The UK's fertility watchdog - the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) - agreed at an open Authority meeting last week to review a range of its sperm, egg and embryo donation (SEED) policies during 2010.
The current guidelines regarding reimbursement of donors have been in place for two years and Professor Lisa Jardine, Chair of the HFEA, has said that the policy is one which could, 'usefully be re-visited in light of what we have learned over those two years.' A huge shortage of donors, particularly egg donors, and a concern over the safety and regulation of fertility treatment many British women travel abroad to receive are thought to be two of the main motivations behind the review.
Issues which will be included in the review include the current age limits for egg and sperm donation, the ten-family limit for an individual donor, reimbursement of donors for expenses and loss of earnings and 'egg sharing' schemes. HFEA members will also consider intra-familial and inter-generational donation, cross border treatment and whether donors should be allowed to restrict their donations to particular patient groups. Some of the issues raised in detail at the HFEA meeting on 9 December were ways to deal with patients who only want donations from a particular race or faith, and donors themselves who restrict their donations to certain groups.
Additionally, the authority discussed the possibility of lowering the current age limit for sperm donation from 45 to 40 years old, in line with professional guidance and, conversely, raising the current minimum age limit for egg donation from 18 years because of the physical and emotional risks of the procedure.
Some campaigners have already expressed their reservations regarding the implications of a possible payment system for donors: 'Our main concern is that this will induce women who are in financial need to take significant risks with their health - it is not acceptable to create a situation in which poorer women are disproportionately induced to take such risks,' say a group of feminists campaigning under the name 'No2eggsploitation'. At present, women can only claim compensation up to £250 plus expenses for egg donation, however, some European countries allow compensation for 'inconvenience', and to reflect the significant consequences of the decision to donate a gamete.
Donna Dickenson, emeritus professor of medical ethics and humanities at the University of London believes that such payment amounts to a market in body parts and questions the ethical distinction between paying for an egg donation, and paying for an organ such as a kidney. However, Dr Tony Rutherford, head of the British Fertility Society believes that egg donation is an entirely different matter. 'We really have to be clear about this,' said Dr Rutherford. 'Unlike kidneys, eggs have a finite lifespan. Once they have formed after 10-15 days, they would just die. We are rescuing eggs which would otherwise have gone to waste.'
'Egg sharing' schemes are currently available in some centres in the UK and these will also be under discussion next year. Egg sharing acts as a way to redress some of the balance for women who might otherwise be financially unable to meet the demands of their own IVF; women are offered the option of donating their eggs in exchange for discounted or sometimes free treatment for themselves. The scheme works well, HFEA members noted, though its benefits do not outweigh the current high demand for donations.