“Eggsploitation” of Women through Egg Donation
One of the ethical violations that led to charges against South Korean cloning researcher Hwang Woo-Suk was that he used female lab assistants as egg donors.1 Embryonic stem-cell research requires cloned human embryos. Embryos are fertilized eggs. So, Professor Hwang threw moral considerations to the wind and used his own assistants as research tools. In fact, increasing numbers of women around the world are being solicited for their eggs for the purposes of medical experimentation. The problems with egg donation for reproductive purposes are sufficiently strong to avoid the practice, but what about egg donation for research? Are there ethical reasons not to donate one’s eggs?
First, egg donation poses significant health risks. An egg donor receives daily injections of powerful hormones (usually for at least two weeks), serial blood tests, and ultrasounds to determine if eggs are ready to be harvested. The hormone injections are typically tailored to the response. When the eggs are ready to be “harvested”—i.e., surgically removed—the woman undergoes an outpatient surgical procedure known as needle aspiration, where (usually) 10-20 eggs are removed. If all goes well, the bloating and discomfort will only last a few days. Needle aspiration may cause bleeding. In rare cases it is possible to puncture the bowel, bladder, or nearby blood vessels. Though unlikely, major abdominal surgery may be needed to repair serious damage to the pelvic organs.
Another possible complication of egg donation is the development of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) when too many eggs develop following the hormonal stimulation of the ovaries. This is at least uncomfortable, but may be more harmful, and, in rare cases, death can result. In mild OHSS, there may be abdominal pain, pressure, and swelling. In moderate OHSS, careful monitoring, bed rest, and pain medications may be necessary. Severe OHSS is rare, but can cause serious medical complications, which may include blood clots, fluid build-up in the lungs, kidney failure, and shock. The donor’s own future fertility may be at risk due to these factors. Add to this mix the emotional baggage of relinquishing parental rights, and the physical and emotional fallout can be substantial.2
In addition to the health risks, it is more likely that poorer women will be tempted to sell their eggs than wealthier women. In March 2005, The Scotsman, a national newspaper in Scotland, revealed that a clinic in Britain was paying Romanian women for their eggs, exporting the eggs back to England, where British couples were using them for assisted reproduction. The Romanian women were being paid between £200 and £300 (about $350-$550 US), significantly below the “market rate” in other countries.3 Women who are well-off financially will not sell their eggs for those prices, thus, poor women will likely be exploited for their eggs.
While Christians should support ethical research, egg donation poses risks that should make women and policymakers reject it. Sadly, some women learn too late that egg donation is no fairy tale. In fact, it can be a nightmare. However, concern for the health of donors is not the only factor that should concern Christians. God made every human being in His own image (Gen 1:26-28). Therefore, women—especially poor women—should not be exploited for their “reproductive capacities.” Neither should women be treated as egg farms. The rank commercialization of a woman’s eggs objectifies women in the same way prostitution and pornography objectifies them. It treats them as “human hens,” not as persons. So, no matter how much someone is willing to pay for a woman’s eggs for reproduction or research, the grotesque moral and social costs are too high to endorse it.
Kim Tae-gyu, “Hwang Admits In-House Egg Donations,” The Korea Times, November 24, 2005, http://times.hankooki.com/lpage/200511/kt2005112418515810440.htm (accessed July 27, 2006).
These complications are outlined more fully in a pamphlet published by the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, “Thinking of Becoming an Egg Donor?” New York State: Department of Health, November 2003, http://www.health.state.ny.us/nysdoh/infertility/eggdonor.htm (accessed July 27, 2006).
Karen McVeigh, “Police Probe Clinic under Suspicion of ‘Exploiting’ Egg Donors,” The Scotsman, March 10, 2005, http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/international.cfm?id=261532005 (accessed July 27, 2006).