Monday, December 14, 2009

The dangers of egg harvesting to women

A group of both pro-choice and pro-life feminists has created a campaign called "Hands Off Our Ovaries." The group is calling attention to a little-known danger of the pursuit of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) and human cloning: the harvesting of tremendous numbers of eggs from young women.

Most of the human embryos killed for ESCR are "left over" from in vitro fertilization, but these embryos are very limited. For the embryo research enterprise to (possibly) succeed in developing treatments for patients, many new embryos must be created solely in order to destroy them for research. This would involve the cloning method of somatic cell nuclear transfer.

It would also require an incredible number of human eggs, harvested from women, in order to create the embryos. This is a practical problem, but also an ethical one -- the harvesting could be dangerous to women's health, and the demand for eggs could be used to exploit poor, vulnerable and even third-world women.

Concerned Women for America explains:
An alliance of women, including pro-choice feminists who recognize the problems, introduced the "Hands Off Our Ovaries" campaign on March 8 [2006] to enjoin its viewers to sign the Web site's manifesto, which condemns biotechnological research that harms women, and to educate about the risks of egg extraction, wherein a woman is given powerful hormones that cause her to produce multiple eggs.

Egg harvesting has incited protests from pro-life and pro-choice advocates alike. Both sides argue that reliance on women's eggs for research purposes easily leads to exploitation, particularly of low-income, needy women who could benefit financially.

A recent scandal in South Korea justifies these concerns. Dr. Hwang Woo-suk used more than 2,000 extracted eggs and finally failed to produce a cloned embryo, while payment, compulsion, and lying were used to acquire the eggs from women.

Health risks are also a considerable factor in arguments against the procedure. Two women who have undergone egg extraction in the United Kingdom in the last year have died after developing severe ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), which causes rapid accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, chest, and around the heart. Symptoms include severe pelvic pain, nausea, vomiting, weight gain, ovarian enlargement, respiratory problems, blood clots and liver dysfunction.

According to a congressional testimony by Diane Beeson, a medical sociologist and professor emerita of sociology at California State University, East Bay, "Those who develop severe OHSS may experience a wide range of serious conditions including loss of future fertility, kidney or multiple organ failure, and death. The frequency of severe OHSS is estimated to be as high as 10 per cent of women who undergo the procedure."

Beeson, a founder of the "Hands Off Our Ovaries" campaign, also says that not only are women at risk when they take the fertility drugs that cause OHSS, but potentially their children. Studies of mice with OHSS demonstrate significant abnormalities in offspring, including growth retardation, bone development delays, and a rib deformity which is associated with other abnormalities and cancer in humans.

Many argue that if egg harvesting is to become widely endorsed for the purposes of stem- cell research and therapeutic cloning, the number of cases of severe OHSS will rise considerably. Dr. David Prentice of the Family Research Council points out that of the 80 million women who would be required for egg harvesting to treat diabetes alone, at least 800,000 would experience OHSS.

Moreover, in order to treat the 127 to 128 million Americans with common deadly diseases, 6.4 billion human eggs would be needed. About 640 million women would be required to provide these eggs. Given that only about 60 million women in the U.S. are of reproductive age, large-scale egg harvesting is not only dangerous, but also unfeasible.
The "Hands Off Our Ovaries" campaign says, "We seek a moratorium on egg extraction for research purposes until such time as global discourse and scientific research yields information sufficient to establish adequate informed consent."

Embryo-destructive research is wrong because it requires the killing of young (embryonic) human beings for the alleged benefit of others. But even those who disagree on this point can -- and I hope will, with a good educational campaign -- acknowledge the potential dangers of egg harvesting to women.