The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has decided to allow women to donate eggs for research, regardless of whether they are undergoing IVF treatment. The decision also permits women to be reimbursed up to £250 for expenses incurred, such as travel or child care - but the HFEA insist this is not to be conceived as a form of payment. It is hoped the move will generate a greater number of eggs for use in embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research and research into infertility. Eggs are needed to allow scientists to develop embryos from which stem cell lines may then be extracted. Such research in the UK is currently experiencing a shortage in the supply of eggs, which previously had been only available from 'spare' eggs after IVF treatment or eggs donated for research by women undergoing IVF in 'egg-sharing' schemes.
In a statement issued last Wednesday, Angela McNab, Chief Executive of the HFEA, said, 'Having considered all the information on donating eggs for research, including the risks to women and the outcomes of the public consultation, the Authority has decided that women will be allowed to donate their eggs to research, both as an altruistic donor or in conjunction with their own IVF treatment. Given that the medical risks for donating for research are no higher than for treatment, we have concluded that it is not for us to remove a woman's choice of how her donated eggs should be used'.
The decision has provoked a critical response from some groups and commentators who feel that the small risk of ovarian hyperstimulation (OHSS) is nevertheless too great to allow altruistic donation. 'The risks involved in egg donation are far too great to be allowed in basic research, with no direct benefit to the volunteer', said Human Genetics Alert Director David King. And Dr Stephen Minger, a leading stem cell research at King's College London, raised the concern that research using eggs is still in its early stages and may not justify fertile women undergoing the invasive and uncomfortable, as well as possibly harmful, procedure of egg donation. 'I think it is just too early for us to be encouraging this to happen', he said. Critics have also pointed out the possibility that women may begin to feel pressurised by friends or family members who hope to benefit from stem cell research.
Other commentators are concerned that reimbursing women may invoke a similar coercive component to payments citing ethical objections to luring women to assume the risks of donation in return for cash. In the US, where payment for egg donation is legal, some clinics offer up to $10,000 for donation attracting many university students who use the money to pay off debts. The HFEA categorically denied reimbursement would amount to payment: 'Women will not be paid for donating their eggs. Researchers will have to follow the same system as donation for treatment; donors can only claim back the expenses that they have actually incurred. There has never been any question of women receiving payment for donating their eggs for research at any stage of our deliberations'.
Lord Robert Winston has commented that women in the UK have already been being paid for eggs. 'Women have been paying for eggs in Britain for a very long time, because there is egg sharing, a trade in eggs, which is really quite worrying and the HFEA have sanctioned that', he said. Egg sharing schemes have been approved by the HFEA in two UK clinics where women are offered discounts for IVF in return for donating some of their eggs for research or treatment. Lord Winston saw no reason to prohibit women from making the choice to donate eggs altruistically, questioning the need for HFEA approval.
The HFEA faced criticism earlier this year when it granted the first license in the UK to the Centre for Life in Newcastle to permit egg-sharing to provide eggs for ES cell research, prior to public consultation on the issue. Last September, the Authority issued a public consultation on 'donating eggs for scientific research', on which a report is due in March, and upon which this February's decision has been based.