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Egg Donation: To Pay or Not to Pay?

A recent blog post in the academic journal, Nature, explores a new report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (an organization in England that examines and reports on ethical issues in biology and medicine), suggesting that women who donate their unfertilized eggs to research deserve to be compensated. Currently in the United Kingdom, direct compensation for egg donation to research or for infertility treatments is prohibited by law. In the US, while direct compensation for egg donation to infertile couples/individuals varies by state, the only state that is allowed to use public funding to purchase unfertilized eggs for research purposes is New York.

The report argues that since egg donors are not compensated, researchers must rely on altruistic egg donors, which are few and far between. In a letter written to the academic journal Cell Stem Cell, scientists Kevin Eggan and Douglas Melton from Massachusetts discuss the issues they ran into when trying to recruit egg donors for a study they did in 2006-2007. They spent $100,000 on advertising over a 2-year period and although they initially received over 200 respondents, once they found out they would not be compensated, all but one dropped out of the study. Eggan and Melton’s findings suggest that if direct compensation for unfertilized eggs were legalized, more women would participate in egg donation for research purposes.

Ethical concerns and objections have been raised regarding egg donation, one in particular – the exploitation of the poor and disenfranchised. Some scholars and ethicists argue that if egg donation were monetized, it would lead to the comodification of the vulnerable, particularly poor and college-aged women. If a price tag were put on eggs, might a woman discount the burdens of submitting to egg stimulation and retrieval in exchange for the chance to earn $5,000 to $10,000, the going rate for eggs used in infertility treatments?

The flip side to this argument is that labeling this practice exploitative is overprotective and paternalistic. Why should egg donors for research be required to be more altruistic than those giving their eggs for reproductive purposes? Why compensate one for their time, burden, expenses and risks, but not the other?  Also, it is argued that there is a greater social value in donating eggs for research than there is in donating eggs for infertility treatments. Although at the Oncofertility Consortium, our scientists do not do research on donated eggs, they do study donated human ovarian tissue which is essential for advancing clinical practice in fertility preservation.

There are a number of arguments that can be made (and have been) for or against compensatory egg donation, but the fact remains that researchers residing in areas that compensate egg donors have higher participatory rates for their studies. This suggests that with the proper protocols in the place (i.e., a national registry which tracks egg donors limiting the amount of times they can donate, proportional and modest payments to egg donors, etc…), compensating egg donors for research studies may yield higher participation rates.

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