The Incredible, Profitable Egg

"Eggsploitation" Uncovers Dark Side of Infertility Industry

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By E. Christian Brugger



WASHINGTON, D.C., OCT. 8, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Dr. Robert Edwards, IVF pioneer and recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, first fertilized a human egg in vitro (literally "in glass") in 1969. The embryo died after the first cell division. He surmised that successful in vitro embryonic development required the harvesting of mature eggs.

He contacted gynecologist Patrick Steptoe, pioneer in laparoscopy, to help him develop a procedure. Steptoe's laparoscope allowed him to inspect a woman's ovaries through a small incision in the woman's umbilical area. Edwards was able to observe eggs maturing on the surface of the ovary and so to harvest them at the optimal time.

Because of advances in reproductive technology, laparoscopy is no longer needed for IVF. But eggs are still needed, for every cycle -- multiple eggs, eggs for fertile women unwilling to use their own, for infertile women incapable of producing healthy eggs, for women with polycystic ovary syndrome, for prematurely menopausal women, for women who are carriers of genetic conditions, for women whose fertility has been compromised by STDs, even for homosexual males intending to use a surrogate. They all need eggs.

To the infertility industry, eggs spell enormous profit. The natural monthly rhythm of a woman's cycle is far too inefficient to satisfy the industry's voracious appetite. Consequently, egg donors are in hot demand. Infertility programs and their egg brokers place ads targeting young, healthy, college-aged women, characteristically altruistic, and short of cash, promising up to $50,000 in exchange for a carton of fresh eggs. A few weeks is all it takes. The risks are played down and the benefits seem obvious.

High dosages of fertility drugs, synthetic hormones called gonadotropins, are administered to superovulate the donor to produce eggs. Soreness, breast tenderness, mood swings, headaches and mild fluid retention can be anticipated. But over-hyperstimulation (called "ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome," or OHSS) is also possible. Should a donor be so unlucky, she might suffer excruciating abdominal pain, blood clots, infections, kidney failure, loss of her ovaries, shock, and, in rare cases, death. Oh, by the way, don't neglect to read the fine print: If because of complications a donor fails to deliver a full carton, jackpot's off. After all, a deal's a deal.

A revealing new documentary entitled "Eggsploitation" exposes this dark side of the infertility industry. Written and produced by the redoubtable Jennifer Lahl at The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, the film follows the lives of several egg donors, showcasing two in particular. One reports that during the extraction procedure, she became dizzy, short of breath, her blood pressure dropped and she experienced intense abdominal pain. After being assured by the clinic that she was fine, her blood pressure dropped to the fatally low level of 40/20. She was finally admitted to the hospital.

Another woman experienced acute abdominal pain following the procedure and fainted from its intensity. When she revived, she called the clinic and was told her reaction was normal and not to worry. She pressed and the clinic granted her another appointment, this time with a different doctor. He told her she would be fine and sent her home. Her condition deteriorated to the point that she was vomiting stool. The clinic finally concluded she had a severe case of OHSS. Her abdominal cavity was full of blood and her ovary swollen to the size of a grapefruit. She had to have her ovary surgically removed. She subsequently contracted breast cancer and is presently undergoing chemotherapy. The future of her fertility is still in question. Each case reported in this hard-hitting documentary is more appalling than the next.

Egg-harvesting has gone on now for 40 years. But the field of egg-donation is still entirely unregulated and so these stories go unreported and unexplored. Experts themselves admit that there are no adequate studies on the long-term risks of these powerful and commonly used fertility drugs, and yet the casualties they cause aren't hard to find. Some studies even suggest they might increase a woman's risk for developing ovarian cancer later in life; and anecdotal evidence, as illustrated above, suggests a connection to breast cancer; but solid data has yet to be collected.

Why? Why does the proud scion of the laureate Robert Edwards -- the infertility industry -- routinely place women at risk and deprive them of adequately informed consent? With questions such as these left unanswered, women considering egg donation might want to think again.

For more information on the film, to watch the trailer, or to order your copy visit www.eggsploitation.com

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E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation and is an associate professor of moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado. He received his Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford in 2000.