07 November 2011
ByAppeared in BioNews 632
Directed by Justin Baird and Jennifer Lahl
Available from the Eggsploitation website
'Eggsploitation', Jennifer Lahl's documentary about women who donate their eggs to be used in IVF treatments or biomedical research, tells the stories of women who had serious medical complications after agreeing to donate their eggs. Set against a backdrop of interviews with these women, Lahl, of the Center for Bioethics and Culture (CBC) in California, laments the current state of the egg harvesting industry.
'Eggsploitation' highlights some worrying issues with the way in which egg harvesting currently operates. Yet it leaves the viewer with the feeling that they haven't been shown the whole picture and a sneaking suspicion that a hidden agenda is at play.
The film's central concern is that young women are misled and uninformed when they choose to donate their eggs: medical risks are not spelt out; high financial compensation– sometimes up to $100,000 – clouds donors' judgement; and once the eggs have been harvested there is no long term monitoring. Donors become, to quote the documentary, 'faceless'. The documentary also expresses concern at a lack of research into the short and long term effects on donor health.
There are known health risks associated with egg harvesting, the most serious being ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS). OHSS occurs in 6.6 to 8.4 percent of egg harvesting cycles, half the time it is severe and, very occasionally, can be life threatening. 'Eggsploitation' provides precious few statistics on the number of women who experience complications. They claim that is because no numbers are available. That is only true to a certain extent – a study in the Netherlands puts the number of deaths from IVF treatment at one in 10,000.
Despite the documentary concluding with a resounding 'do not donate' message, it is unclear whether the film-makers are calling for reforms to the egg harvesting industry, for more research to be done, or for the harvesting of eggs – and by proxy, IVF impregnations – to cease altogether. Certainly they seem strongly opposed to eggs harvested for the purposes of medical research.
'Eggsploitation' unquestionably raises some important issues and questions about the process of egg donation and the treatment of donors. It rightly calls for further research into the short- and long-term health effects of egg donation, and increased monitoring and regulation of the industry. However, to communicate these messages, 'Eggsploitation' fails to present an unbiased picture. There are precious few interviews with experts on the subject – only a few seconds of these make the final cut, suggesting strong subjective editing – and no interviews with people who have had positive experiences.
The documentary mentions the fact that over 17,000 IVF procedures are carried out every year in the US, but presents the stories of only two women who had a very negative experience. It is implied that the health problems these women experienced are common, although no evidence is presented. The story of a young woman who happily donated her eggs three times before dying of colon cancer at the age of 34 smacks of scaremongering.
'Eggsploitation' certainly tugs at the heartstrings and the efforts to raise awareness of the lack of research into the risks undertaken by donors are commendable. However, the biased, subjective way in which the problems are presented borders on propaganda. Perhaps the CBC is morally opposed to IVF; maybe 'Eggsploitation' is part of a wider campaign against embryonic stem cell research; or perhaps the CBC thought that an extreme documentary such as this was the only effective way of communicating genuine concerns.
Whatever the case, 'Eggsploitation' says nothing of the joy brought to thousands thanks to egg donation or the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research. Like all altruistic endeavours that entail personal risks – from kidney, bone marrow and other donations to dangerous jobs such as those in the emergency services – the benefits may well outweigh the risks. Women considering donation should watch 'Eggsploitation', seek medical advice, and speak to women who have already done it before making their own, well-informed decision.