Regenerative Medicine

Women's Health: Consequences of Human Egg Donation

Testimony of Pia de Solenni before the Massachusetts State Legislature’s Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies
    
FRC’s Director of Life and Women’s Issues Pia de Solenni, Ph.D. gave the following testimony before the Massachusetts State Legislature’s Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies regarding adult stem cell research and embryonic stem cell research on February 16, 2005.

I am Dr. Pia de Solenni, director of life and women’s issues at the Family Research Council in Washington, DC. I speak to you today as an ethicist who has researched adult stem cell research and embryonic stem cell research from many perspectives.

Let’s take a moment to examine where we’re at in the cloning debate. While reproductive cloning has been removed from center stage, the focus on so-called therapeutic cloning continues to grow. At the same time, little attention has been given to advances in adult stem cell research. I would ask that these two research binders be included in the record of today’s testimony. This one represents a fraction of the advances in human adult stem cell research just for 2004. Over 30 peer-reviewed studies are included. Many more are available. This other binder, you will note, is curiously empty. It contains treatments from human embryonic stem cell research. After more than 20 years, cloning and embryonic stem cell research have not yielded a single cure. The hype is not unlike that surrounding the debates about the rain forest and fetal tissue research during the 1990s.

I also include a letter from June 18, 2004, written on behalf of Dr. Elias Zerhouni at the National Institutes of Health. The letter clearly details, “Currently, there are no proven therapies using embryonic stem cells, fetal germ cells or stem cells from cloned embryos to treat human diseases and disorders.” The letter also details about 80 successful treatments from adult stem cells. Members of this Committee, the science on embryonic stem cell research speaks for itself. At the same time, private investors have spoken by not investing. That’s why the industry needs a push from the government. Now, let us consider some of the ethical implications.

The focus on therapeutic cloning has been aimed at our heartstrings, prophesying cures for our loved ones, friends, and even movie stars. But what about the women who will be required even for these apparently noble intentions? Advocates of embryonic stem cell research are poised to create an industry built on the bodies of millions of women. The industry needs women because it needs our eggs. Somatic cell nuclear transfer involves transferring the nucleus from one of the specialized cells in the human body into an egg in which its own nucleus has been removed. No matter whether the clones or embryos are created for research or reproductive purposes, they must be created by using a woman’s egg.

Dr. David Prentice, formerly a professor of life sciences at Indiana State University, now at the Family Research Council, has crunched the numbers to show how many women would be involved just to cure diabetes. To date, the highest cloning efficiency with animals has been 20-30 percent. This means about 50 eggs per animal treatment are required. In the US, there are 17 million diabetes patients. Given the best successes with animal cloning, scientists would have to obtain a minimum of 850 million eggs, harvested from at least 85 million women. Scientist Peter Membaerts gives an even higher estimate of 100 eggs per treatment. According to the 2000 census, there are about 60 million American women of reproductive age. Where will the other eggs come from? And would all 60 million American women be amenable to this?

Women whose eggs are harvested undergo a long, uncomfortable, painful, and potentially dangerous process called ovarian hyperstimulation. Some of the drugs used have never been approved for this use by the FDA. Complications from the procedure include a potential link to ovarian cysts and cancers, severe pelvic pain, rupture of the ovaries, stroke, possible negative effects on future fertility, and even death.

In clinical studies using Pergonal for ovarian hyperstimulation, 2.4-5.5 percent of women developed complications. If we’re talking about 80 million women, that means at least 800,000 of them would develop complications. 224,000 would be classified as severe cases.

Similarly, the FDA’s data on Lupron, another drug used for ovarian hyperstimulation, records a death rate of .5 percent. That means we could expect 400,000 deaths in the group of 80 million women required to treat diabetes – just one disease.

Knowing this, most women would not consent to egg harvesting unless they felt they had no choice. Those who would consent would be women needing money, typically poor, ethnic minority women, students, and women from developing countries. Such women are not in a position to give informed consent because their financial need impairs their ability to adequately weigh the risks involved.

Calla Papademus was 22 and a Stanford student when in Fall 2000, she answered an ad offering $50,000 for egg donation. She agreed to $15,000. During the process of ovarian hyperstimulation, Calla suffered a stroke. For eight weeks, she slipped in and out of a coma. Eventually, she recovered, only to regret her decision.

In February 2003, a 33-year-old Irish woman died from ovarian hyperstimulation. She had hoped to conceive a child through in vitro fertilization.

For different reasons, both women underwent ovarian hyperstimulation as a way to attain their dreams and goals. Endorsing any form of legislation supporting embryonic stem cell research means putting even more women at risk of serious illness, disability, or even death.

In closing, let me make clear that this debate is not about abortion. This research has drawn opposition from both sides of the abortion debate, including Judy Norsigian, Executive Director of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. Judy and I stand on opposite sides of the abortion debate. But we are united in our conviction that women should not be harmed or put as risk as they would be if we were to promote embryonic stem cell research. The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective has articulated its position in a statement supported by 100 signatories, most of whom are considered key supporters of abortion. I have that statement here and ask that it also be entered in the record.

As long as profit depends on women’s bodies, we can be sure that the most vulnerable women will be aggressively pursued regardless of the risk to their health and happiness. In the name of science, the industry will literally have its hands inside the bodies of hundreds of millions of poor, disadvantaged women. As a woman, I can assure you that I do not want my body, or that of any woman or man, sacrificed on the altar of science. As an ethicist, I assure you that doing so constitutes a grave violation of human rights just as we saw in the Tuskegee experiments here in the United States and in the Nazi experiments of World War II. Thank you.

Family Research Council