Wednesday, 8 November 2006
Dangers of harvesting human eggs clouded in cloning debate
IN THE debate on cloning in the Senate this week, a number of female senators have claimed that concerns raised about the exploitation of women and risks to their health from the biotech industry's voracious appetite for eggs, are alarmist.
Senators such as Jeannie Ferris, Ruth Weber and Claire Moore seem to have taken it personally that feminists, like myself and my colleagues, in the international Hands Off Our Ovaries campaign, continue to spoil their cloning party by pointing out the serious risks for women from the cloning juggernaut.
But we are not exaggerating. Egg extraction is an invasive process. Women are first put into chemical menopause and then given strong doses of drugs to hyperstimulate their ovaries. Up to 10 per cent of women will suffer ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome with symptoms including stroke, organ failure, respiratory distress and even death. A number of women have lost their lives through these procedures already.
It seems even those who claim to be on the side of women have been blinded by the international industrial biotech lobby.
They accuse egg-harvesting opponents of infantilising and patronising women and claim that we believe women are incapable of exercising free choice. This is not true. But some choices are not worthy of the name.
Choice always occurs in particular social contexts, often characterised by significant power imbalances. Researchers want eggs to pursue their research. Biotech companies hope to cash in on an investment that may be worth millions.
With a focus not on women's health but on promised cures, women distressed by the suffering of a loved one will be under pressure to do the right thing and altruistically donate eggs. This does not mean that women are incapable of exercising choice in such a context. But it does require us to consider the power and value of such a decision.
Others in the Senate debate have dismissed these concerns in the name of informed consent: if a woman knows about the health risks, the law says she should be able to consent. But a number of Australian studies cast doubt on whether women are adequately informed of the risks of egg harvesting. A survey of IVF clinic information brochures by the Government's expert body on health standards, the National Health and Medical Research Council, found that not all mentioned the main adverse outcomes and the information was communicated in an overly positive manner. A recent journal article about egg extraction in Australia concludes that whether women are adequately informed of the risks is highly debatable. When clinician and researcher are the same person, as is often the case with egg extraction, the temptation to downplay the risks to women is even greater.
And just how meaningful is informed consent when the long-term health risks of egg extraction, including reproductive cancers, are not yet well understood?
Senators supporting cloning dismiss concerns about egg donation as regulated like any other tissue donation. This is a gross misrepresentation. Unlike a kidney donation, an egg donor's whole ovary is irreversibly bombarded with at least three different types of hormones, risking long-term damage to all remaining egg cells.
Unlike kidney donation, where there are immediate benefits to the recipient, any cures derived from embryonic cloning are decades away - if they eventuate at all. Ironically, any treatments would be patented and sold back to the egg donor. The health concerns for the donor's rate is so low on the agenda that the three-year review proposed by Senator Patterson's Bill does not even evaluate the health of the women who have donated the eggs.
The Bill prohibits commercial sale of ova. But if cloning gets the green light, the eggs will have to come from somewhere. Overseas experience suggests that the only way of getting nearly enough eggs is to pay women. Senator Ferris angrily told the Senate that this could not happen because women were not greedy and would not assume health risks for money.
Wake up, senator. They already do. Women are paid thousands of dollars by fertility clinics in the US for their eggs. In Britain, they are offered half-price IVF in exchange for eggs.
It's not greed. It is precisely the lack of choice faced by disadvantaged women in a commercial market.
Women's lives and bodies should not be invaded for the public good. Women's health must not be compromised by experimental research with no proven benefits for the donor women or their families - or anyone else.
It's time to jettison the phoney rhetoric of choice in this debate.
Women should not be sacrificed to the vested interests of the biotechnology industry.
Dr Renate Klein is a founder of FINRRAGE (Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering) and Australian representative of Hands Off Our Ovaries ( www.handsoffourovaries.com)