Archive for October 26th, 2011

Why waste your life working for a few shillings a week in a scullery, eighteen hours a day, when a woman could earn a decent wage by selling her body instead?   –  Emma Goldman

When I first wrote the column entitled “Welcome To Our World” back in January, I had no idea I would find so many examples of spurious, paternalistic arguments against people doing as they like with their own bodies; since then, however, I find them all the time.  The latest is this October 11th article from Reason which addresses claims that paying women for their eggs is somehow “exploitation”:

…Researchers announced that they had created stem cell lines  using human eggs for the first time.  The goal of this research, funded by the private non-profit New York Stem Cell Foundation  (NYSCF), is to create stem cells that could be transformed into tissues and organs for use in transplants and other procedures where a perfect genetic match greatly increases the chances of success.  In this case, the researchers added the nuclei taken from donors’ adult skin cells to unfertilized human eggs.  The stem cells they produced this way contain three sets of chromosomes rather than the standard two…while these triploid cells are therapeutically useless, the researchers believe that studying them will lead to breakthroughs that will enable them to produce transplantable cells some day.

Heretofore, researchers have been able to produce cloned stem cells for lots of different animals but not for humans.  One reason for this difference is that animal eggs for use in stem cell research are much more plentiful than human eggs.  Why is there a shortage of human eggs for research?  In part, because bioethicists endorse…guidelines that forbid paying women more than their expenses for donating eggs for research.  (In contrast, women are free to sell their eggs for thousands of dollars for use in assisted reproduction.)  Fortunately for the NYSCF researchers, New York changed its regulations in 2009, allowing researchers…to obtain 270 eggs from 16 women [by paying them] $8,000 each…a Columbia University fertility clinic…paid the women…in advance and…only asked [them] after harvesting to choose between directing them to either reproductive or research purposes.

Nevertheless, many bioethicists agree with the NAS prohibition and still oppose paying women for their eggs…Marcy Darnovsky…of the Center for Genetics and Society…[said] “We should not put the health of young women at risk, especially to get raw materials for such exploratory investigations”…[and] University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Jonathan Moreno worries that the new stem cell research gets into “paying-for-organs controversy”…Judy Norsigian [of women’s health group, Our Bodies, Ourselves] agreed, “I do have some very serious concerns about such wholesale solicitation of young women for their eggs at such very attractive prices.”  The main risk that women run is…[that] the ovaries become swollen and fluid can leak into the [abdomen]…one woman actually produced 26 eggs.  [But] a [current] review of the medical literature…finds that the risk…is very low…[and] when proper precautions are taken into account the risk…is “diminished even further to almost zero.”

Stony Brook University bioethicist Brooke Ellison and preventive medicine professor Jaymie Meliker note that many opponents of egg buying argue that poor women would disproportionately subject themselves to this risk.  After reviewing the…data, they conclude the risk…“does not appear to be so great as to warrant policies preventing women from donating eggs.”  They also point out lots of activities that society encourages people to undertake including participation in clinical trials and some forms of manual labor are far more risky than egg harvesting.  Note also that another recent study estimated that the risk of death from ovarian hyperstimulation is between 1 in 45,000 and 1 in 500,000, comparable to your lifetime risk of dying of a lightning strike (1 in 80,000).  These mortality estimates are based on an earlier version of the treatment.  Newer protocols cut the risk even more.

So if risks of selling eggs for research are not all that great, why is there so much opposition to it?  Ellison and Brooke mention in passing the possibility of “the existence of paternalism in denying women the right to donate their eggs if they so choose”…“The only difference between providing oocytes (eggs) for reproduction and providing oocytes for research is that only the former can be compensated,” observe [bioethicists Kathryin Hinsch and Robin Fiore].  They add, “Since fears of commoditization and exploitation apply equally to both, the ban on compensation for research oocytes can only be explained by the politics of stem cell research.”  There is a whiff of paternalism wafting off the statements of Darnovsky, Moreno, and Norsigian against allowing women to sell their eggs for research.  If the risks of producing eggs for research are, as recent data suggest, minimal, then surely Hinsch and Fiore are right when they assert:  “It is actually prohibiting payment that is exploitative of women:  not paying them fairly for their time, inconvenience and risk, and their contribution to financially rewarding science.”

Regular readers will recognize the insultingly patronizing notion that poor women are too stupid to make reasoned decisions of risk vs. gain, the crypto-moralistic insistence that anything involving sex is different from anything not involving sex (nobody seems to have any ethical problems with paying for donated blood), and the neofeminist dogma that paying a woman for any service which only women can perform constitutes “exploitation”.  But Hinsch and Fiore are correct, and their final statement is as applicable to prostitution as it is to egg donation; it is indeed the prohibition of payment to women for their time, inconvenience and risk which is inherently exploitative.

One Year Ago Today

October Miscellanea” reports on several topics appropriate for the season:  a death, an exhumation, 1950s horror comics and vampire whores.

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