A Preventative Against Biological Colonialism

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture

By Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBCColonialism of nations is dead, but a new form of resource hegemony is a-borning. Rather than exploiting commodities such as copper deposits and timber forests, the new colonialism is biological, seeking to mine living human bodies. Thus, we see rich westerners buying kidneys from destitute Pakistanis and Turks. Worse, livers and other vital organs in China are purchased for huge sums despite the purchasers knowing that the “donor” was almost surely tissue typed and killed so he could “donate” his body parts.But organs are not the world’s most expensive biological products. Ounce for ounce, the priciest biological commodity in the world today is also one of the tiniest—a marketable item literally worth far more than its weight in gold—the human egg. Indeed, throughout the country, young women at elite universities are solicited to sell their eggs—sometimes for tens of thousands of dollars if they exhibit certain eugenically approved characteristics such as the beauty of Marilyn Monroe and the brains of Albert Einstein. These ubiquitous ads—which can be very enticing to college students whose knees are buckling under the pressure of student loans—don’t mention the potentially lethal consequences of being mined for eggs.Donating eggs requires hormonal whipsawing. Donors undergo superovulation in which they are overdosed with hormones to first shut down the ovaries, and then the ovaries are hyperstimulated so that they release between ten and thirty eggs, in contrast to the one or two released during each natural cycle. Adding to the rigor of the procedure, once the eggs mature, they are extracted via a needle inserted vaginally, which requires anesthesia.Most egg extractions do not result in serious immediate problems—although no studies have been conducted researching the long-term health impact on donors. But in a minority of cases, the side effects are potentially deadly, including stroke, infection, infertility, cancer, and even death. This potential cost to unsuspecting women is the primary subject of Eggsploitation, the new CBC-produced documentary.The film presents interviews with women who tell of the terrible physical maladies they suffered from donating eggs—and the disturbing indifference they experienced from the clinics who had doted on them before their eggs were extracted. One donor who became so sick she was unable to leave the hospital after egg removal due to severe side effects, says that the extraction team tried to ignore her complaints as they pressured her to leave: “It was as if they were trying to get rid of me.” (In a bitter and perhaps not irrelevant irony, she is now undergoing fertility treatments.) Another describes having to go to the clinic three times before her internal bleeding was taken seriously by clinic personnel. She suffered peritonitis from a torsioned ovary and would have died but for emergency surgery that the doctor in charge of the extraction finally ordered.Why might this be? Donors are not patients in the traditional sense, that is, people presenting with maladies to be treated with care for the duration of their illnesses. Rather, they are means to an end for the real patients of the clinics—the women who will be impregnated with the embryos made from the donated eggs. As a consequence, in some perhaps unconscious sense, the donors may be viewed as a resource to be harvested and then forgotten. Indeed, the film documents how donors quickly become out of sight and out of mind.Eggs have become so valuable that select women may be paid six figures if they successfully undergo the egg donation process. But the demand for human eggs, already high, may soon grow even more intense. Why? Human cloning.Many scientists and futurists look at human cloning as the most important emerging biological technology, a process that once perfected could lead to new medical treatments; sources of organs from cloned fetuses; genetic engineering, design, and enhancement through embryo manipulation; and eventually, reproductive cloning (after years of experimentation to make it “safe”). At the moment, scientists are having difficulty perfecting human cloning, in part because of a dearth of human eggs. (One human egg is required for each cloning attempt.)This egg shortage already has some in the research community demanding the right to pay for eggs. If they are accommodated, it will increase demand for a scarce product, increasing prices and enticing a growing number of women to sell.But that would just be the beginning. Once scientists perfected the technique, mass cloning would be required to learn how to harness cloned embryos and their cells—such as in embryonic stem research studying genetic maladies and research into embryonic gene expression required to learn how to genetically engineer our progeny. Given the many uses to which cloned embryos could be put, the potential demand for human eggs would be enormous. Unless alternative sources of eggs can be developed, for example, learning how to mature eggs extracted from cadaver ovaries, the demand curve would become vertical.That, in turn, would lead to an industry dedicated to obtaining eggs on the cheap—meaning from destitute and desperate women in developing countries who could be easily convinced to undergo egg procurement for a few hundred dollars. Imagine the potential harm. In the West, most women who undergo super-ovulation have access to quality medical care in the event of serious side effects, care that can mean the difference between life and death. Not so in the poorest areas of the world, making egg donation in those places particularly risky.Given the speed in which the fertility and biotechnology industries are advancing, protecting women here and abroad from “eggsploitation” has become a matter of urgent concern. Medical studies are needed to identify donors and examine the breadth and scope of long-term risk from egg extraction. Hearings need to be held to begin the important job of placing rigorous regulations over the field, including, perhaps, the requirement that solicitations for eggs contain health warnings such as those now legally required in cigarette advertisements. Perhaps it should be made illegal to sell eggs in the same manner as it is against the law to sell kidneys. International protocols need to be negotiated to protect poor women from being biologically colonized.Eggsploitation is a splendid start to this important conversation. The CBC—for which I am a compensated consultant—has done a tremendous service to women everywhere by producing this important and informative documentary.CBC Special Consultant Wesley J. Smith is an award winning author and a Senior Fellow in Human Rights and Bioethics at the Discovery Institute.

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