Monday, 9 April 2012

The ethics of the human egg industry

A not so innocent egg industry...
Many if not most of us have probably done our share of gorging on choccie Easter eggs this weekend.  However a post on Christian Medical Comment draws attention to a far more problematic egg industry - that in human eggs.

Peter Saunders gives a whole array of facts, figures and percentages in his post so I won't repeat them here.  The essence of the issue is the commodification of human life and the reasons underlying this.  Apparently the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA) is launching a drive to recruit sperm and egg donors, with egg donors now being paid £750 per cycle.  This rise in payment (from £250) has led to a five-fold increase in women coming forward to offer their services.  Although the Daily Mail quotes Dr Gillian Lockwood of Midland Fertility Services as saying that most women donate eggs through compassion rather than for mercenary means, especially given that it is a long and uncomfortable process, this amount of payment must be "tempting in a recession" (as Peter Saunders points out) and especially so for women who are particularly vulnerable because of their economic circumstances.

The situation is apparently more extreme in the States, where, to quote Mr Saunders again, the infertility industry has grown to a multi-billion dollar industry whose main commodity is in human eggs.  Young women on college campuses are amongst those being targeted by offers of up to $100,000 for the apparently worthy cause of helping to make "someone's dream come true".

The same post mentions that "scientists in Edinburgh are intending to seek permission from the HFEA to fertilise eggs grown in a laboratory from stem cells. The tests are understood to be aimed at eventually generating an unlimited supply of human eggs that could assist women to have babies later in life." 

What on earth are we doing here?  Adoption rates are falling steadily - according to Peter Saunders the rate currently stands at one adoption in the UK for every 2,235 abortions (see this post for his data sources).  Whilst there are other factors to take into account for the fall in adoptions, such as different social attitudes these days to single parent families, that figure still stands as a stark and shocking condemnation of our current-day attitudes towards the value of human life. 

Whose rights and whose needs are important here - the child's, or the would-be (or would-be-not) parent's?  Yes, infertility is a cross; it is a great sadness; but that does not mean that any answer whatsoever to it, whatever the cost, is ethical.  Do we no longer have any sense at all of accepting life as a gift (a gift is always something gratuitously given and gratefully received, not something demanded as an entitlement)?  Have we lost all notion of sacrifice - the sort of sacrifice that will accept the gift of a child even if he was not planned, at least to the extent of bringing him into the world... or even if she was born to someone else who feels unable to nurture her as she deserves, rather than insisting on a baby that has in some way been made to measure for oneself and is therefore one's "own"?  We place such importance on our careers, on some sort of odd measure of "self-fulfilment", that we feel we even have a right to our "own" child when we have purposely (I realise that it is not purposely in the case of every woman) left child-bearing to a time of life when our fertility is naturally declining, with the baby we want then being just the next step in "self-fulfilment".  Feminism seems to have got distorted into a simple "it's all about me"... Even for parents who are willing to adopt, the babies are not there, because they have been terminated in the womb.

No-one possesses another human being.  Every parent knows, or should know, that.  Our children do not belong to us like possessions, they are individuals in their own right who have been placed into our care to love and nurture.  And yet we have made whole industries out of our "rights" with regard to them, industries that often fall foul of justice and peace principles as badly as do sweat-shops making clothes or chocolate-makers exploiting child labourers.  In the fertility industry too there are the weak and vulnerable who suffer or are at risk of exploitation: women who put themselves through potentially risky egg donation procedures for money they need (and think of the commercial surrogacy clinics in India where poor women are paid to gestate children for rich Westerners); children who are born with no clear idea of their genetic parentage, which can have profound effects on self-identity, ultimately to the detriment of social stability; the destruction of embryonic human life.

To quote a fellow-Catholic who, a while back, drew our Group's attention to the issue of surrogacy clinics in the Third World, we are going down a road that "links to so many things - that us demanding our rights has repercussions that we would never really want - that words can be used to make anything seem right - that once something is allowed a market will develop and once a market develops the weak will be exploited...Can it ever be right for women and children and men all to be treated as commodities?"

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