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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Egg donation debate should move from payment to safety, HBS author writes

By Elizabeth Cooney, Globe Correspondent

Women who donate eggs for use in stem cell research become part of two debates: One concerns the use of embryos restricted by federal rules and rejected by some on religious grounds; and the other centers on whether women should be paid, as they are when they provide eggs for use in in vitro fertilization.

Debora Spar, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, contends that the debate shouldn't be about paying women for egg donation -- sometimes up to $50,000 -- but rather should focus on the health risks for the women.

Writing in tomorrow's New England Journal of Medicine, she asks whether women can give fully informed consent when there are few long-term studies of the drugs they are given to stimulate egg production and no federal guidelines governing egg donation, or collecting data about it, as there are for organ donation and other medical procedures.

"Certainly, egg donors deserve at least the same levels of information and protection," she writes. "We need to consider the health risks and ways of identifying and mitigating them."

On the question of payment, Spar said in an interview that she applies market principles to egg donation, as she did for reproductive medicine in her book "The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception."

That's more useful than making policies based on emotional, ideological or religious grounds, she said.

"Paying women money to give eggs for one purpose and not the other when the processes are absolutely identical is bad public policy," she said. "I don't have a personal agenda or any skin in the game. The practical side of me is saying this is nuts. This is not a policy that makes sense."

In the NEJM perspective piece she says the issue of payment will have to be resolved to ensure a supply of eggs for stem cell research, based on what has happened in countries that restrict payment for eggs.

"At a minimum we have to clarify the situation," she said. "We need a fresh debate on egg donation and a new set of policies."

Judy Norsigian, executive director of Our Bodies Ourselves and a women's health advocate, said in an interview that the benefits to science are too few and premature to be justified by risks known and unknown to women donating eggs.

"Hopefully, this new attention to the risks of egg extraction will result in research that should have been done long ago and that will enable women to provide true informed consent regardless of the reason they will be providing eggs," she said.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 05:00 PM
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