Nick Mahan, Staff Writer
Egg (or “oocyte”) donation is an integral part of the assisted reproduction “in vitro fertilization” (IVF) process in which third party donors (rather than the anticipating birth mothers) contribute their eggs to conception. The IVF industry is highly profitable and viewed by many as one of the greatest advances in reproductive medicine to date, in spite of the moral questions surrounding the production and cryopreservation of fertilized human eggs (better known as “human embryos”).
However, behind the more focal ethical uncertainties and the consequences for the anticipating birth parents/legal guardians and the fertilized eggs/children involved, the physical, psychological, and legal risks to donors have not received the attention they deserve.
It is well known that egg donation—like the same procedure used for women undergoing IVF with their own eggs—poses serious short-term health risks; in order to surgically retrieve a woman’s eggs, hormones are used to induce menopause-like symptoms and stimulate superovulation, increasing the number of follicles and thus eggs in the woman’s ovaries. Potential complications from fertility medications combined with surgery include ovarian hyperstimulation (as many as 6 out of every 100 egg donors), adverse reactions to anesthesia, bleeding, cramping, pain and infection.
While long term studies are lacking, given the nature of the hormone therapies it is likely that transiently increased risk of breast and uterine cancer, increased risk of ovarian cancer and potential subsequent infertility also lie among these potential risks.
Justin Baird and Jennifer Lahl of The Center for Bioethics and Culture directed the 2010 documentary Eggsploitation. The documentary follows five women’s experiences with egg donation; one dies from cancer in her 30s, two suffer serious long-term complications, one suffers serious short-term complications, and one opts against becoming a donor. While such anecdotes are by no means conclusive evidence that fertility drugs directly increase the risk of long-term health dangers such as cancer and other life-threatening side-effects, the documentary calls much-needed attention to the overlooked health risks and ethical issues surrounding egg donation, and the need for the reproductive medicine industry to perform long-term health studies (at the very least). In doing so, the documentary spreads words of caution to women considering egg donation, for the sake of their health, fertility and even lives.
What sort of women does the IVF industry target? Young women, usually at least age 21, and no older than 35 due to the health risks for older women and the lesser viability of their eggs; healthy women, especially without personal or family histories of genetic diseases; attractive and college-educated women—some of the worse ads offer especially high compensation for women of above-average height, athletic ability, musical ability, or with an Ivy League education.
Indeed, the industry is so lucrative that egg brokers want all the eggs they can get, leaving those women in more desperate need of the egg donation compensations (sometimes more than $20,000) especially vulnerable to the less selective, less professional, less informed-consent compliant, and less donor health-conscious egg brokers. While it seems right to compensate women for the serious potential risks of the egg donation procedure, to call the situation a conflict of interests would be an understatement.
Furthermore, women’s eggs are not only sought after for the 10-40 percent successful, ethically questionable IVF treatments, but also for human embryonic stem cell research (note that certain forms of embryonic stem cell research that are considered ethical alternatives to embryo destruction, such as SCNT and ANT-OAR, both require human oocytes).
The alarming thing about this is that, should embryonic stem cell research produce human therapeutics (to date it has paled in comparison to the high success of morally sound adult stem cell therapeutics), the industry would be continuously in need of a very large number of women’s eggs in order to produce their expensive, potentially unsafe and unethical therapies.
The promise to the public when embryonic stem cell research was legalized was essentially that researchers would only use women’s eggs (and fertilized eggs—human embryos) left over from IVF clinics. That said, relatively few embryos from IVF clinics have been donated to embryonic stem cell research, for many parents want to save their embryos for future family planning, and some also recognize that their embryos are children, albeit in deep freeze. Thus, the lucrative IVF, embryonic stem cell research and budding embryonic stem cell therapeutics industries have created such a demand for women’s eggs that a black market for women’s eggs now exists.
Indeed, not only are college students in the US targeted to donate to IVF clinics, but vulnerable women in third world countries are likewise targeted by the embryonic stem cell research industry. Organizations like the Global Prolife Alliance have submitted complaints on behalf of the women of countries like Uganda and Nigeria, claiming that certain US policies encourage the exploitation of women in developing countries for their eggs.
Not only does the poverty of these countries make women more vulnerable to high compensation offers, but as members of developing countries their medical systems are not nearly as capable of treating the serious short-term and potential long-term side-effects of egg donation—risks that many of them may not understand given the often less adequate informed-consent procedures in such countries.
The practice of egg donation driven by IVF fertilization and embryonic stem cell research has created a system that victimizes women on multiple levels. At core, the known and unknown health risks of egg donations have been underplayed by the medical science community. Yet in spite of this, society continues to support the IVF and embryonic stem cell research industries, the growth of which demands more and more eggs. This means more and more women are being exposed to those health risks, leaving women, many of whom are already in vulnerable circumstances, victims of a system rapidly approaching biological slavery. Women must be properly informed of the risks of egg donation.
That said, while properly informing women of the risks of egg donation is certainly an important step to minimizing victims and curbing IVF and embryonic stem cell research, I fear that discouraging egg donation alone may exacerbate the human biologics black market that these lucrative industries have created. For that reason, other steps must be taken to curb directly the industries so entrenched in the exploitation of human beings.
After all, even if it were not the case that ethical, more reliable and more universally affordable alternatives to both IVF (namely, adoption) and embryonic stem cell research (namely, adult stem cell research) exist, industries whose products are manufactured at the cost of human life are a disgrace to the medical field.
Egg donation may just be the tip of a growing iceberg, a growing industry of biotrafficking. Our damaged understanding of human life has allowed this industry to increasingly target the most vulnerable, from literally voiceless human embryos to practically voiceless vulnerable women.
We must do more than discouraging egg donation and get to the root of the problem: a deficit in care for human life buried deep within our society and the industries it supports. Let’s start by calling biotrafficking what it really it: human trafficking.
Nick Mahan consistently forgets his byline. It bespeaks a negligence that piques his editors. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.