On Bioethics

catholic moral standing on the special ethics of life

Archive for frozen eggs/sperms


The fertility industry discriminates against sperm donors, says US sociologist Rene Almeling. Her article this month in the American Sociological Review describes striking inequities in the market for eggs and sperm which, she says, reflect “gendered stereotypes of selfless motherhood and distant fatherhood”.”Staff at egg agencies constantly thank women and encourage them to think about what a wonderful difference they’re making in the lives of recipients,” Almeling says. “The sperm bank staff is appreciative, but men aren’t told how amazing they are and what a great gift they’re giving. They’re treated more like reproductive service workers. They come in. They clock in and out. Their sample is checked for quality. And they’re only paid when they produce an acceptable sample.”

In the market for American gametes, men are typically paid between US$50 and US$75 per donation, while women are paid around $5,000, along with bonuses and thank-you cards. While it is commonly believed that sperm donors are readily available, in fact, few potential male donors meet the standards required by the clinics, while there is an oversupply of women donors. Almeling is investigating why the laws of supply and demand do not appear to work in the gamete market. ~ News-Medical.Net, May 27 



The average payment in the US for egg donation was US$4,217, according to a recent article in the journal Fertility and Sterility. However, at least one centre told the authors that it paid $15,000 for eggs and stories abound of college students being paid tens of thousands of dollars. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine has set guidelines which stipulate that payments of $5,000 or more “require justification” and that payments over $10,000 are not appropriate.

No one is comfortable with payments for eggs, an invasive and uncomfortable process at best, and painful and dangerous at worst. Little research has been done on the long-term effects of fertility drugs.

Bioethicists also worry whether the allure of dollars to cover college fees or credit card bills might cloud young women’s judgement. “We hear about egg donors being paid enormous amounts of money, $50,000 or $60,000,” Josephine Johnston, of The Hastings Center told the New York Times. “How much is that person actually giving informed consent about the medical procedure and really listening and thinking as it’s being described and its risks are explained?”

The problem is that without compensation, women are unlikely to donate eggs, either for fertility treatment or for research. “I just completed an outreach initiative to 21 institutions across the state that we’ve funded,” Dr Geoffrey Lomax, of the Institute of Medicine, said. “No one has had an egg donated specifically for research.” ~ New York Times, May 15




British House of CommonsAfter months of consultation, the British government has released a draft overhaul of its contentious fertility legislation. Many significant changes have been made, but the bellwether issue is the creation of chimeras, or hybrid animal-human embryos. Although there had been signs that the government would ban these, the proposed legislation allows them. Health Minister Caroline Flint denied that it had caved in to pressure from scientists and patient groups. She said that the government always wanted to leave the door open to such research and that scientists had made a strong case for it.Scientists were pleased, although Dr Stephen Minger, head of the stem cell team at King’s College London, lamented that Parliament was too involved. Only scientific and ethical experts were competent to regulate the fast-moving field of embryonic research. “This system of a panel of scientists, bioethicists, lawyers and informed lay members… has always worked perfectly well. It’s the only way to do it. What we definitely want to avoid is government trying to legalise science,” he commented.

Opponents were scathing. Josephine Quintavalle, of the lobby group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said bluntly: “It is appalling that the government has bowed to pressure from the random collection of self-interested scientists and change its prohibitive stance. This is a highly controversial and terrifying proposal, which has little justification in science and even less in ethics. Endorsement by the UK government will elicit horror in Europe and right across the wider world.”

The possibility of creating hybrid embryos was just one amongst many proposals which would have seemed radical when the 1991 decision was first made to permit embryo research and establish the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. These include: 

* A child can be created without a legal father, but two legal mothers. Children do not necessarily need a father in IVF procedures. 
* Embryos can be screened for serious medical conditions. 
* Eggs or sperm can be removed from incompetent persons without their consent. 
* Not-for-profit surrogacy agencies will be able to charge reasonable expenses for organising surrogate mothers.

Although the list of procedures which the government proposes to legalise and regulate is long, a few are explicitly banned. Sex selection is still on the black list, as are artificial gametes, genetic modification of IVF embryos and deliberately selecting a disease or disorder (such as deaf parents choosing to have a deaf child). ~ BBC, May 17; Guardian, May 17 


Although live births from frozen eggs are still only counted in the hundreds, some IVF clinics are quietly optimistic that problems can be overcome, says a report in New Scientist. “There are no guarantees. But a woman is more likely to get pregnant at 40 with one of her eggs frozen in her early 30s than with her 40-year-old eggs,” says Dr Gillian Lockwood, of Midland Fertility Services in the UK.

The debate over egg freezing is not just about its ethical consequences. Because many of the eggs do not survive thawing and because there is a higher rate of loss during pregnancy, some doctors worry that they might be creating a false sense of security amongst clients about their fertility. Nor do doctors know whether it is safe for the baby. Early fears about chromosome damage have faded, but little is known about the risks. And because animal eggs are so different, there have been no animal tests. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine still says that it is an experimental technique and that it should not be widely offered to patients.

The prospect of widespread adoption of egg freezing could also change social norms. Although it is widely touted as a remedy for infertility after women are treated for cancer, IVF clinics’ marketing will probably target women who wish to delay childbirth until after they have achieved their professional goals. In fact, fear of social change is the main reason why egg-freezing is not being promoted more strongly, says Dr Lockwood. “The idea that healthy women should be able to control their own reproduction still frightens people,” she says. ~ New Scientist, Mar 21