Monday, July 01, 2013

California Legislation, Human Egg Sales and Profits

California legislation to allow women to be paid for their eggs for scientific research is sailing toward final passage literally swaddled in motherhood and apple pie arguments. Missing from the debate is a key reason behind the bill – building profits for what some call the “baby business.”

The legislation is touted as providing equal treatment for women, permitting them to be paid for supplying eggs for stem cell and other research, much as men are paid for sperm. It also would put women who sell their eggs for research on an equal economic footing with women who sell their eggs for fertility treatments, which is currently permitted under state law. Payments to those women range from an average of $9,000 to as much as $50,000, according to a legislative analysis of the bill.

 Assemblywoman Susan Bonillla, D-Concord, author of the bill(AB926), says,
“It is time to let women, just as any other research subject, make an informed decision as to participation, and justly compensate them for doing so.”
She also says that the ban on payments has had serious impact on fertility research. In a legislative bill analysis, she says,
“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.”
Bonilla is carrying the measure on behalf of an industry group, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine of Alabama. The fertility or baby business, which is largely unregulated, brings in about $5 billion annually in the United States from something like 500 clinics. It has grown rapidly over the last couple of decades, but is likely heading for a soft spot.

Little public information is available on the Internet discussing the industry's economic challenges. However, demographic studies show that the size of the key market for fertility services is stagnating. A 2012 report by the federal government projects that the number of women in the 35 to 44 age group, prime consumers of fertility services, is likely to grow only 0.5 percent from 2010 to 2020. And since that forecast was made, the Census Bureau has downgraded its projections for total population growth.

Bonilla's legislation effectively adds a new, potential revenue stream for the industry. Fertility clinics would be able to buy the eggs and then resell them to researchers, adding premiums for eggs from women with special characteristics. The bill would also add a tool for bringing down the cost of fertility treatments, which can run as much as $12,000 to $17,000 a round or more and require several rounds, according to the NIH. Clinics could discount those prices for some women, bringing in new customers, if they agree to authorize the use of excess eggs for scientific research.

None of this appears necessarily pernicious. What is pernicious is the absence of discussion of the economics of the legislation. Without a full understanding of all that is at stake, including economic issues and motivations, legislators, the governor and the public are hard-pressed to make good decisions about a significant change in California law.

Opponents of the legislation have raised serious questions about the treatment of women by fertility clinics, noting that the bill would turn egg providers into “vendors” – not patients of the clinics. The Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley has captured the arguments in opposition including testimony before a Senate committee hearing early in June.

Jennifer Schneider, a physician who lost a 31-year-old daughter to cancer seven years after the younger woman sold her eggs three times, told lawmakers,
“Unlike infertile women who are considered patients, egg donors are treated as vendors( (her italics). When they walk out of the IVF clinic, no one keeps track of them.  My daughter’s death was not reported. The long-term risks of egg donation are unknown."
Sindy Wei, a former egg provider and now a physician with a Ph.D. in biology, testified that she wound up in an intensive care unit after 60 eggs were extracted from her in 2001. She said,
“I fear that cases like mine are buried deep by fertility centers concerned about their image. An industry thriving on profits and reputation has little incentive to report adverse events, or protect the health and medical rights of donors.”
Where is the $3 billion California stem cell agency on all this? The agency has not taken a position on the bill nor have any major research organizations. The measure does not change the law affecting agency-funded research, which bans the use of compensation for eggs in its research. Enactment of the law, however, would create a two-tier stem cell research standard in California, one for scientists not constrained by the payment ban and another for those who could use the full range of research tools. Some stem cell researchers may well think that they have become disadvantaged as a result.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this article said the IVF business generated $4 billion in revenues annually. More recent estimates place it at $5 billion.)

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