Scientists Are Fighting Over Whether Egg Donors Should Be Paid
July 31, 2016
Scientists say that paying women for eggs will allow them to do crucial research, but women’s health advocates say the law could harm women.
In California, women who donate their eggs to infertile couples are paid — and sometimes, paid lavishly. Not so if they want to donate their eggs to science.
But a bill headed to the California state senate on Monday could change that. Sponsored by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), the leading body for the fertility industry, AB 2531 would overturn a 2006 law barring researchers from paying women.
The bill is pitting some scientists who want to use the eggs for research against women’s health advocates, who say it would incentivize poor women to take unnecessary health risks.
“It’s needed to correct a strange and outdated feature in California law,” ASRM spokesperson Sean Tipton told BuzzFeed News. Women are paid when they donate eggs to make babies, and people are paid when they are research subjects, he noted. “But if you combine the two, you can’t be compensated. I don’t think that makes any sense,” Tipton said.
Adding urgency to the issue, many scientists are eager for more eggs to study cloning, stem cells, and fertility in a state that invests more in biomedical research than any other.
“A number of our members at some of California’s very fine research institutions tell us that they have a hard time finding women to donate eggs for research purposes because compensation is not allowed,” Tipton said.
Some labor activists are also in favor of the bill, as it would let more women be paid for the work of enduring the painful and potentially risky procedure.
But opponents say that financially incentivizing women to donate could push them to make risky decisions they otherwise wouldn’t. The long-term health effects of repeated egg donation remain unknown, they say. So incentivizing women to go through the invasive, 10-day procedure for scientific research could end up doing more harm than good.
The fertility industry is booming and largely unregulated, leaving most fights to play out in court. In the past year, controversial cases in California have dealt with how much to pay donors, whether to tax that payment, and how the IRS should classify the work of egg donation.
As more couples turn to assisted reproductive technology, the value of eggs has increased: The payout is often $5,000 to $10,000, though few numbers exist on how many women donate and for how much.
The health risks are also unknown. Women who donate eggs are typically sent home with little or no-follow-up, and there has been scant data collected on the frequency or severity of short- or long-term adverse reactions.
Earlier this year, a group of egg donors filed a lawsuit, also in California, alleging price-fixing in the industry. They won, leading the ASRM to remove its recommended cap of $10,000 per donation.
Partially as a result of the settlement, payment for egg donors in the private market has increased, according to Melissa Brisman, a New Jersey-based lawyer who sometimes represents donors. If research institutions are to remain competitive, she said, they have to be able to offer women compensation for their eggs comparable to what private individuals would pay.
“No one is going to donate the eggs to research if they can give them to another couple for more money,” Brisman said.
In fact, many scientists in California say that their ability to do research in this space is limited by the short supply of eggs, the vast majority of which are discarded leftovers from women going through in-vitro fertilization.
“There’s a lot of research that just doesn’t even occur in California because you don’t have access to the healthy eggs for research,” Marcelle Cedars, the director for the Center of Reproductive Health at UCSF who does fertility research using eggs, told BuzzFeed News. Ironically, this includes research that might increase the efficiency and lower the risks of IVF.
The California rule is especially contradictory, Cedars says, since volunteers in clinical trials or other research studies are always paid for participation.
Cedars pointed out that when New York made a similar change to its laws in 2009, it saw an influx of researchers looking to study everything from stem cells to fertility. Besides California, only South Dakota and Massachusetts prohibit researchers from paying women to donate their eggs.
The new California bill could mean that women who might not find success donating to couples — because of their race, weight, or SAT scores, for example — will now have a new market opportunity. But scientists probably will not offer as high of a payment as couples on the private market.
“You are essentially appealing to women who are poor or cash-strapped,” Kevin McCormick, spokesman for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which has no official stance on the new bill, told BuzzFeed News by email. Others say this view is paternalistic because it questions the decisions of some women but not others. “You shouldn’t assume that poor women are stupid,” Tipton said.
Intriguingly, the largest advocacy group for egg donors, We Are Egg Donors, which lobbies for the financial and health rights of donors, is not supporting the bill. It sees it not as a boon to women, but rather as an expansion of the too-powerful fertility industry.
“ASRM is pretty aggressive in terms of expanding the scope of the fertility industry,” Raquel Cool, a member of the group who testified before the state legislature, told BuzzFeed News. That lucrative industry, she said, “is not taking steps to consider the health considerations of egg donors. Those feel very much like an afterthought.”
Although the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is against paying women for donating eggs to scientific research, it has no official stance on the new bill. An earlier version of this article said it was against the bill. Jul. 31, 2016, at 11:15 a.m.