- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A few years ago, Alexandra, a doctorate student, decided that selling her eggs to a fertility clinic was the perfect way to get an extra $3,000 she needed to pay for her tuition.

But then “things went south,” she recalls in “Eggsploitation,” a new documentary on the health hazards of paid egg donation. Alexandra and two other women, identified only by their first names, say their experiences with egg donation led to hospitalizations, ovary loss, stroke and possibly cancer.

College campuses are filled with ads offering to pay young women large sums of money — as much as $100,000 — for their eggs, which are the “main commodity” of the multibillion-dollar fertility industry, film director Jennifer Lahl said at a recent screening of her film at the conservative Family Research Council.

But no one is speaking out on behalf of these young women when problems and complications arise, said Ms. Lahl, a registered nurse and founder of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, which released the film. The “dirty little secret” of the industry is that life-threatening complications can occur with egg donation, she said.

The documentary is likely to fan a long-running controversy over the ethics, finances and health risks of the procedure. Unlike collecting sperm, egg donation is an involved and drawn-out process involving weeks of hormone injections designed to stimulate the ovaries, followed by a surgical extraction conducted with the use of a local anesthetic.

Alexandra decided that selling her eggs to a fertility clinic was the perfect way to get money for her college tuition. But then "things went south," she recalls in the documentary "Eggsploitation." (Courtesy of eggsploitation.com)
Alexandra decided that selling her eggs to a fertility clinic was the ... more >

In its defense, the fertility industry points to decades of experience it has built with egg donation and says it knows the risks of short-term complications — such as abdominal discomfort and nausea — as well as more severe, longer-term dangers.

The risks “are primarily related to the stimulation drugs that we’re giving,” said Dr. R. Stan Williams, president of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology.

About 1 percent of the time, the process can lead to severe ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), he said. OHSS can lead to other complications, such as thrombosis, stroke or a heart attack. “These [OHSS complications] are extremely rare, but they do occur,” he said.

“Smaller but still significant” risks include internal bleeding from the egg-retrieval procedure and pelvic infection, Dr. Williams said.

But, he added, “there’s no connection between fertility drugs and ovarian cancer or any kind of cancer.”

Information about these rare complications “may or may not be visible” on websites, Dr. Williams said. But “certainly by the time a woman reaches the physician’s office,” she will hear about them, “as it’s the physician’s duty to counsel the patient about the risks of any procedure, and that includes the egg donor.”

The federal Food and Drug Administration has “absolute oversight” of the screening of the donors “so that infectious diseases are not transferred,” and has “an inspection process in place, where they send inspectors out to a random number of clinics each year” to monitor adherence to FDA regulations, Dr. Williams said.

The fertility industry also sets standards and guidelines on egg donation, including payment, he said. It is acceptable to compensate egg donors $5,000, and possibly as much as $10,000 in special circumstances. But advertisements offering $35,000 to $100,000 for egg donations? “We consider those unethical.”

But a study last year published in the Hastings Center Report, a leading bioethics journal, found that a fourth of the egg-donation ads culled from more than 60 colleges offered compensation that exceeded the recommended $10,000 ceiling. In another apparent violation of ethical guidelines, the offered pay went up in tandem with the SAT scores of the average incoming freshmen.

Clinics say they adhere to the guidelines laid down by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, but that so-called egg “brokers” — who link donors and clinics — are far more likely to skirt the rules.

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