Regenerative Medicine

Pressuring Women to Freeze or Donate Their Ova (9/06)

Fears of Exploitation by Biotechnology Mount

Women are under increasing pressure to freeze their ova or to donate them for research purposes. Recently a director of a fertility service in West Midlands, England, recommended that women freeze their eggs early so as to avoid problems when trying for a pregnancy in later years.

Gillian Lockwood's comments came just prior to a speech she was due to make at a meeting of the British Fertility Society in Glasgow, the Scotsman newspaper reported Sept. 7.

"Women in their 30s who may want children in the future should be encouraged to consider freezing their eggs for future use," Lockwood said. While many women who currently freeze their ova do so for reasons related to medical problems such as cancer, Lockwood said she expected the number of "social egg-freezers" to increase.

Women are also being asked to donate their ova for research. An English fertility center in the city of Newcastle was given permission by the government to pay women undergoing in vitro fertilization treatment to donate eggs for research using cloning, the BBC reported July 27.

The authorization, by the British Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, is important because it marked the first time that payment can be given for IVF eggs used in research. Previously researchers were only allowed to ask women to donate the ova. The go-ahead will enable researchers to offer couples who need IVF, but cannot afford it, the possibility of having some of their costs offset in return for donating eggs for research.

The decision brought protests from Josephine Quintavalle, a co-founder of the Hands Off Our Ovaries group. "The primary concern should be what is in the woman's best interests," she contended. "That is to have the most minimally invasive treatment with the minimum use of drugs and the minimum harvesting of eggs."

Coalition forces

On its Web site the Hands Off Our Ovaries organization describes itself as being a "coalition of 'pro-choice' and 'pro-life' women, concerned at the growing exploitation of women in biotechnology." Last March 8 the group launched a campaign against the harvesting and marketing of human eggs.

In a press release dated May 11, the group explained it is concerned that the processes used to extract ova "pose serious short-term health risks for women." Apart from short-term problems such as overstimulation of the ovaries, the statement argued that knowledge of the long-term risks is inadequate.

Among the documentation on the Hands Off Our Ovaries Web site is a letter dated February 2005, written by Dr. Suzanne Parisian, a former chief medical officer of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The physician noted that many of the drugs used in procedures to extract ova "have not been adequately studied for long-term safety, nor do some of these drugs have FDA approval for these specific indications."

Moreover, pharmaceutical firms have not been required by either the government or physicians to collect safety data for IVF drugs regarding risk of cancer or other serious health conditions, Parisian warned.

These concerns were echoed in an opinion article published by Katrina George in the newspaper Australian on Aug. 17. George is an Australian member of the Hands Off Our Ovaries group. A debate is now under way in Australia regarding stem cell research in the light of possible changes to federal legislation.

George commented that there is a lot of hype about possible benefits of embryonic stem cells, but silence about the interests of women. Cloning embryos to obtain stem cells, she explained, requires a large supply of ova, not always without risks. Just the week before, the press reported on a woman undergoing IVF treatment in Britain who died after her eggs were obtained.

Guinea pigs

"Cloning always amounts to the commodification of women's bodies," objected George. Concerns exist, moreover, that women will be pressured into giving consent for the donation of their eggs. And monetary incentives might induce poor women to undergo treatment, without considering sufficiently the health risks. "Politicians and scientists must not use women as guinea pigs in a technology that has no proven benefits," she concluded.

Such concerns received support in a study published Aug. 9 by Nature magazine. The article, entitled "Health Effects of Egg Donation May Take Decades to Emerge," explained that specialists in reproductive medicine consider that there is insufficient information about the long-term risks of drugs used to stimulate ovulation.

In fact, some studies suggest the drugs may be linked to the development of certain cancers. One of these, carried out by Louise Brinton at the U.S. National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, collected the medical records of more than 12,000 women who received ovulation-stimulating drugs between 1965 and 1988. Among the results was the finding that the women were around 1.8 times more likely to develop uterine cancer.

Worries also have surfaced in Spain, following a publicity campaign by a clinic in Barcelona to attract egg donors. According to an Aug. 2 report in the daily ABC, the clinic needs ova to carry out fertility treatments.

In addition to Spanish and Catalan the advertisements were published in Russian and Polish. This led members of the European Parliament to suspect the clinic was targeting poor women immigrants. Women from Russia and Poland are sought for egg donations, as many of those undergoing IVF treatment express preferences for blue-eyed blond children.

Although payments for egg donation are not allowed under Spanish law, that clinic offered between €500 and €900 ($633 to $1,140) to pay for the "discomforts" suffered during the process of egg donation. In the wake of the ads the European Commission asked local authorities to investigate the question of monetary payments.

Baby trade

Further problems were highlighted in a lengthy article published in the English Daily Mail newspaper on July 18. The paper denounced the flourishing trade in human eggs from Eastern Europe.

Many British women, among them 62-year-old Patti Farrant who gave birth in July, use eggs coming from women in Eastern Europe. The donors, tempted by payments of between 150 to 300 pounds ($281 to $562) that are equivalent to several months' salary, run the risk of damaging their own hopes for a baby. The article cited cases of women from countries such as Romania, whose ovaries are so damaged as a result of ova donation that they are now infertile.

Women from countries such as the United States are also at risk, the Boston Globe explained June 25. Young women burdened with debts or college loans are tempted by payments that can range from $5,000 to $15,000 to donate their eggs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there were 14,323 embryo implantations using donated eggs in 2003 in the United States. There is little control, however, over either the business practices of ova donation or the health risks.

[LONDON, 16Sept06, Zenit.org, ZE06091602]