Tulip bulbs, cheese and greenhouse veg are the most famous Dutch exports. Urine is a less well-known Dutch one. Pregnant women all over the Netherlands donate their urine to the organisation Mothers for Mothers. It’s used to make a hormone preparation that helps women around the world get pregnant.
The pregnant women’s urine contains the hormone Human chorionic gonadotropin, or HCG. It’s used in the pharmaceutical industry to make a drug for women with fertility problems, to increase their chances of getting pregnant. Mothers for Mothers has been collecting urine from volunteer donors for as long as 80 years. The scheme is unique in the world.
Eight bottles a week
Cathy, from the southern province of Brabant, is five weeks pregnant and is taking part in the scheme for the second time. She doesn’t mind collecting her urine in a bottle for three months. Cathy has two friends who have trouble getting pregnant, so she’s happy to help.
“I donate to Mothers for Mothers because I wish the same happiness as I have for others. I’ve got a little one of my own. I want to share that happiness with other people. If you can help someone by collecting your urine, I’ll do it straight away. It does mean peeing in a pot every morning for three months. But I’m happy to do it.”
Mothers for Mothers has also come in for criticism in recent years. Pregnant urine donors were outraged to discover that Pregnyl was also being prescribed as a slimming drug.
The manufacture MSD denies any involvement and the weight loss effect is unproven. The health inspectorate is fining six doctors 150,000 euros each for wrongfully prescribing the drug.
Cathy fills eight bottles of urine a week. All over the Netherlands, drivers pick up the bottles from pregnant women taking part in the Mothers for Mothers scheme. They deliver the urine to the pharmaceutical company MSD in the southern town of Boxtel.
The company receives around 30,000 litres of urine a week. A conveyor belt carries the bottles in blue crates to a machine that automatically checks the contents.
The urine is poured into a huge vat and cooled, then the HGC hormone is extracted. The tens of thousands of litres ultimately yield just a small quantity of the hormone, says Wim Derks of MSD.
“For a whole week we’re left with around 100 litres of HGC concentrate. That’s the unrefined hormone solution, which in our factory in Oss we then process into the real raw material used to make Pregnyl.”
The drug is then sold all over the world to women who need help getting pregnant. Including Dutch women like Hetty Veraart. She discovered that her fallopian tubes were blocked and she would never be able to get pregnant spontaneously. Injections with hormone drugs like Pregnyl stimulated her eggs to mature and ovulation to occur. It then took 18 months for her to get pregnant through IVF – test tube fertilisation.
“It was mainly hard psychologically because it really affects you,” she says. “Every month you’re scared and wondering what will happen, especially with IVF. But you’re willing to do anything, including this. I had a beautiful daughter, who’s now eight months old.”
Hetty’s now thinking about having another baby. Mothers for Mothers is celebrating its 80th anniversary this summer. The organisation will carry on collecting urine until other products make Pregnyl obsolete.