Is It Ethical to Pay Women to Donate Eggs for Medical Research?

By Eliza Strickland | July 13, 2009 4:11 pm

human oocyteTo obtain a steady supply of unfertilized human eggs for medical research, New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board recently authorized paying women to donate their eggs. The decision has set off a new round of discussion about whether paying for eggs is ethical. The board agreed that women can receive up to $10,000 for donating eggs, a painful and sometimes risky process…. Proponents say compensating women for their eggs is necessary for research, and point out that women who give their eggs for fertility purposes are already paid. Others worry that the practice will commodify the human body and lead to the exploitation of women in financial need [The New York Times]. 

At the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research this week, British researcher Alison Murdoch described a less controversial “egg sharing” program that has met with success. Women struggling to conceive can obtain IVF at a discounted rate, in exchange for donating some of their eggs for research…. In 2008, Murdoch’s team had 191 enquiries from interested women and ended up obtaining 199 eggs from 32 couples. “We are getting donors and we are getting eggs,” says Murdoch. The team is using the eggs in experiments into “therapeutic cloning”, which could ultimately produce stem cells matched to individual patients [New Scientist].

“Therapeutic cloning” relies on a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer. In the process, the DNA from an adult cell, such as a skin cell, is inserted into a human egg that has had its DNA removed. The fertilized egg then begins to develop similarly to a regular embryo, and scientists can harvest stem cells several days later. The resulting cells are genetically matched to the adult tissue donor, and could therefore be used for cell transplants without the risk of immune rejection [Technology Review]. Stem cells can develop into any type of tissue in the body, and are thought to hold great potential for treating diseases.

Some researchers suggest that recent advances in reprogramming adult cells to behave like stem cells may eliminate the need for cloning, and thus for egg donation. But others disagree. “There are many questions you can only answer by studying human eggs,” said Dr. George Q. Daley, a stem cell researcher [The New York Times]. For example, researchers want to compare stem cells created through therapeutic cloning to those created by reprogramming adult cells to understand why the reprogrammed cells behave somewhat differently.

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Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Eric

    Men get paid for sperm (though a marginal amount comparatively), I don’t get the ethical difference.
    I think the “ethical” issue here is more with regard to the same argument over stem cell research in general. Nothing new ethically here.

  • Nick

    It’s a painful and risky procedure, one that potentially can render a woman infertile.

    Men, on the other hand, donate sperm to the tissue just about every day.

  • Sarah

    I suppose if you feel it’s unethical, you could just not donate your eggs.

  • Ellie Klein, Beverly Hills Egg Donation

    The donor compensation to women for donating their eggs was calculated based on the fees provided to men for donating sperm and increased according to the far more significant time that egg donation requires. Egg donors must go to multiple appointments for monitoring and bloodwork and must be diligent about their medication. While egg donation does NOT have a history of danger to a womans health or fertility it does require a great deal of time and attention on her part. Egg donors are educated, responsible young women who generously give of themselves and are compensated for their time and trouble. I cannot imagine anything more ethical than the efforts that egg donors go through to ensure a successful cycle. Additionally, responsible (ethical) egg donation agencies and clinics work hard to make sure that donors do not receive excessive funds and that their number of donations stays within the standards of the ASRM. The ethical debate focused on egg donation has far more to do with controlling the ability of women to make decisions for themselves than it does about the exchange of genetic material.

  • Theresa Erickson, Erickson Law

    I wholeheartedly agree with what Ellie Klein has to say above. Donors are paid for their time and effort, whether to help someone have a family or for research that may one day help saves thousands of lives. And, again, as stated above, don’t donate if you are not comfortable with it. No one is forcing anyone to donate, despite the claims of duress due to the financial incentive.

  • prostitute

    It does seem women should be given this option to earn money. Do ethics, morality and laws always have to deny women the right to make their own choices regarding their bodies and payment for its services? I can’t imagine denying women the right to value their reproductive systems, and value in capitalism comes with a price tag. Are moralists really thinking women need guarding or protecting from selling physical services? Isn’t it more immoral to treat women as incapable of reflective, insightful decision-making based on their own understandings and needs? Isn’t it more immoral to deny them access to money? Sometimes this system seems soooo upside down to me.

  • Jo

    Sarah, the ethical issue being debated is whether women who would otherwise not donate would be coerced into donation due to financial need — not the act of donation itself.

