Human Exceptionalism

Preventing Biological Colonialism in Human Eggs

Before I left for my vacation, the CBC (for which I am a compensated consultant) asked me to write a piece on its new documentary Eggsploitation, a warning about the health risks to women from egg donation.  I watched the DVD (I have one line in it), and found it very powerful–particularly since I am worried that destitute women will one day be colonized for their eggs for use in biotechnological research.  So, I wrote “A Preventative Against Biological Colonialism.”  From my piece:

Colonialism of nations is dead, but a new form of resource hegemony is a-borning. Rather than exploiting commodities such as copper deposits and timber forests, the new colonialism is biological, seeking to mine living human bodies. Thus, we see rich westerners buying kidneys from destitute Pakistanis and Turks. Worse, livers and other vital organs in China are purchased for huge sums despite the purchasers knowing that the “donor” was almost surely tissue typed and killed so he could “donate” his body parts.

But organs are not the world’s most expensive biological products. Ounce for ounce, the priciest biological commodity in the world today is also one of the tiniest marketable item literally worth far more than its weight in gold—the human egg. Indeed, throughout the country, young women at elite universities are solicited to sell their eggs—sometimes for tens of thousands of dollars if they exhibit certain eugenically approved characteristics such as the beauty of Marilyn Monroe and the brains of Albert Einstein. These ubiquitous ads—which can be very enticing to college students whose knees are buckling under the pressure of student loans—don’t mention the potentially lethal consequences of being mined for eggs.

Egg donation is often pitched by buyers without warnings about the potential risks.  These can include infection, disability, infertility, cancer, even death.  In addition, according to the film, no studies have been conducted about the long term impact on women from donating their eggs.  That needs to change.

Some of the women in the film discuss how their serious health concerns were not taken seriously by the egg brokers. I write:

Why might this be? Donors are not patients in the traditional sense, that is, people presenting with maladies to be treated with care for the duration of their illnesses. Rather, they are means to an end for the real patients of the clinics—the women who will be impregnated with the embryos made from the donated eggs. As a consequence, in some perhaps unconscious sense, the donors may be viewed as a resource to be harvested and then forgotten. Indeed, the film documents how donors quickly become out of sight and out of mind.

Most of the film deals with women selling or donating eggs for use in IVF. But if human cloning is ever perfected–some scientists are demanding the right to buy egg, the shortage of which is a significant impediment to perfecting human cloning–the demand would become vertical: Then, it would be, destitute women of the world, beware!  I conclude:

Given the speed in which the fertility and biotechnology industries are advancing, protecting women here and abroad from “eggsploitation” has become a matter of urgent concern. Medical studies are needed to identify donors and examine the breadth and scope of long-term risk from egg extraction. Hearings need to be held to begin the important job of placing rigorous regulations over the field, including, perhaps, the requirement that solicitations for eggs contain health warnings such as those now legally required in cigarette advertisements. Perhaps it should be made illegal to sell eggs in the same manner as it is against the law to sell kidneys. International protocols need to be negotiated to protect poor women from being biologically colonized.

We really do need to regulate the sale of gametes.  The stakes in human health and societal welfare are just too high to permit laissez faire gamete procurement.