Your ovaries are tiny goldmines. Over 5,000 American babies each year are born from eggs "donated" to In Vitro Fertilization clinics or couples -- but in reality, those eggs are rarely donated. Instead, as you've probably gleaned from the backpage ads of alt-weeklies, some families are willing to pay big money for egg donors. The average payment for a US egg donor, according to Harvard researcher Deborah Spar, is $5,000.
But strangely, until now, it has been illegal to pay women who give eggs for research rather than reproduction. This month New York state okayed cutting checks to women who undergo (often difficult) weeks of hormone treatment to donate eggs for stem cell research.
The state expects a backlash and it's getting some from bioethics and religious groups. But the legal change raises the question of whether it's okay to pay women for their eggs at all - and if so, why have different rules for research eggs and babymaking eggs?
Deborah Spar, PhD, the Harvard researcher investigating the ethical issues of commercializing maternity, has a good, concise article spelling out the bioethics debate about paying women for eggs. She points out that the problem is not so much paying women for eggs, but that there are few regulations that protect female donors' health. "There are no federal guidelines covering egg donation; donors thus learn only what their brokers, clinics, or research laboratories choose to tell them," Spar wrote in 2007. "We have not thought deeply about what makes sense for science, for women, and for society. Instead, we are only fighting about the price."
Just take a quick gander at the unsettling ads that come up when you search for egg donation -- with no consistent regulations, it's definitely possible women are being lured in for the money and not told all the health impacts of hormone therapy.
Politicians and women's health advocates raised a safety alarm several years ago when national newspapers picked up stories of thousands of college women (with "top test scores and picture-perfect looks"...) selling eggs to pay tuition. Some resulting state laws are good, requiring doctors and "egg brokers" to tell women about the host of health problems that could result from the egg creation and extraction process.
But some states, like Arizona, wound up banning payments for egg donors. While protecting female donors, that also ends up limiting scientific research and the options for couples who want to become pregnant. So in my opinion, Spar is right. Is NY is going to start paying women modest sums (likely not over $5,000, according the state decision) for their eggs, they had better follow up with legislation that makes sure donors know that they're dipping their fertile toes into a potentially dangerous medical practice.