Awhile back I blogged about new moms selling breast milk to make a little money while they are nursing their newborns. Breast milk is full of nutrients and has anti-allergy properties that make it very beneficial for newborns. But because not all new mothers can or want to nurse their babies, there’s a demand for this nutrient-dense food. Nursing is also good for moms and is linked to lower incidents of breast and ovarian cancer, diabetes and other diseases. Sounds like a win-win, so why shouldn’t women be able to sell their milk then?
Now comes a related issue: whether women who donate their eggs to fertility clinics have the right to argue that prices for their eggs shouldn’t be capped. In both cases – breast milk and egg – there’s a concern that women will be manipulated by the promise of money to do what they otherwise would not do at risk to their health.
A group of women have filed a class action lawsuit challenging industry guidelines suggesting a $10,000 limit on compensation for women who donate their eggs. They say since there’s no price limit on donations of sperm, this is an unfair and illegal limit.
I agree with them. Egg donation is an $80 million market and donating eggs involves a lot of discomfort and health risks. It requires weeks of hormone injections to stimulate the ovaries, ultrasounds, and surgery. As one of the plaintiffs who is a three-time donor noted, “The guidelines are skewed toward the intended parents, toward the industry making more money and business.” What about the donors?
In 2000, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine established the guidelines, stating that compensation over $5,000 requires “justification,” and that more than $10,000 is “beyond what is appropriate.” The amounts have never been adjusted.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine argues that capping the price ensures that low-income young women are not drawn to donate by a huge payout. The fear is that if the compensation is too high, there might be an incentive for donors to lie about their medical history.
As experts argue, there is a pressing need for research on whether the hormones given to egg donors increase risk of cancer or create other problems among repeat donors. The reality is that doctors, clinics and agencies who recruit donors and harvest the eggs focus on the recipients, not the donors, and paying for egg donation is expensive.
The best comment came from a recent New York Times article in which Debora L. Spar, the president of Barnard College in New York and the author of a book on the assisted reproduction industry noted, “Our whole system makes no sense. We cap the price because of the yuck factor of commodifying human eggs, when we should either say, ‘Egg-selling is bad and we forbid it,’ as some countries do, or ‘Egg-selling is OK, and the horse is out of the barn, but we’re going to regulate the market for safety.’”
Doctors, hospitals, and other medical professionals make money on egg donation and no one caps their fees. Similarly, the women who donate eggs should be free to get a price that is commensurate with the value of those eggs to the recipient, without a fee cap in place.