What Price the Human Egg?

Morganne Rosenhaus

With spring here and Easter in the rearview mirror, you can't help but think a bit about eggs of all types, among them human eggs. Amidst research on marketing of human eggs, I found this Latin proverb, “All life comes from an egg.”  I find this sentiment a bit dated.  Instead I’d like to suggest something a bit more up-to-date, “All life comes from an egg, but that egg comes at a price.”

After a weekend of being bombarded by the image of an egg, in all flavors, colors, textures and sizes, every time I walked into a grocery store or CVS, I decided to research the history and meaning of this shape, which is so ubiquitous during this time of the year.  I found, centuries ago, the egg was a symbol for life and rebirth, themes especially relevant as spring kicks off and this Easter weekend comes to a close.

However, if we fast-forward hundreds of years to today, colorful candy and plastic eggs are not the only eggs associated with life sold on the marketplace.  Human eggs, or oocytes, appeared in the public marketplace in the late 1970s as part of what has become the fertility industry.  The demand for human eggs developed in two settings: fertility clinics, helping women get pregnant, and research labs, investigating embryonic stem cells.  In fertility clinics, finding a woman willing to supply eggs for another woman who cannot produce her own (egg procurement) began as a very personal affair, one where the recipient’s friends or family were the primary egg providers.  Almost forty years later, this scenario has become a rarity.  Now, egg procurement has taken on a “commercial” feel, as eggs are bought and sold with little personal interaction between the egg provider and the egg recipient.

Accompanying the ‘commoditization’ of human eggs and egg procurement are some moral implications.  Like any consumer, parents are looking for a high-quality product and willing to pay any price; in this case that product is an egg.  We have seen evidence that parents want their egg “donor” to have certain characteristics, from physical attractiveness to intelligence.  On one hand, these parents are the ones paying the exorbitant amount to get the best product they can.  On the other, by seeking out egg “donors” with certain characteristics, the fertility marketplace ascribes monetary worth to some human characteristics over others, which is morally and ethically problematic.

Although the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) and the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART) have issued guidelines regarding compensation for egg “donors,” these guidelines lack the necessary teeth to force compliance.  A study done in 2008 indicated that many member clinics of ASRM and SART are not in full compliance with these guidelines. The guidelines emphasize that $5,000 is the reasonable price for a woman to be paid for her time and risk, but up to $10,000 can be paid in rare cases.  Further, the guidelines take a stab at addressing ethical concerns by stating that compensation should not vary according to the donor’s characteristics.

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Nevertheless, only a week ago, the Hasting Center Report featured an article by Aaron Levine, who discovered that particular women are being solicited and offered more than $10,000 for their prized eggs.  After examining college newspapers from all over the country, he revealed that women at top Ivy League schools are being offered $35,000 to $50,000 dollars for their eggs.  When women have “high quality” characteristics, as defined by those seeking their eggs, the aforementioned guidelines are tossed aside.

Few legislators are interested in placing regulations on any aspect of the fertility industry, so long as its major purpose is to assist in creating children and building families.  Since regulations placed directly on the fertility industry, and more specifically egg procurement, are unlikely, solutions that support and educate individuals about existing guidelines are particularly important.  One of the suggestions provided in the Hasting Center Report is a viable option that takes both into account: encouraging ASRM and SART to contact college newspapers and suggest that ads asking for human eggs be accompanied by ASRM and SART guidelines.  This option has the potential to discourage various egg-procurement agencies from placing ads that counter such guidelines and has the potential to inform prospective egg “donors” of possible risks and reasonable payment.

Amidst my research, I found this Latin proverb, “All life comes from an egg.”  After researching the human egg market, I find this sentiment a bit dated.  Instead I’d like to suggest something a bit more up-to-date, “All life comes from an egg, but that egg comes at a price.”

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