Social & Domestic Issues

Dangerous Human Egg Harvesting Targeted at Poor Women Is Costing Lives

Sometimes conservatives too quickly resign women’s issues to the liberals without realizing that there can be real common ground.

Recently, I wrote about the effects on women of cloning and embryonic stem cell research. While scientists, ethicists, and activists have all been going back and forth, little attention has been brought to the facts surrounding the extremely painful and risky egg harvesting procedure called ovarian hyperstimulation [OHS] that millions of women will be required to undergo for embryonic stem cell research to be widely used.

As in most cases, it often helps to put a face on the people who will be involved.  The process of ovarian hyperstimulation is not one that normally attracts women.  OHS is an intense regimen of hormone shots followed by an extremely uncomfortable egg harvesting procedure and poses the risk of impaired future fertility, stroke and even death.

The question remains, how is it that women will be enticed to part with their eggs?  Naturally, when you want someone to do something that’s not at all pleasant, you find someone who really doesn’t have a say in the matter, someone without a voice or an alternative option. Egg harvesting would be targeted at women with financial difficulties, typically ethnic minorities, students, and the like.

There’s no need to guess about how the procedure affects the women who choose it. The real life stories already exist.

Calla Papademus was 22 and a Stanford University student when she answered an ad in the fall of 2000 offering $50,000 for egg donation to be used in in vitro fertilization [IVF]. She ultimately agreed to $15,000. She needed the money for school. Her academic background made her a valued candidate for couples looking for a donor egg so that they might have a child through IVF. During the process of ovarian hyperstimulation, Calla developed ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome [OHSS] and suffered a stroke as a result. For eight weeks, she slipped in and out of a coma. Eventually, she recovered only to regret her decision.

Jacqueline Rushton, a 32-year old Irish woman died in February 2003 from ovarian hyper-stimulation. She had hoped to conceive a child through IVF because she and her husband could not have children and desperately wanted children. Instead, she developed OHSS and suffered a painful, drawn out death.

An unnamed British woman was awarded a settlement this past June after undergoing ovarian hyperstimulation as part of an IVF treatment in 2000. OHSS caused her to have a stroke, which in turn caused her to miscarry. She has since had several strokes which have left the 34 year old woman brain damaged, in need of constant care. Her marriage has also ended.

Little is known about Temilola Akinbolagne, a south London woman who died from OHSS in April of this year. She collapsed at a bus stop while undergoing OHS.

In May 2005, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for a ban on trade in human eggs and stricter regulation of egg donation procedures. The resolution was announced as stories broke about mail-order eggs that British couples were buying from a company in Romania.

Raluca Tatu, a single mother and a nearly illiterate employee at a mattress factory in Bucharest, agreed to have her eggs harvested three times since 2004 and apparently developed OHSS after each procedure. She received no help from the clinic where she donated, but she continued to harvest her eggs because she needed the money.

Eventually, she took her co-worker Alina Netedu to the same clinic. Alina, coming from a similar socio economic background as Raluca, agreed to OHS as a way to harvest and sell her eggs because she needed money for her upcoming wedding. In January 2005, 20 of her eggs were harvested for which she received $250. Soon after the extraction, she developed OHSS and was hospitalized for 14 days. The clinic where the original procedure took place offered no assistance. Her attending doctor in the hospital made it clear that she would have died had she not sought immediate treatment.

According to the World Health Organization, these deaths are rare and occur about one in 50,000 treatment cycles. But if we return to the lowest number of women required in order to use embryonic stem cell treatments for diabetes in the US, just one disease, 29 million women, that would translate into 580 deaths.

Some women might accept the risks of OHS as suitable if they are using it as a means to conceive a child through IVF and, even then, it could be argued that the risk outweighs the advantage. But women who only need money and will receive no such personal gain as a child are women who aren’t in a position to give informed consent. Their financial need impairs their ability to adequately judge the risks involved.

Women may undergo OHS for different reasons, but the dangers and results are the same. Endorsing any type of cloning or embryonic stem cell legislation means that we willingly endanger the lives of some of the world’s most desperate women. This hardly can be called progress or pro-woman.

Interestingly, the only people who seem to understand this are solid pro-lifers and some feminists like Judy Norsigian, Executive Director of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. Her organization has articulated its position in a statement supported by 100 signatories, most of whom are considered staunch abortion advocates. They oppose embryonic stem cell research and cloning because they understand that this so-called scientific advance will cost the lives of women. Is that so hard to figure out?

Do the math. Do the science. It will cost women’s lives.


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