New York: OK to pay for eggs for stem cell research

Posted by Jesse Reynolds May 19, 2009
Biopolitical Times
Cloning-based stem cell research has always been a strange beast. Boosters promised the sky, but realistic assessments (1, 2) belied their enthusiasm. But despite its shortcomings and real risks, the procedure still occasionally bubbles up into a remarkably prominent, and divisive, political debate. After almost a decade of attempts in labs and debates in legislatures, cloning-based stem cell research is dying a quiet death due to its lack of progress, particularly compared to new methods of cellular reprogramming.

Throughout this rise and ongoing fall, there has been near consensus on one policy aspect of research cloning: that women should not be paid to provide their eggs, which are needed in large numbers in cloning-based stem cell research. This policy was approved by the National Academies, Missouri's Amendment 2, and laws in nearly every jurisdiction where the practice occurs: California, Massachusetts, the United Kingdom, Belgium, China, and South Korea.

In the last few years, a few jurisdictions have moved into a grey area. In 2006, the UK's regulatory agency approved arrangements in which women undergoing assisted reproduction receive a discount if they agree to pledge some of their eggs to research. In 2007, the International Society for Stem Cell Research did not condone payments for eggs, but acknowledged that some jurisdictions may allow them. Last year, Singapore approved financial compensation as long as it is not an inducement.

New York state is now pushing the envelope further. The ethics board of the state's stem cell research funding program met last week, and approved payments, but limited them to compensation for "time and burden" while excluding "valuable consideration" and purportedly avoiding "undue inducements."

This is somewhat better than fully embracing a free market in eggs (a suggestion that the board soundly rejected). The ethics committee referenced New York laws that prohibit "valuable consideration" for human tissue in general. In the context of eggs for reproduction, the Department of Health interprets the statute to permit payments for out-of-pocket expenses and "time and burden."  The New York stem cell ethics board said it sought to close any disparity between the reproduction and research settings.

However, the board's use of a $5000 to $10,000 payment range for providing eggs is both a misreading of the professional guidelines on which the figures are based and a stretch of the meaning of "valuable consideration." The American Society for Reproductive Medicine [PDF], which the ethics board cited, actually recommends $5000 as the upper limit, with remuneration of up to $10,000 in exceptional circumstances which "require justification." The board also cited the ASRM's estimate that egg extraction requires an average commitment of 56 hours, implying a $90 to $180 per hour average for "time and burden" - an amount that strikes me as a significant "valuable consideration" and financial inducement to most Americans. Given this high rate, such "limited" payments may have the same effect as a free market.

Nancy Dubler, a member of the ethics board, explained her view of the board's role this way (at 3:42 in video [Windows Media]):
I think that we are an ethics committee, and I actually think that, if good science demands these oocytes, that we have the obligation to provide them, and I'd like to see language like that. It is at the goal (NB: exact words unclear): the obligation to support science. Because I think that this will be a larger national discussion, and this might be an important statement to get out there.

I hope that her view is not widely shared.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: