, in this economy, her answer is yes. "If I get laid off or fired, that will be the first place I go," she says.
Meanwhile, young men may opt for sperm donation as a way to pay off credit card or other debt.
Xytex International, based in Augusta, Ga., provides human semen to health care professionals and their patients. Xytex says its donors fall into two categories: college students seeking money for books, tuition and loans; and young professionals in search of a second source of income. For those new members of the workforce, "it's possible to imagine that they might be using some of the money to pay down other debt that they might have," says Christopher Karow, Xytex's chief communications officer. Although donors aren't required to share what they intend to do with their earnings, "donors feel like they are part of the family and share things with the customer service team," Karow says
Despite the difficult economy, sperm donation apparently hasn't increased substantially. "Even though we're seeing people come in to join the program, the number of donors hasn't gone up that much," Karow says, noting that becoming a sperm donor can actually be a tough process, requiring both medical testing and a waiting period of a few months before donations begin. Age or certain other problems could make a potential donor not suitable for Xytex's program.
According to Alice Ruby, executive director of The Sperm Bank of California, sperm donation requires a "complex analysis" that includes screening the donor for sexually transmitted diseases and a consideration of both the donor's personal health and that of his family members, such as any genetic diseases. Ruby adds that donation also requires an exceptionally high sperm count -- something men are often unaware of about themselves before becoming donors -- since many sperm die in freezing process using for storage.
You don't want to take somebody who's desperate because, in the end, it's not going to be good for them.
|-- Patricia Mendell
Co-chair, American Fertility Association
For accepted applicants, payment varies by degree of anonymity. Donors wishing to remain anonymous are issued a donor number and earn $60 per visit, Karow says. Those who take part in Xytex's open donor program receive $100 per visit after providing a "photo span" that includes pictures of themselves from birth to adulthood. Those images are then made available exclusively to enrolled patients to aid their quest for the ideal donor.
The earnings from sperm donation are a drop in the bucket compared to what women stand to earn from donating their eggs to hopeful parents-to-be.
Although women who donate their eggs can earn as much as $10,000 or more, it isn't an ideal option for those cardholders solely out to earn some money. Egg donation requires a commitment involving much more than simply "going to just drop off your eggs," says Patricia Mendell, a licensed clinical social worker and co-chair of the nonprofit American Fertility Association.
Still, the economic downturn seems to be encouraging an interest in egg donation. "All agencies report an increase in the number of people applying," Mendell says. Service provider Egg Donation Inc. of Encino, Calif., has seen applications to become a donor rise from 17 per day in October 2008 to 43 per day currently, according to Chief Executive Officer Andrew Vorzimer. What do the young women do with their substantial earnings? Most commonly, "they will use these funds to pay down credit card debt, to pay down student loans and just to pay for day-to-day necessities," Vorzimer says.
Potential donors are screened medically and psychologically, and the odds of becoming a donor are just one in 10. Some women ultimately decide they are not comfortable with donation, Mendell says. Regardless of the economy, she notes that screening remains key. "It still means you have to evaluate the donors, so you're not going to be taking donors who are inappropriate," she says. According to donor Carrie Bloedorn, attractive and intelligent donors are especially in demand, with a good match often also relying on genetic traits that are similar with the future child's family.
You don't just go into this to make a quick buck; you need to understand the ramifications.
|-- Carrie Bloedorn
Seven-time egg donor
For the specialists involved in working with potential donors, "you have to understand the balance between a financial need that they have and understanding the commitment that they have," Mendell says.
"You don't want to take somebody who's desperate because, in the end, it's not going to be good for them," she says.
Donors agree. "You don't just go into this to make a quick buck; you need to understand the ramifications," says Bloedorn, who has donated an impressive seven times in four years thanks to a combination of her robust reproductive system and in-demand genetic characteristics. Bloedorn became an egg donor back in 2004 after a family member who worked at a fertility clinic indicated her pregnancy with twins marked her as an ideally fertile candidate. "Having baby twins is expensive," Bloedorn says, adding that the money she earned allowed her to stay at home with her young children.
Now 31 years old and living in Atlanta, Bloedorn is "coming out of retirement," with plans to return to egg donation in order to pay off credit card debt incurred to get her own full-service egg donation agency, Eggspecting Inc., off the ground. Bloedorn has $15,000 in business-related credit card debt after Chase raised the interest rate on her plastic from 7.9 percent to 12.9 percent despite no financial missteps on her part. "If I didn't start this business, I wouldn't need to donate again," she says.
Bloedorn is a unique case, however. AFA's Mendell says that donation guidelines indicate that such a large number of donations by one woman are beyond what is medically best. Acting as a donor requires serious commitment. Mendell outlines a process involving a two- to three-month time frame for each donation that requires two to three extensive appointments, hormone injections with potential side effects, frequent returns to a clinic for monitoring, an injection to release the eggs and a nonsurgical procedure to retrieve the eggs -- which despite being nonsurgical, still requires anesthesia. Add in potential discomfort after the procedure, and "there's a lot more of a commitment than people sometimes even realize," Mendell says.
In the end though, egg and sperm donation provides some wonderful benefits, industry experts say -- and not just to the donor's bottom line.
"It really is a win-win situation," Mendell says. "You're getting compensation and helping a couple start a family."
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