ALBANY, N.Y. — A ruling that allows women to be paid for donating their eggs for research may entice women to undergo risky and untested medical procedures, ethicists warn.
In announcing the ruling by the Empire State Stem Cell Board, New York state has broken from the more common practice employed in California and Massachusetts, which have well-funded stem-cell programs but do not pay female donors beyond out-of-pocket expenses.
The ruling was made on June 11 by the members of the board’s Funding Committee, a few hours after the Ethics Committee voted that the large payments to egg donors was acceptable. Father Thomas Berg, executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, was the only No vote on the 13-member Ethics Committee.
“This is entirely unprecedented,” said Father Berg. “We are dealing here with a real medical unknown, and this is nothing more than a cash-for-eggs program. In a desperate quest to obtain women’s eggs for research purposes, New York will waste taxpayers’ money on unproven science, and women who take the bait will be risking their health and future fertility.”
Ethicists and women’s advocates say poor women and college students with large debts will be susceptible to participation in the plan, which will pay up to $10,000.
In the egg extraction process, a woman must take a series of drugs to stimulate her ovaries, a procedure that is largely untested and has many side effects, said Jennifer Lahl, national director of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.
“The egg donation process has well-documented risks associated with the dangerous drugs taken to produce abnormally large numbers of eggs, along with the risks of anesthesia and surgery to remove the eggs. Added to these dangers are the longer term risks associated with cancers and damage to the donor’s fertility,” Lahl said in a statement.
Kathleen Gallagher, director of Pro-Life Activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, said that in the hearings Empire State Stem Cell Board committee members made “some interesting admissions.”
“They admitted that no other state allows reimbursement in such large amounts,” Gallagher said. “They admitted that the problem in other states that have publicly funded stem-cell programs is that women do not come forward because there is no significant compensation. They essentially admit that what they are doing is an inducement. It’s almost surreal that the life-giving substance of a woman’s body is going to be traded like a commodity.”
Protections Built In
In 2007 the New York State Legislature allocated $600 million for stem-cell research, and the Empire State Stem Cell Board was formed to administer grants. The work of the board has focused thus far on embryonic stem-cell research, which involves in vitro fertilization and killing of human embryos and has produced no documented cures.
According to the Legislature, the funds must be used for research purposes only, and not for reproductive purposes, which guarantees that the donated eggs must be destroyed after fertilization.
Of course, egg donation has been going on for years for the purpose of conceiving a baby. In a largely unregulated industry that matches infertile couples with healthy female donors, the donors receive large payments to compensate for their time and the physical risks. Ads appear routinely in campus newspapers seeking healthy, athletic, attractive co-eds.
Pointing to these facts, Samuel Gorovitz, a professor of philosophy at Syracuse University and a member of the Empire State Stem Cell Board Ethics Committee who voted for the payments, said the reimbursements to egg donors are not out of line.
“I do not agree with the premise of this question that the guidelines sanction large payments,” he said. “The limitation, absent special considerations, is $5,000, which is 10% of what women are sometimes paid to provide eggs for reproductive purposes.” He said protections are built into requirements from the independent Institutional Review Board and Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight Committee “that reduce the risks of inappropriate enticement.”
He admitted that there is uncertainty about just how safe this procedure is, but added that “no procedure is 100% safe, and we cannot rationally insist that all risks be prevented. We should insist, however, on complete and candid disclosure of what the known short and long-term risks are, and of what uncertainties there are, regarding this procedure.”
While he would not advise women to undergo the procedure, he said, he cannot justify preventing women from choosing to do so.
The Catholic Conference’s Gallagher, however, claims that informed consent is impossible when the long-term side effects have not been determined in this relatively new and unregulated procedure.
Father Berg said that the fertility industry is “the Wild, Wild West” of science. “It is totally irresponsible” that the Ethics Committee would look to this industry to try to determine the risks and long-term effects of egg retrieval.
As a member of the Ethics Committee, Father Berg invited Dr. Jennifer Schneider to testify. Her daughter died of colon cancer a few years after undergoing three rounds of egg retrieval to raise money for her tuition at Stanford University. Schneider testified that the process of ovary hyperstimulation was responsible for the cancer, which is rare among healthy young females.
Gallagher said that she has contacted sympathetic state lawmakers to overrule the Empire State Stem Cell Board’s ruling on large payments. “It probably won’t happen in this legislative session, but in the fall we are somewhat hopeful that we will be able to do this. The health of young women is at risk.”
Stephen Vincent writes
from Wallingford, Connecticut.