Scientists Are Fighting Over Whether Egg Donors Should Be Paid

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Dr. Nicole Noyes working in the
IVF lab at New York University’s Langone Fertility
Center. Jared
Harrell / BuzzFeed News

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In California, women who donate their eggs to infertile couples
are paid — and sometimes,
paid lavishly. Not so if they want to donate their eggs to

But a bill headed to the California state senate on Monday
could change that. Sponsored by the American Society for
Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), the leading body for the
fertility industry,
AB 2531 would overturn a 2006 law barring researchers from
paying women.

The bill is pitting some scientists who want to use the eggs
for research against women’s health advocates, who say it would
incentivize poor women to take unnecessary health risks.

“It’s needed to correct a strange and outdated feature in
California law,” ASRM spokesperson Sean Tipton told BuzzFeed
News. Women are paid when they donate eggs to make babies, and
people are paid when they are research subjects, he noted. “But
if you combine the two, you can’t be compensated. I don’t think
that makes any sense,” Tipton said.

Adding urgency to the issue, many scientists are eager for more
eggs to study cloning, stem cells, and fertility in a state
invests more in biomedical research than any other.

“A number of our members at some of California’s very fine
research institutions tell us that they have a hard time
finding women to donate eggs for research purposes because
compensation is not allowed,” Tipton said.

Some labor activists are also in favor of the bill, as it would
let more women be paid for the work of enduring the painful and
potentially risky procedure.

But opponents say that financially incentivizing women to
donate could push them to make risky decisions they otherwise
wouldn’t. The long-term health effects of repeated egg donation
remain unknown,
they say. So incentivizing women to go through the
invasive, 10-day procedure for scientific research could end up
doing more harm than good.

The fertility industry is booming and largely unregulated,
leaving most fights to play out in court. In the past year,
controversial cases in California have dealt with
how much to pay donors, whether to tax that payment, and
how the IRS should classify the work of egg donation.

As more couples turn to assisted reproductive technology, the
value of eggs has increased: The payout is often $5,000 to
$10,000, though few numbers exist on how many women donate and
for how much.

The health risks are also unknown. Women who donate eggs are
typically sent home with little or no-follow-up, and there has
been scant data collected on the frequency or severity of
short- or long-term adverse reactions.

Earlier this year, a group of egg donors filed a
lawsuit, also in California, alleging price-fixing in the
industry. They won, leading the ASRM to remove its recommended
cap of $10,000 per donation.

Partially as a result of the settlement, payment for egg donors
in the private market has increased, according to Melissa
Brisman, a New Jersey-based lawyer who sometimes represents
donors. If research institutions are to remain competitive, she
said, they have to be able to offer women compensation for
their eggs comparable to what private individuals would pay.

“No one is going to donate the eggs to research if they can
give them to another couple for more money.”

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“No one is going to donate the eggs to research if they can
give them to another couple for more money,” Brisman said.

In fact, many scientists in California say that their ability
to do research in this space is limited by the short supply of
eggs, the vast majority of which are discarded leftovers from
women going through in-vitro fertilization.

“There’s a lot of research that just doesn’t even occur in
California because you don’t have access to the healthy eggs
for research,” Marcelle Cedars, the director for the Center of
Reproductive Health at UCSF who does fertility research using
eggs, told BuzzFeed News. Ironically, this includes research
that might increase the efficiency and lower the risks of IVF.

The California rule is especially contradictory, Cedars says,
since volunteers in clinical trials or other research studies
are always paid for participation.

Cedars pointed out that when New York made a similar change to
its laws in 2009, it saw an influx of researchers looking to
study everything from stem cells to fertility. Besides
California, only South Dakota and Massachusetts prohibit
researchers from paying women to donate their eggs.

The new California bill could mean that women who might not
find success donating to couples — because of their race,
weight, or SAT scores, for example — will now have a new market
opportunity. But scientists probably will not offer as high of
a payment as couples on the private market.

“You are essentially appealing to women who are poor or
cash-strapped,” Kevin McCormick, spokesman for the California
Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which has no official
stance on the new bill, told BuzzFeed News by email. Others say
this view is paternalistic because it questions the decisions
of some women but not others. “You shouldn’t assume that poor
women are stupid,” Tipton said.

Intriguingly, the largest advocacy group for egg donors, We Are
Egg Donors, which lobbies for the financial and health rights
of donors, is not supporting the bill. It sees it not as a boon
to women, but rather as an expansion of the too-powerful
fertility industry.

“ASRM is pretty aggressive in terms of expanding the scope of
the fertility industry,” Raquel Cool, a member of the group who
testified before the state legislature, told BuzzFeed News.
That lucrative industry, she said, “is not taking steps to
consider the health considerations of egg donors. Those feel
very much like an afterthought.”


Although the California Institute for Regenerative
Medicine is against paying women for donating eggs to
scientific research, it has no official stance on the new
bill. An earlier version of this article said it was
against the bill.

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