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Human egg trade exploits women

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Human egg cell, Flickr image by remolacha.net fotosThe call by law professor Loane Skene (writing in The Age on 13 July) for women to sell their eggs for embryonic stem cell research ignores the medical evidence of the real harm done to women who allow their eggs to be harvested, and international evidence that the legalisation of the sale of eggs leads to exploitation of women.

Harvesting eggs is a complicated process. There are drugs to stop the menstrual cycle, daily hormone injections for up to six weeks to stimulate the development of multiple eggs, frequent blood tests to check when the eggs are ready, a general anaesthetic and surgery to retrieve the eggs using a needle inserted into the ovaries.

Because of the powerful drugs, one of the main dangers for the woman is Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome (OHSS), which has mild, moderate and severe forms and which affects up to ten per cent of women.

Mild symptoms of OHSS include hot flushes, bloating, moodiness, headaches, weight gain and tiredness. Severe health threats include kidney failure, stroke, future infertility and even death.

In 2005, a number of young Romanian women were paid to sell their eggs to fertility clinics in the UK. One of them was Alina Netedu, who worked at a mattress factory in Bucharest and wanted money for her wedding. She was paid about AUD$300 for 20 of her eggs. Shortly after the harvest, she developed OHSS and was hospitalised for 14 days. Her doctor said she would have died if she had not sought immediate help.

In August 2006, a 37-year-old British woman named Nita Solanki did die after her eggs were retrieved for IVF. The cause of her death was internal bleeding and kidney failure.

Nine years ago in the United States, 22-year-old Stanford University student Calla Papademus agreed to sell her eggs to pay for her college tuition. She suffered a stroke and, while she eventually recovered, was in and out of a coma for eight weeks.

If trade in human eggs is legalised in Australia, there will inevitably be some women who suffer these serious consequences. No one should take these risks simply for a few thousand dollars.

When the plight of the young Romanian women came to light, the European Parliament recognised this as exploitation of vulnerable women. Therefore, on 10 March 2005, they overwhelmingly adopted a resolution to ban trade in human egg cells in the European Union.

The resolution notes the fundamental principle that the human body and its parts 'should not be a source of financial gain'. It cautions that 'the harvesting of egg cells poses a high medical risk to the life and health of women'. And it insists that 'particular attention should be paid to vulnerable individuals'.

European Commissioner for Health Markos Kyprianou warned that 'paying substantial fees to obtain human egg cells ... could open the door to a trade where people in need could be drawn into acts that should instead be motivated by altruistic principles'.

The same danger for exploitation exists in Australia, especially during this Global Financial Crisis. If someone has just lost their job, and is at risk of losing their house, and they're offered $5000 to sell their eggs, they might not really be free to say no.

University of Pennsylvania ethicist Arthur Caplan commented, 'The market in eggs tries to incentivise women to do something they otherwise would not do. Egg sales are not the ethical way to go.'

Blood donors and people who give their organs and tissues for transplant demonstrate that we can freely give parts of ourselves as a generous act of love.

But if we start to sell parts of ourselves, we demean ourselves and lose something of our humanity. We are body as much as we are mind or spirit. If we sell parts of our body, we are selling ourselves. And selling ourselves is incompatible with human dignity.

Trade in human egg cells is an assault on the dignity of women. This is why both the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Council of Europe's Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine include a 'prohibition on making the human body and its parts as such a source of financial gain'.

This is also the main reason why trade in human eggs is not allowed in any State or Territory of Australia.

Australia's stem cells laws come up for review next year, and it is clear that the advocates of embryonic stem cell research will try to legalise trade in human eggs.

Perhaps their passionate advocacy of this cause blinds them to the facts that this will harm the dignity of women, and expose Australian women to exploitation and serious damage to their health.

Kevin McGovernFr Kevin McGovern is Director of the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics.

Topic tags: Caroline Chisholm, Health Ethics, Loane Skene, embryonic stem cell research, sale of eggs, exploit women



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Existing comments

This article has the necessary information in to-day's age of technology and is very informative but lackslooking at the cause of this sad problem.

Nothing was said about the condition of the lives of these women, and what will we do to alleviate the injustices with which they are forced to endure..Perhaps if this problem is addressed, the need to get money will be somewhat lessened.Our first duty could be charity.

Bernadette Introna | 31 July 2009