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Should Women Be Paid for Their Eggs?

In some states donors aren't allowed to be paid for their eggs - they can only be compensated for their travel

Image: frank3.0

Researchers who work with human eggs have a problem: the eggs they need are difficult to collect. Human egg donors have to go through screening, testing, appointments and surgeries. Stanford estimates that the average egg donation requires 60 hours at the doctors office. But in some states donors aren’t allowed to be paid for their eggs—they can only be compensated for their travel. A new bill in California seeks to change that, but California governor Jerry Brown has promised to veto it should it pass.

California isn’t the first state to consider a bill like this. Many states don’t have any kind of regulations on egg donations. In Oregon, one of those states, a recent study paid $3,000 to 7,000 for eggs that successfully created stem-cell lines. In 2009, New York became the first state to explicitly state that women could be paid for donating their eggs to research. But in other states like California and Massachusetts, researchers can’t pay. The bill in California seeks to lift that ban, allowing researchers to pay women more than just a few hundred dollars for so-called “direct expenses” like travel.

The arguments in favor of paying women are numerous. First, researchers in states that can’t pay are competing against private fertility clinics that can. A woman can make $50,000 at these clinics. Harvard recently had to spend $100,000 in advertising to get a single egg donor who they couldn’t pay. Beyond competition, proponents of paying women point out that people who volunteer for studies are paid. “We see the donation of eggs for research purposes as really quite comparable to people who volunteer for phase I medical trials,” Albert Weale, a member of a U.K. panel on the ethics of paying for egg donation, told Science Insider.  The Hastings Center, a bioethics institution, points out that everybody involved in the egg donation process gets paid—the doctors, nurses, receptionists—except the woman actually donating her eggs.

But there are good reasons to be wary of payment as well. Opponents of payment say that they worry about financial coercion. “What situations are women going to put themselves in to pay the bills?” asked Diane Tober from the Center for Genetics and Society. Egg donation is a difficult procedure and isn’t without side effects and risks. Opponents argue that people in desperate situations might agree to risks they don’t fully understand. But that is true of non-research based egg donation as well, says the Hastings Center:

It seems absurd to require that women who want to support embryo research (without with, it should be noted, infertility treatment would not exist, and cannot further progress) should be required to be more altruistic than those who give their eggs for reproductive purposes. Moreover, as the ethics board pointed out, the social value of the research is potentially greater than that of enabling individuals to reproduce.

Brown cited the uncertain risks in his veto statement. “Not everything in life is for sale, nor should it be,” he said. “In medical procedures of this kind, genuinely informed consent is difficult because the long-term risks are not adequately known. Putting thousands of dollars on the table only compounds the problem.” Problem is, they’re already there: even if California’s policy stays the same, other states will continue to pay women for their time and discomfort during the donation process.

More from Smithsonian.com:

This Woman Wants You to Buy Her, Piece by Piece
The Man Who Deserved ’66 Percent of the Credit’ for Cloning Dolly Has Died

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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