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Stem cell debate: Should women be paid for eggs?

A British doctor plans to discount fertility treatments for those who donate. But some consider that unethical.

January 28, 2007|Malcolm Ritter | Associated Press Writer

Say you're a woman who wants to have fertility treatment but can't afford the $6,000 cost.

Would you be interested in getting it for half-price by agreeing to donate half the eggs you produce for stem cell research?

British women may get a crack at that deal in a few months, under a plan pursued by Dr. Alison Murdoch of Newcastle University.

This concept, which resembles a strategy sometimes used to get eggs for fertility treatment, is one of several efforts to boost the supply of human eggs needed for research. The shortage has triggered an ethical debate on both sides of the Atlantic: Should women be paid for supplying eggs?

Scientists need eggs for therapeutic cloning, which creates stem cells genetically matched to an individual. It may someday be used to create tissue to treat illnesses such as diabetes and Parkinson's, providing transplant material that's genetically matched to the patient so that it won't be rejected. Therapeutic cloning also may help scientists develop better drug treatments.

The process involves transferring DNA into human eggs and growing them into 5-day-old embryos, from which stem cells are harvested.

It's not clear how many eggs scientists need for this research. But donating eggs is a significant undertaking for a woman.

By various estimates, a woman can spend 40 to 56 hours in medical offices, being interviewed, counseled and subjected to a surgical procedure, under sedation, that retrieves eggs from her body. Before that procedure, she takes hormone injections daily for more than a week to stimulate egg development.

Women are paid for donating thousands of eggs in the United States every year to help other women have babies. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine doesn't recommend a figure but says $5,000 is reasonable and $10,000 is too much.

The medical group also approves of paying women for producing eggs for stem cell research. But other guidelines and laws on that topic favor merely reimbursing women for expenses. That's the word from the law books of California and Massachusetts and a committee of the National Research Council, a congressionally chartered nonprofit organization that advises the federal government.

In fact, the compensation question has split American feminists and advocates for reproductive health and rights, said Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society. One side says offering money beyond reimbursement risks exploiting disadvantaged women by offering undue inducement to participate, while the other side calls that stance paternalistic, she said.

Darnovsky says her center has no position on paying women to provide eggs for fertility clinics, but holds that if women give eggs for stem cell research, they should only be reimbursed for expenses, including lost wages.

Why the difference? It's a matter of a woman's gauging the risks and benefits of donating her eggs, Darnovsky said.

On the risk side, there's been too little follow-up of women to know for sure how safe the egg-retrieval process is, she said.

On the benefit side, while donating eggs to a fertility clinic often produces a baby, the potential payoff in stem cell research is promising but speculative at present, Darnovsky said. But women, like society, have so bought into the expectation of "miracle cures" from stem cells that they overestimate the benefit from donating eggs, she said.

The result? If stem cell researchers offer the kind of money that fertility clinics do, "I think any woman who's trying to pay the rent and put food on the table [is] ... going to be tempted to discount the risks and overvalue the benefits," she said.

Similarly, ethicist Laurie Zoloth of Northwestern University thinks paying compensation may exploit some women. Women who give eggs to fertility clinics do it for the money, she said, and society shouldn't "want the bodies of the poor used for the needs of the wealthy."

"You do not see many full professors or CEOs selling eggs to secretaries or housecleaners," she said in an e-mail.

Zoloth, who said she strongly supports stem cell research using eggs, says she thinks women donating eggs for such research should only be reimbursed for expenses. Giving up eggs, like donating organs, should be an altruistic act, she said.

But others believe women should be paid.

Participants in other kinds of biomedical research are compensated for their time, inconvenience and rigors of participating, says Kathy Hudson, director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University.

There are ways to guard against exploitation of vulnerable women, she said. One would be for local boards that oversee research to make sure that donors were recruited from many groups rather than just the economically disadvantaged, she said. And limits could be set on the number of times any one woman could participate.

But Dr. Robert Lanza, vice president of research and scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology Inc. of Alameda, Calif., says he has given up trying to get donations without compensation. After more than a year of pursuing that strategy and about 100 ads, only one woman donated eggs, he said.

Medical writer Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.

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