Expanding the egg business

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky February 15, 2008
Biopolitical Times
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Press releases issued this week by two fertility companies bespeak changing - and troubling - dynamics in the growing commerce surrounding women's eggs.

In a February 11 statement, a Charlotte, NC fertility company called REACH announced an "urgent call for egg donors" and said that it is "eyeing far more aggressive means to recruit young women for egg donations in 2008." The press release is suffused with a tone of emergency about the "alarmingly widening gap between supply and demand" and the "spiraling" wait times "for older couples wanting to start families."

But there is no similar sense of urgency on the company's "What to Expect" web page for prospective egg donors. There, not a single risk or side effect is mentioned, though the known short-term risks are significant (and include, rarely, death) and the lack of data about long-term risks is notorious.

While the Charlotte fertility company seeks to grow its business via the now-traditional model of recruiting young women to provide eggs for people who are undergoing in vitro fertilization, emerging ventures are targeting a new demographic: fertile women who choose - or can be persuaded - to postpone childbearing until their 40s or beyond. Offers to freeze women's eggs for later use - after advancing a career, or meeting the partner of one's dreams - now litter the Internet, despite the experimental nature of egg-freezing technology.

One new egg-freezing venture is a partnership between a company called Extend Fertility and a Seattle fertility clinic. According to their joint press release, they will be offering "the first elective egg freezing service" in the Pacific Northwest. Unsurprisingly, Extend Fertility plays up the "freedom" and "empowerment" that putting eggs on ice offers to women, and plays down the risks of extracting them in the first place. "Egg harvesting is a proven, safe procedure," its website states.

Extend Fertility also minimizes the experimental status and highly uncertain outcomes of egg freezing, referring repeatedly to "breakthroughs" and offering "client testimonials" from women who have frozen their eggs (though not from any who have thawed and used them to make babies).

Extend Fertility's website declares that it "adher[es] to the strictest medical and ethical standards," and implies that its service is approved by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the fertility industry's trade and lobbying group. But it doesn't mention that ASRM recently concluded that while egg freezing may be appropriate for women undergoing chemotherapy that is likely to damage their eggs, it is an experimental technique and "should not be offered or marketed as a means to defer reproductive aging."

Is anyone out there looking for a case study in the need for regulation and oversight?

Previously on Biopolitical Times