    But I personally fail to see why this is a big ethical dilemma. The potential for abuse is exceedingly minor, as are the potential risks. To consider this particular issue to be one of concern when we are already paying people to participate in drug trials is to suggest that women aren’t capable of deciding for themselves.

  • Pro egg donation

    The problem starts when there are women who are forced to an egg donation. Nevertheless, I am completely in favour of egg donation. Maybe women who donate should be rewarded in another way….??

  • Erica

    Ellie Klein of the Beverly Hills Egg Donation says “While egg donation does NOT have a history of danger to a womans health or fertility it does require a great deal of time and attention on her part.” I believe that she is mistaken. I have been reading a lot of reports on the internet and published in the AMA Journal. Here is a part of the report that I found in the US NEWS.

    “For about a month, the donor actually turns her body over to the process. She must inject herself daily with hormones that stimulate her ovaries to produce up to several dozen ripened eggs rather than the usual one. These mature eggs are sucked out of her swollen ovaries with needles inserted through the vaginal wall. That is not especially pleasant. But the major risks relate to the heavy-duty drug treatments. In about 1 in every 100 women a “hyperstimulation” condition balloons the ovaries to the size of grapefruits and the belly fills with fluid, requiring hospitalization. There is a real but rare danger that an ovary will rupture or be irreversibly damaged, or even that a heart attack or stroke will occur. Brokers that solicit donors don’t have to talk about this.”
    As quoted by US NEWS at:

    Out of this report, my favorite part was; “Brokers that solicit donors don’t have to talk about this.” So maybe Ellie is unaware of the harm that she may be doing to these young women seeing dollar signs. If you told me that I could have irreversible problems, a chance of infertility, and any of the other problems mentioned above, I would not donate.

  • Twitter infertilityhelp
  • A 61-year-old woman gave birth to her own grandchild using an egg donated by her daughter

    A 61-year-old woman gave birth to her own grandchild using an egg donated by her daughter, a clinic in Japan has said.
    The surrogate mother is believed to be oldest woman to have given birth in Japan.

  • Jennifer Angela

    Considerate, sensitive and sensible comment Nick, thank you for that!

    Regarding Mums + Dads in their 60s:

    There are other cases of mothers in their 60s I have heard of. I must admit that I am apalled by Mums AND Dads as OLD as that! Here´s my point of view: Some men AND nowadays some women too will NOT live until the weddings of their own kids. As for the kids, those will be almighty, as their parents are far too old to defend themselves against whatever their offspring is up to! Imagine you are a teenager and your poor old Dad is in his 70s and HE is supposed to scare the hell out of you for being up to no good. Or at least he ought to be taken seriously! Will he though? No way! Mums and Dads in their 70s ought to educate their adolescent children, just like other Mums and Dads should. Elderly people´s kids will love to abuse their parent/s partial deafness in order to swear at them and walk away, which is the kind of thing I happen to know kids do to their old Dads (I can think of one or two examples)… No offence folks, but kids are like animals when it comes to these things: They are against ANYTHING that is UNNATURAL! And old parents or one old parent is something very unnatural indeed! Kids just don´t take folks seriously, once they reach a ripe old age AND represent a parent at that age. Isn´t it so much fun to tease an elderly person and then run away (when you are a child)? Elderly people aren´t overly good at getting up quickly and chasing after you! Or you can say something rather surly/rude and get away with it, because the old lady/gent can´t hear it anyway! Those should cast the first stone who NEVER annoyed any elderly person as a kid! I have to confess I did annoy a few elderly folks myself when I was a child and I enjoyed myself, when a man (I guess he was in his 60s or 70s) referred to me as a “naughty little girl” …

  • Jennifer Angela

    I assume some people are concerned about women and their legal right to donate their eggs, because in certain cases women are forced to acts, that they would normally disapprove of: Ever heard of domestic violence? This is in fact likely to happen within a family unit (or to a so called “couple”), which is not only affected by domestic violence but also suffers from financial issues.

  • Graeme

    In Spain donors are paid to cover their costs. The health authorities cap this amount to stop clinics bartering for “super” donors. Clearly egg donors receive more money than male donors. As for older women having children in their 50s and 60s, I believe it is up to the doctor in these countries where there is no governmental controls, to look after not only the health and well-being of any child born but also the health and well-being of the birth mother.


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