February 23, 2024

Wilmut to seek egg donors for his research

The creator of Dolly, the first cloned sheep, Professor Ian Wilmut, plans to ask British women to donate eggs for his research into motor neurone disease. Until now, the only eggs which British researchers could use in cloning experiments were left over from IVF treatment. But these are often defective and Korean cloners have shown that fresh, high-quality eggs are essential to create clones for human embryo research. “I have never doubted that women would donate if they thought we were helping people to have treatment,” Professor Wilmut told the Guardian.

Critics immediately denounced his plan as commodifying eggs and endangering women unnecessarily. “There’s a growing feeling that women are being exploited,” said Josephine Quintavalle, of the lobby group Comment on Reproductive Ethics. “At what point does it become right for a women to have a procedure which has risks when there is no benefit at all for her?”

Guardian readers also learned in a survey of the American donation market that across the Atlantic commodification is not just a conservative catchcry but a reality. While British couples seeking IVF face a shortage of eggs because selling them is illegal, Americans are overwhelmed by their choices. There are hundreds of egg brokers spruiking the portfolios of thousands of young women on the internet, with the going price US$3,000 to $5,000. The Guardian found that US couples are becoming increasingly finicky and impersonal when they select a biological mother. One broker commented that in 1991 nearly one in four couples wanted to meet the donor; now it is one in ten. Health, intelligence and beauty are the main criteria.

One porn photographer, Ron Harris (who also describes himself as an Arabian horse breeder), even runs a site where couples can bid for the eggs of models in online auctions — although some suspect that the site is bogus and merely publicity for his porn business. However, the notion of marketing eggs has bioethicists who defend it. Ken Baum, a Yale lecturer, says that it might be distasteful, but it is certainly not wrong. “The rich can pay for a more expensive car, they can get better health care and better housing,” he said. “In a democratic, capitalist society, why shouldn’t we treat eggs like any other commodity?”