Payment for egg production

A California bill to reverse a 2006 state law that restricts payment to women who produce eggs for research to no more than payment of direct expenses is in the news. It highlights several interesting ethical and societal issues. The current legal status of payments for human eggs in California is interesting. It is currently legal to pay a woman $10,000 or more to provide eggs for use by another woman in fertility treatment, but illegal to pay more than expenses for eggs used for research. That seems odd. In countries such as Canada where it is against the law to pay for human eggs it is illegal for whatever reason it is being done.

The arguments against paying women to procure their eggs are strong. Egg harvesting is an invasive procedure and the hormonal treatment required to cause production of multiple eggs for harvest carries significant risk to the woman involved. Many women with infertility problems are willing to take that risk in order to conceive and bear a child. However, there is reason to be concerned that women with financial needs will be exploited by being lured into risking their health for the amounts of money that are paid for eggs. Our society does not allow donors of organs for transplant to be paid out of similar concern about exploitation. To that can be added concerns about turning the bodies of women into a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. It is demeaning to those so used to consider a person’s body or a part of that body a commodity to be sold. If these arguments hold then paying women to produce eggs for others to use should be prohibited to protect women from being exploited whether the eggs are being used for research or for reproduction.

However, something else is at play in California and the rest of rest of the US. Our society has bought into the idea that the desire to have children supersedes all other moral concerns. It is part of a more general idea that our freedom to make autonomous decisions regarding our sexuality and reproduction should not be limited in any way. That has caused the United States to have an entirely unregulated assisted reproduction industry. Whereas most technically advanced nations have significant regulation over what can be done in relation to IVF and other reproductive technology, there is no regulation here. While we also place a high value on science and research, the history of dramatic cases of exploitation of people for research in Nazi Germany, the Tuskegee study and other situations has sensitized our society to the need to regulate human research. We have created a whole system of regulations to protect potential research subjects. Thus it was quite feasible for those who saw the danger of exploitation of women being paid to produce eggs to pass a law restricting payments to those who produced eggs for research, but not feasible to restrict payment for eggs for reproduction.

An obvious argument for those who want to overturn that law is that it makes no sense to limit payment to women who produce eggs for research when those same women could be paid $10,000 or more to produce eggs for reproduction. They are correct that it does not make sense to differentiate between the two, but it is not the limitation of payment for eggs for research that needs to be addressed. What we as a society need to address is the idea that the autonomous choice to have a child by whatever means possible should always be allowed. Children should be highly valued, and having children can be an amazing blessing. Infertility can be devastating to those who desire to have children but cannot. But having children is not an end that justifies every possible means to fulfill that end. There are some things we should not do even to have children. One of the things we should not do is paying women to risk their health to provide eggs so other women who want to have children can have them.

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