Payment for Eggs Donated for Research Under Debate

Whether women should be paid for donating their eggs for research is under debate after Korean scientists recently revealed they paid their eggs donors. A National Academy of Sciences panel has urged banning payment. But others say, given the time and discomfort associated with the procedure, remuneration is reasonable.

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Here's an ethical question: Should women be paid for providing their eggs for research? That question has gained new attention thanks to a cloning pioneer in Korea. Last week he admitted that his team paid women for the eggs used in a breakthrough cloning study; previously he had said that they weren't paid. Several American scientists want to replicate the Korean cloning feat, and as NPR's Joe Palca reports, that is prompting a debate over the ethics of egg donation.

JOE PALCA reporting:

The human egg can do things that, even to a scientist, seem magical. Take an egg, insert the DNA from an adult skin cell and, presto, you've got an egg that will produce a cloned embryo that's genetically identical to the adult. That gives researchers the ability to make embryonic stem cells from anybody, something scientists say should be useful both for understanding and treating disease. Stem cell biologist Ann Kiessling says scientists know that getting an adequate supply eggs is ethically tricky.

Dr. ANN KIESSLING (Bedford Stem Cell Research Foundation): We're just hoping for the day when we don't need eggs. Right now we still do. And so for some period of time, until we can reproduce what an egg does in a test tube, we're going to have to ask people to go through what's a pretty complicated and invasive procedure.

PALCA: Kiessling is a researcher at the Bedford Stem Cell Research Foundation. She says an egg donor can expect to spend as many as 100 hours in the donation process. First there are extensive physical and psychological exams, then come powerful drugs that make a woman produce a dozen or more eggs in a typical cycle and then surgery to retrieve the eggs. The process is not without risk, and Kiessling says women should be compensated for their time.

Dr. KIESSLING: All normal human subjects for biomedical research are reimbursed for their time. And I think it just comes down to: Is someone's time--reimbursing for their time a reasonable expense?

PALCA: But so far many regulatory bodies have decided against reimbursement. Korea bans payment; so does California. That state plans to spend $3 billion on stem cell research. Earlier this year a national panel of scientists and ethicists recommended that everyone follow California's example. The concern is that women will become exploited for their eggs. Ann Kiessling is aware of these concerns but thinks they're misguided.

Dr. KIESSLING: I don't think anybody's comfortable with asking someone to donate eggs if you have any sense that they're doing it because they're looking at it as a second job. That's not right.

PALCA: Kiessling says the real question is whether scientists do an adequate job of explaining their research to potential donors.

Dr. KIESSLING: Does this person really understand what's involved, and is this person really doing this because they're interested in the research and not in compensation?

PALCA: But bioethicist Laurie Zoloth of Northwestern University thinks the decision by Korea and California to ban payments is the right one.

Ms. LAURIE ZOLOTH (Northwestern University): There's a strong argument that women should be able to, with full informed consent, be able to use their bodies and sell their bodies. And there's even a strong argument that says, `Why should a woman not be able to sell the only thing that society may find valuable?' I've heard those arguments and those narratives. I just don't agree with them.

PALCA: Zoloth says researchers who need eggs in Korea have no trouble obtaining them without payment. Large numbers of Korean woman are volunteering to be donors apparently because of national pride in Korea's cloning achievements.

Ms. ZOLOTH: I actually don't think it's a bad thing to socially encourage and celebrate acts of generosity, of sacrifice, of self-sacrifice and of donation.

PALCA: But American researchers may not be able to count on national pride to obtain their eggs for research. For one thing, women willing to go through the trouble of egg donation can get $5,000 or more from commercial fertility clinics. Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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