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Canada turns a blind eye to egg 'donor' grey market

22 March 2010
Appeared in BioNews 550

The Canadian ban against women selling their eggs as a source of eggs for fertility treatments is reported to be systemically flawed in practice, according to an expose article published in the April 2010 edition of the Canadian magazine The Walrus. Journalist Alison Motluk interviewed egg 'donors' and recipients, fertility experts and regulators, revealing that the Canadian ban is as farcical as its loose interpretation of the word 'donor'. The article attributed the discrepancy between the law and practice to a lack of supporting regulation required to flesh out how the ban operates whilst permitting the reimbursement of expenses incurred during lawful altruistic egg donation.

Canadian donors are commonly being paid prearranged fixed fees ranging from an equivalent of £1,500 to £5,000 and upward as 'reimbursement' for expenses anticipated for egg 'donation', according to The Walrus' sources. By contrast, in the UK, egg donors can be paid a maximum of £250 - enough to cover expenses only. No such cap exists in Canada. Receipts to support 'expenses' claimed are not required and quoted payments customarily increase for repeat donations from 'proven' donors whose eggs have successfully resulted in a child, according to personal accounts reported.

Dr Edward Ryan, a fertility doctor at Toronto West Fertility Center, described the current ban as 'ridiculous' and 'uncomfortable': 'We presume…it's all being done for free, but obviously it's not…We don't know, because we don't want to know. Please - don't tell us'. Dr Ryan, like many critics, thinks it is completely unrealistic to expect altruism alone to motivate women to have daily hormone self-injections, around six vaginal ultrasounds and undergo an invasive and risky procedure that will require time off work. In his view, the Canadian government forces doctors to perpetrate a 'charade' in order to help their patients.

The Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society (CFAS) disagrees and denied to The Walrus that any such grey market egg trade was flourishing in Canada. It contended that no Canadian clinic would knowingly work with paid donors, regardless of where paid. Critics suggest that the ban only shifts the geography of the Canadian egg trade south of its borders rather than prohibiting it. Motluk found that Canadian fertility clinics commonly have referral relationships with egg donation agencies in certain US states where compensation and anonymity for egg donors is legal.

Supporters of the ban argue that paying egg donors large sums cheapens life and exploits women. Since April 2004, the Assisted Human Reproduction (AHR) Act has banned the purchase of human body parts, including selling gametes for profit. Six years later, legislators and the government's fertility watchdog, Assisted Human Reproduction Canada (AHRC), established in January 2006, have not issued enforcement regulation on how lawful 'reimbursement' should be assessed, ensuring transparency and price consistency by defying the basis for what constitutes legitimate 'expenses' for egg donation. Offenders involved in egg purchasing could face up to $500,000 in fines and ten years' imprisonment. A legal penumbra exists in Canadian fertility laws and industry practitioners are free to interpret the law ad hoc in order to meet the high demand for donor eggs, Motluk concludes. The legality of this broad interpretation, according to the article, is yet unknown but currently appears safely off the courts' radar.

Assisted Human Reproduction Act (2004, c. 2)
Department of Justice: Canada |  5 March 2010
The Human Egg Trade
The Walrus Magazine |  16 March 2010
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