Thursday, June 13, 2013

Compensation for Human Eggs Approved by Key California Senate Committee, But Not For CIRM Researchers

Legislation that would permit women in California to be paid for their eggs for scientific research yesterday cleared a key state Senate committee and is likely headed for the governor's desk.

The measure by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, was approved on a 6-1 vote by the Senate Health Committee and now goes to the Senate floor. Earlier, it passed the Assembly on a 54-20 vote.

Some stem cell researchers and other scientists have chafed under state restrictions that bar compensation for eggs while that the same time fertility clinics are paying an average of $9,000 a session for eggs, with some prices going as high as $50,000.

However, the legislation will not affect researchers using grants from the $3 billion California stem cell agency. The agency's regulations bar compensation for eggs in the research that it funds. That means that at least a two-tiered research system would exist in California not to mention another tier created by federal regulations that differ from both those of the stem cell agency and those set by the legislation.

CIRM's restrictions are required by Proposition 71, which created the agency in 2004, and cannot be changed without a 70 percent vote of the legislature. Bonilla's bill requires only a majority vote.

Bonilla's legislation is sponsored by American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the chief industry group for the largely unregulated fertility industry.

The analysis prepared for yesterday's committee session summarized Bonilla's arguments for the measure in this fashion:
“This bill seeks to create equity in the field of medical research compensation by removing the prohibition on compensation for women participating in oocyte (egg) donation for medical research. All other research subjects are compensated for their time, trouble, and inconvenience involved in participating in research. AB 926 ensures that women are treated equally to all other research subjects - allowing them to actively evaluate their participation in research studies. Unfortunately, the ban on compensation has had serious unintended consequences. It has led to a de facto prohibition on women’s reproductive research in California, adversely impacting the same women that the ban intended to protect. With few oocytes donated, fertility research and fertility preservation research has been at a standstill. This greatly affects women suffering from fertility issues and women facing cancer who would like to preserve their oocytes.”
A number of organizations are opposed to the bill including the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley and the Catholic Church. The bill analysis summarized some of the opposition arguments in this fashion:
“Egg harvesting exposes healthy young women to multiple synthetic hormones in order to produce many times the normal number of eggs per cycle. One of the potential harms is OHSS, which has resulted in hospitalizations and at least a few documented deaths. These groups state that many experts remain concerned about the long-term risks of these drugs, especially their potential impact on infertility and various cancers. Follow-up research on egg providers, which could establish the frequency and severity of these adverse outcomes, is widely recognized to be grossly inadequate.”
In addition to risk and religious objections, opponents also argue that poor and minority women are likely to be exploited by enterprises seeking their eggs to resell at a profit.

No major stem cell research organizations, including the California stem cell agency, have taken a position on the bill. The legislation has received little public attention, although The Sacramento Bee carried an article last March. Ruha Benjamin, author of "People's Science" and assistant professor at Boston University, also wrote about the measure in April on the Huffington Post. Benjamin said,

UC Berkeley professor Charis Thompson compares egg donation to 'other kinds of physically demanding service work,' arguing for a 'salary negotiation between the state agency (or relevant employer) and the donor.' This, she contends, is a 'sensible and dignified recognition of [the donor's] work, time, and effort.' And instead of refusing compensation to women, Thompson suggests that we 'direct our efforts to understanding and minimizing' the risks.

“Indeed. Now more than ever, we must redouble our efforts, because the market in eggs appears to be expanding from private reproduction to public research, and increasingly overseas, if the surrogacy industry is any indication of how 'cheaper' women become a reserve army of bio-labor in less regulated regions.” 

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