The Human Egg Cell Raffle



No, it’s not a joke. There’s going to be a raffle on March 17, 2010 and the grand prize is a human egg cell. Is this a publicity stunt or a god-sent blessing for infertile couples?

Who is involved?

Two fertility clinics are involved. The first one is the London-based Bridge Centre. The second one is the Genetics and IVF Institute (GIVF) in Fairfax, Virginia. The two clinics decided to join forces last year to circumvent UK’s rather restrictive IVF laws and profit from the booming infertility tourism industry in the US.

What is the raffle about?

The raffle is open to British women who are in need of egg donors. The winner can choose the donor from a carefully selected pool of American women aged 19 to 32 years of age. As winner, you basically have access to the donors’ data from their physical appearance, ethnicity, profession, educational background and upbringing. You can even look at their baby pictures as a preview of how the resulting baby might look like. The choice is yours. The only matter you have whatsoever no choice is that the donation and the IVF cycle would be performed in the US.

Infertility tourism

Although the UK has always been the world leader in assisted reproductive technology, many believe that its rather restrictive legislations on infertility prevent many British people from benefiting from their county’s leading edge in the field. One such limitation, they say, is the scarcity of donor eggs. Commercialized egg donation in the UK is forbidden. Egg donors are real “donors” in the true sense of the word, and do not get compensated except for a minimal amount to defray expenses. Thus women rely on family and friends for egg donations or on “egg sharers”, women who have excess eggs during fertility treatments. Either way, the pool of donors is limited and the quality of the eggs is not necessarily optimal. According to the Sunday Mail, of the 36,861 women who had IVF in the UK in 2007, only 956 received donor eggs.

In contrast, egg donation in the US is a commercial initiative and the GIVF in Virginia has elevated this commercialization to new dimensions. It claims to receive up to 500 donor applications a month but these applicants will go through a series of rigorous tests in a two-month period including health and sociodemographic background and only about 5 will eventually make the grade.

According to Jennifer Machovina, GIVF donor egg programme co-ordinator.

“Although it is anonymous, they get asked a lot of questions. We want them to understand this is something bigger than a process with a cheque at the end of it. We have about 200 donors on our books and they cover a big range of ethnicities and backgrounds, so people have more chance of getting a donor who looks like them.”

The result is a pool of excellent quality –and expensive – egg donors. Each donor is estimated to receive $10,000 (£6,600) for every donation process.

Despite the Brits leading edge in reproductive medicine, they lack the capacity to maximize the commercial gains from it. The London clinic admits that the raffle idea was purely American and that they were at first “bemused” by the offer by their partners at the other side of Atlantic. According to Michael Summers, a senior consultant at the Bridge:

They [their American partners] are much more market-driven than we are, and they do have some rather more creative techniques.”

The dark side of egg donation

So why are Britain and other countries so restrictive about egg donation? It looks like a win-win situation, with the infertile getting quality eggs and the cashless getting the needed cash. One problem lies in the fact that the process of egg donation presents some health risks to the donor.

According to the Times:

Egg donation is a protracted and painful process that requires treatment with potentially dangerous drugs. A donor has to undergo a course of treatment aimed at stimulating her ovaries to produce a dozen or more eggs in one menstrual cycle, instead of the single ripe egg released every month in natural conditions.”

The other problem is that the anonymity of the whole process makes donors, mostly young women in dire straits, vulnerable to exploitation by fertility clinic. Many of these women go through the process not once but many times to raise money. According to Josephine Quintavalle, founder of Comment on Reproductive Ethics:

“In no other branch of medicine would the ruthless exploitation of the vulnerable be tolerated. These women selling their eggs are taking a huge risk with their health and future fertility simply because they need the money.”

The same anonymity also presents concerns in the future when the blood relationships and consanguinity becomes blurred. The first British woman who used the GIVF donor service had a donor who produces 30 eggs at a time, who had already produced 4 babies in 3 pregnancies (one pregnancy resulted in twins). The relationship between these future children with the same biological mother but non-related birth mothers would be difficult to define.

Criticisms

As expected, criticisms of this venture abound. Some sectors brand the selection process as “baby profiling” service.

Quintavalle continues:

“The capacity of the IVF industry to commodify human life reaches a new low with this latest deplorable initiative.  Imagine a child one day finding out that he or she came into being thanks to such a blatantly commercial initiative.”

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