Women who donate their unfertilized eggs to researchers deserve to be paid, claims a new report from an influential independent body based in the United Kingdom.
“We think that it’s only fair for their contribution to be properly recognized,” said Bobbie Farsides, a bioethicist at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, at a press briefing in London today. She was part of a working party convened by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics that put together the new report on human tissue donation. The report also explores issues involving compensating organ donors and their families, when the tissues are used for medical treatments.
In Britain, where direct payment for unfertilized eggs are prohibited, women are allowed to receive discounts on in vitro fertilization treatments in exchange for making some of their eggs available for treatment or research, a procedure referred to as “egg sharing.”
In the United States, egg donation rules vary by state, with some drawing distinctions between eggs used in research and in treatment. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences recently issued guidelines permitting only reimbursement to egg donors for expenses such as travel and lost wages.
In Massachusetts, where payments are banned, stem cell scientists Kevin Eggan and Douglas Melton, of Harvard University, spent two years and $100,000 on advertising to find a single egg donor. They describe their efforts in a recent letter to the journal Cell Stem Cell, noting that dozens of women expressed interest and qualified for egg donation. Many dropped out because of the lack of financial compensation.
“It was our experience that it is impractical to recruit ‘altruistic’ oocyte donors and it suggests that investigators located in states or countries that limit compensation for egg donation are likely to encounter similar difficulties,” Eggan, Melton and his co-authors write.
The Nuffield Council report draws parallels between egg donation for research and early stage clinical trials, where drugs and other treatments are tested on healthy volunteers for their safety, and participants are typically compensated. Unlike women who offer their eggs knowing they may help another woman conceive, those who give their gametes to scientist can be less certain of the direct benefits of their personal donation. Therefore relying on an egg donor’s altriusm alone may not be appropriate, the report says.
The report calls for a pilot scheme to look into paying women who donate their eggs for research. The report did not set a level of compensation, but Farsides said payments ought to be measured in the hundreds not thousands of pounds. Any pilot programme should include ethical oversights typical of other human subject research, as well as a registry to limit repeated egg donation and allow for research into the long-term effects of egg donation. “We are mindful that women should not jeopardize their own reproductive futures,” Farsides said.
The International Society for Stem Cell Research and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine both support some form of remuneration for egg donation.
In a recent Nature paper, Dieter Egli’s team at the New York Stem Cell Foundation Laboratory described a way to make embryonic stem cells by transferring the nucleus of a somatic cell into an unfertilized adult egg. The researchers collected 270 oocytes from 16 different women for their experiments, paying each $8,000. The donors were drawn from women who visited a fertility clinic in New York (which allows compensation for egg donors) and who expressed interest in donating eggs for research, rather than for treatment.
Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority plans to issue its own recommendations on compensation for egg and sperm donors.