The Empire State Stem Cell Board has announced it will allow researchers to pay women up to $10,000 for providing eggs for use in stem-cell research. The fee is similar to the amount paid to women who provide eggs for use in infertility treatment. New York is the first state to authorize such payments, a policy discouraged by the National Academy of Sciences. The board was motivated to go against prevailing political opinion by a simple fact: women are not stepping forward to give their eggs without compensation. Researcher Kevin Eggan at Harvard spent two years and $100,000 on advertising and received only one egg donation.
Why should women give their eggs to Harvard for free? Men have been getting paid for giving sperm for years, and egg donation is far more involved and carries greater risk. Egg retrieval usually involves three weeks of hormone treatment and frequent visits to the doctor for blood and ultrasound. The procedure itself involves using an ultrasound-guided needle to remove the mature eggs. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine estimates the whole process will require about 56 hours of a woman’s time. While researchers agree that not enough is known about its risks, what is known shows low complication rates.
Feminists have been weighing in on this issue as related to assisted reproduction for some time, and responses to this new possibility will likely fall into one of two camps: One believes that women can be trusted to make good decisions about their own bodies even when risks are involved; the other believes that women need to be protected from science, medicine, corporations and themselves -- especially when reproduction is involved. All are concerned about the possibility that paying for eggs will encourage low-income women to submit to collection procedures and the risks associated with them for the money. But I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing, as long as the risks are explained and those who donate are covered for complications.
Women’s choices, especially low-income women’s choices, are almost always constrained in some way. Those constraints are not a reason to deny women choices; they are a reason to extend them as much as possible. If selling her eggs for IVF or stem cell research provides a woman with a return she considers worth the risk -- and remember, the risk here is not huge -- then who is equipped to say she cannot take it?
Ron Green, a bioethicist at Dartmouth College who believes in autonomy, got to the heart of the matter when he told the Washington Post: “It’s discriminatory and sexist not to pay for eggs” and “paternalistic and protective to say that [women] can’t make this decision.” Right on, Ron Green.