A public debate is urgently needed to decide whether people should be paid for donating eggs and sperm to infertile couples, according to Professor Lisa Jardine, Chair of the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). In an exclusive interview with the Times newspaper, Professor Jardine said that the lack of egg and sperm donors in this country was driving couples abroad for fertility treatment in often unregulated clinics, and that the HFEA could potentially consider a reversal of the ban on payment for donors 'to try to keep assisted reproduction within our regulated area... out of concern for patient welfare'.
In 2006, the HFEA published a directive stipulating that sperm and egg donors should not receive payment beyond reimbursement for out of pocket expenses and up to £250 for loss of earnings. Women are also sometimes eligible for money off IVF treatment though egg-sharing schemes, whereby one couple donates eggs or embryos in return for a free or cut-price IVF cycle. However, considering the often lengthy process of donating sperm or eggs, and in the case of the latter the invasive nature of medical procedures, some critics feel that this amount doesn't adequately reflect the time commitment and risks involved.
Professor Jardine agrees that more should be done to reimburse egg donors for the health risks involved. 'Egg donation is considerably more invasive than sperm donation, so I don't see why there should be parity. Women have to have hormonal treatment and procedures to extract the eggs. My feeling would be egg donation would be a more serious matter,' she said.
Others worry that actively paying individuals for egg and sperm donations could lead to exploitation, with poorer members of society feeling pressured to donate in order to repay debts or put food on the table. However, Professor Jardine believes many are already travelling abroad to take advantage of more lucrative gamete donation schemes and that permitting the practice in the UK would allow a more transparent system of donation to be adopted.
'When [infertile couples] go abroad, there is undoubtedly exploitation. Although is it exploitation if you can't feed your family? We're very ready to say it's exploitation, but if you discover you can make a year's food money … I'd rather we had control over it here,' she said.
Professor Jardine also commented on whether sperm or egg donation should be permitted among family members, for example a father donating sperm on behalf of his son, or a brother's sperm being used to fertilise a donated egg to be implanted in his sister.
'These are generous gestures, but we need to do some serious thinking about the social and psychological consequences,' Professor Jardine said. 'We know that when a child discovers she's not her sister's sister, but her sister's daughter, it can cause absolute crisis. This isn't a trivial matter.'