The Old Gray Lady's "Distressing" Editorial

Posted by Jesse Reynolds September 25, 2007
Biopolitical Times

The New York Times editorial page, a consistent and enthusiastic supporter of cloning-based stem cell research, took the time and space to back the recent decision by the United Kingdom's HFEA to allow human-animal hybrids as a substitute for using women's eggs. The editorial accurately notes, as I myself have done, that using animal eggs avoids subjecting women to the risks of egg retrieval. But its wording makes two implications - one incorrect, the other demeaning.

First, it gives the clear impression that derivation of human stem cell lines via cloning has been successful:

Scientists need to develop new stem cell lines genetically matched to patients with diseases like diabetes or Parkinson’s. They typically take the nucleus of a patient’s skin cell and inject it into an egg whose nucleus has been removed. If all goes well, the desired stem cell can be derived from the result.

The truth is that the cloning endeavor has not gone all that well, even when more than two thousand eggs were available.

Second, it implicitly blames the lack of cloning progress in the US on women who decline to undergo egg extraction for speculative research:

There are distressingly few women willing to donate their eggs for experiments at the frontiers of this promising science.

A respected team of stem cell researchers at Harvard spent nearly $100,000 over the course of a year advertising for egg donors. Hundreds of qualified women were interested enough to call but, after hearing what was entailed, not one was willing to donate eggs. Many were likely deterred by the time, effort and pain required — including daily hormone injections and minor surgery — to retrieve the eggs. And they were almost certainly discouraged by the meager compensation.

The message seems clear, but it is condescending and belittling of young women: The barriers to progress are the informed decisions of women about the pain and risks of egg extraction given the speculative stage of the research and the laws prohibiting the financial inducements of these women. The Times implies that the solution is that researchers should be free to back their $100,000 ad campaigns with thousands of dollars in payments so that the women will realize their eggs are "needed" and the number of them who put their health at risk will not be so "distressingly few."

What's truly distressing is to see the nation's leading newspaper characterize informed choices about health risks -- choices unswayed by thousands of dollars -- as unacceptable barriers to scientific research.