“Help loving couples conceive a child! Seeking egg donors with a clear health history, GPA 3.6+ and above 1350 on SAT. Must play a musical instrument. $10,00 Compensation.”
Have you seen an ad like this in your local college newspaper? Chances are if you leaf through the classified sections of any elite university, you’ll find one just like it. The advertisements, placed by couples or agencies looking for women to donate their eggs to be used to help couples conceive through In Vitro Fertilization, appear in college classifieds across the country. They are notoriously featured at Ivy League schools, often targeting high achieving women with superior grades and test scores, offering anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 for highly qualified donors. Many call for specific qualities in their donors: “Donor ideally has artistic skills, as intended mother is a talented oil painter and piano player,” reads one.
The internet has opened the door for other opportunities to advertise as well. Countless private donor agencies advertise on websites, on Craigslist, and even on Facebook. Just the other day, this add appeared on the side bar of my Facebook page:
Clicking on it brought me to a site for “superdonors”, which specialized in brokering transactions with “elite” egg donors like actresses and models:
I found out it’s no mistake that these ads appear on college campuses and are targeted to students on Facebook. A representative from Tiny Treasures, an egg donor agency, said:
“We have found that targeting [college] populations is likely to attract young, bright and responsible women who would be ideal prospective donors.”
So what ethical questions are raised by the marketplace that has arisen for egg donors? To me, there seem to be a variety of factors to consider:
1) Should couples be able to specify particular talents and attributes in egg donors?
Many of these advertisements ask for specific characteristics in their donors, not only background health and psychological examinations, but certain ethnicities, SAT scores, GPAs, athletic abilities, and other special talents. The fee offered—which can vary significantly– is often conditional on meeting these requirements.
The Yale Daily News wrote about one donor agency that, like “superdonors”, pays higher fees for more desirable donors:
“In a process akin to that of college admissions, Tiny Treasures requires all prospective donors to mail copies of their SAT scores and college transcripts with their applications, both of which have direct bearing on the amount of compensation received. The agency suggests first-time donors receive between $2,000 and $5,000, but students who qualify as “Extraordinary Donors” — those with SAT scores above 1250, ACT scores above 28, college grade point averages above 3.5 or those who have attended Ivy League universities — receive between $5,000 and $7,000 for their services.”
Asian donors are also highly targeted, as are Jewish donors.
Is it ethical for couples and/or agencies to specify traits, or is this a form of immoral eugenics? Should a couple be able to ask for a clear health history, but not high intelligence? A particular ethnicity, but not certain physical attributes? In the marketplace for egg donors, is it ethical to base the quantity one pays on the so-called “quality” of the product?
The second question to consider is what role money plays in recruiting women to donate their eggs:
2) Does offering large sums of money constitute undue financial inducement?
Some bioethicists argue that offering such high fees to donors –ranging anywhere from $5,000 to over $50,000–is “coercive” and is unethical because it constitutes “undue inducement” of young women. Targeting college campuses takes advantage of trying to attract students who are in debt or otherwise financially strapped, where a sum of thousands of dollars could seem very appealing for a student who has student loans, is saving up for graduate school, or is looking to contribute to her savings. One donor writes,
“(When I was in graduate school) I found myself desperate for a few thousand dollars…I was sick and tired of being poor, demoralized from graduate school and the harsh criticism that goes with it, and I desperately wanted to get on with my life. I had seen ads in the free entertainment newspaper paying “$3,000 for Egg Donors” I was only making $10,000 to $12,000 a year, so this seemed like a fortune to me. And why not make money from something I wasn’t using?”
Though agencies report screening out women that are donating for purely monetary reasons, compensation, to be sure, plays a critical role in incentivizing donations. Since the recession has hit, for example, egg donor rates have increased by as much as 40%.
But bioethicist Laurie Zoloth feels that donating eggs should be done free of cost, because providing financial compensation creates a slippery ethical slope: “Whenever society starts to pay for relationships that are traditionally done with altruism and generosity within families, it raises the issue of whether there is anything that is not for sale.”
Eric Cohen, in his article, Biotechnology and the Spirit of Capitalism, echoes, “What we should most fear about biotechology’s transformation of modern capitalism…(is that) we will come to believe that bio-capitalism can sell us everything we desire, and thus come to accept that everything is for sale.”
The issue of compensation has become important in the area of research where, as Bioethicist Douglas Melton says, “The lack of compensation has meant it’s been nearly impossible to get enough eggs.”
But New York State recently passed a law to allow taxpayer-funded researchers to pay women for donating their eggs, stipulating up to $10,000 in compensation, which researchers believe is an important step in encouraging donations. Allowing compensation will encourage women to donate their eggs to research who wouldn’t have done so otherwise if the money had not been offered, and thus increase opportunities for research.
“We want to enhance the potential of stem cell research,”said David Hohn, vice chairman of the Empire State Stem Cell Board. “If we are going to encourage stem cell research as a solution for a variety of diseases, we should remove barriers (to research) to the greatest extent possible.”
The questions are, is it ethical to use money to incentivize women into donating their eggs? Is there a difference between compensating a woman for donating eggs to be used for IVF, and for compensating women for donating eggs to be used in research?
The issue of whether women should be compensated for egg donation inevitably prompts a more fundamental question at the heart of this discussion: What is the moral status of an egg, and how does that factor into what price, if any, can be placed on it?
3) What is the value of a human egg?
Is there a morally significant difference between donating blood and donating an egg? If so, what is it? Opinions on the status of a human egg vary widely.
Harvard Business School Professor Debora Spar, author of “The Baby Business,” is against allowing compensation for donor eggs, telling USA Today simply, “We are selling children.”
But others featured in the same article don’t have ethical qualms with paying for eggs. Kristen, a UC Berkeley student and two time donor, says she donated with few moral concerns: “What makes a child your child is that you raise it,” she says. “(My eggs) are just DNA.”
Many agencies get around this ethically complicated issue of “buying eggs” by claiming that the money is not paying for the eggs themselves, but for the trouble of going through the hormone injections and cycle to donate them.
One donor agreed: “I am going through injections daily and all sorts of medication (to donate my eggs). I should be compensated.”
Bioethicist Ronald Green echoes, “We pay for participation in research that has risks associated with it for other procedures. So why not this?”
Do you agree with Debora Spar that paying for donor eggs constitutes selling children, and is therefore immoral? Or are eggs, like Kristen believes, “just DNA”? Are they somewhere in between?
The final issue that stands out to me is to consider the way in which these advertisements are presented, and what role that plays in influencing the decisions of potential donors.
4) Whose responsibility is it to patrol these advertisements?
Psychologist Hilary Hanafin from the Center for Surrogate Parenting and Egg Donation said that college students are vulernable targets: ““Being an egg donor is a big decision. It’s not like being a blood donor, and a 21- or 19-year-old undergraduate probably doesn’t have the capacity to understand what she’s getting into.”
A student donor interviewed on the blog Ivygate who answered an egg donor ad conveyed similar sentiments:“ I don’t think young women think long and hard about the emotional risks. Try to imagine not how you feel at 19, but how you’re going to feel at 29.”
The physical risks, in addition, can be significant, and may be downplayed by these advertisements. Some advocacy groups take issue with this lack of attention to the risks. One campaign on Facebook states,
Given these concerns, should college newspapers and Facebook refuse to run these ads? Should there be limits on where and to whom these advertisements should be targeted?
In closing, there are a variety of ethical questions raised by this topic. Should people be allowed to specify certain traits in their donors, and compensate them based on those traits? What role does the sum of money offered to donors play in motivating donations, and is this unethical? What is the moral value of a human egg, compared to the “market” value ascribed in these situations?
Listen to the following NPR podcast, “Egg Donation and the Free Market” (12:44) for two interviews with former egg donors.
Watch “College Students Turn To Donating Eggs For Money”
1) Is it ethical to pay money for donor eggs for research or for use in In Vitro Fertilization? If so, how should the price be determined?
2) Is targeting students in college newspapers and on Facebook unethical? Should college newspapers and Facebook remove these ads from their classifieds?
3) Consider the following quote from Eric Cohen’s Biotechnology and the Spirit of Capitalism: “The new commerce of the body…promises perfection, not progress; and it heeds no limits, treating the sacred and profane as indistinguishable objects for sale, ruled only by the amoral law of supply and demand.” Should we allow market principles to dictate what is permissible and what is not with technology, or should we invest in drawing a strong moral line on certain practices? When it comes to reproductive technologies, where should that line be?
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