“Cash-for-Eggs” Program Raises Ethical Concerns

San Francisco, Calif.: $10,000 cash. That’s what a young woman in New York could walk away with after donating her eggs for stem cell research purposes. Egg donation compensation in New York was originally limited to donations for “assisted reproduction” programs, like in vitro fertilization. But in 2009, the Empire State Stem Cell Board loosened restrictions to include compensation for women who donated their eggs for scientific research.

But this type of compensation only adds to the growing concern about the ethical implications of cash-for-eggs programs. Many fear that current programs which seek egg donations for reproductive purposes may lead to the exploitation of young women, while turning human eggs into a marketable commodity. Eggsploitation, a new documentary produced by the Center for Bioethics and Culture, highlights the shocking stories of three egg donors whose experiences turned into nightmares. “Their disturbing testimonies about their experience with egg donation are a wake-up call to a highly unregulated, multi-billion-dollar industry that is jeopardizing young women’s health at the expense of fulfilling another’s desire to have a baby,” said an initial press release about the film.

In the meantime, concerns about cash-for-eggs programs are reflected in restrictions that currently exist in ten states. The limits, however, of those restrictions are varied. According to the Bioethics Defense Fund, only one state, Louisiana, prohibits any type of compensation for egg donors, for either reproductive or research purposes. Four states (Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) prohibit the sale of eggs derived from human fetuses. California is among five states (others are Arizona, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maryland) that specifically regulate egg donation programs for scientific research. California prohibits researchers funded by the state stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), from using eggs whose donors have received a profit from their donation.

Restrictions like California’s have presented roadblocks to cloning for research purposes (“therapeutic” cloning). At a workshop CIRM co-sponsored in June of 2010, stem cell researchers met to discuss the current state of somatic cellular nuclear transfer (SCNT), a technique that clones an embryo in order to produce stem cells. Researchers are presently attempting to use SCNT with human embryos. The trouble is that in order for SCNT to work, researchers need human oocytes (eggs). Available eggs are in short supply, in part because of the prohibitions on the payment of additional compensation for egg donations.

But cash-for-eggs regulations haven’t stopped stem cell researchers from searching for ways around these legal roadblocks to obtain the research “material” that they need. At the SCNT workshop, alternatives to egg donation programs were introduced. One method, being used in the United Kingdom, is “egg sharing,” where women seeking infertility treatment through IVF receive a discount on the treatment if they donate some of their “excess” eggs for research. Another potential source of human eggs are “oocyte precursors” taken from fetal ovarian tissue. And in a project currently being funded by CIRM, dormant eggs in ovarian fragments are being recovered from patients with benign ovarian tumors.

LLDF supporters can expect that the bioethical battlegrounds will only continue to multiply as techniques like SCNT are pursued in the medical research world. As seen in the case of cash-for-eggs program restrictions, one set of regulations may only drive the stem cell industry to find other ways to obtain what they want. LLDF encourages its supporters to be vigilant, and to keep themselves informed about the current status of the controversies in the bioethical world. To learn more about the hazards of cash-for-eggs programs, supporters can start by visiting the Eggsploitation movie website at www.eggsploitation.com