Thanks to tremendous advances in biotechnological prowess, living human bodies—or rather their constituent parts and biological functions—are increasingly being looked upon as valuable commercial commodities. Human eggs (oocytes) are a prime example. Ounce for ounce, ova are surely the most valuable product in the world, with some young women receiving $50,000 and up for twenty or thirty microscopic eggs for use in eugenic in vitro fertilization (IVF). There is a catch: Sellers have to risk their health, fecundity, and lives to earn their paycheck.
Egg harvesting is an onerous procedure. First, the supplier’s ovaries are flooded with strong hormones to stimulate the release of twenty or so eggs in the next ovulation cycle instead of the normal one or two. The eggs are then extracted through an invasive procedure that requires anesthesia, in which the egg harvester inserts a needle through the vaginal wall to collect the eggs.
Not surprisingly, this can lead to significant complications requiring ready access to quality medical treatment. For example, one out of one hundred women experiences ovarian swelling that can enlarge her ovaries to the size of a grapefruit, a condition that often causes the belly to fill with fluid, requiring hospitalization. Some women even suffer ovarian rupture. Other potential health hazards include infection, pulmonary and vascular complications (including life-threatening acute respiratory distress syndrome), blood clots, and future cancers. In rare cases, hyper-ovulation results in death.
Because eggs are key to the process, if somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) human cloning comes about, the already high demand for eggs could grow exponentially. Cloning requires the insertion of a cell nucleus into an enucleated egg, and perfecting human SCNT techniques will require much trial and error, meaning a potential vertical spike in demand. Where are all these eggs going to come from? While women altruistically donate eggs to siblings, friends, and even strangers to allow a baby to be born, far fewer will risk their health or life to help scientists. That could mean enlarging the existing egg market, further obscuring the distinction between medicine and commerce.
Indeed, cloning could spark a great egg rush. New York already allows biotechnologists to pay for eggs. AB 926, a bill filed in the California legislature, would open the door in the Golden State to that process, which is not currently permitted, so long as payment conforms to an amount set by an institutional review board. Not only that, but payments could be made above the pre-set institutional limit if the eggs (or embryos) not needed for treatments were obtained from qualified IVF clinics—creating financial incentives to maximize the number of eggs harvested in a cycle and the manufacture of excess embryos for eventual use in research.
There’s also no reason to think these morally and ethically dubious practices will be confined to consenting adults in first-world countries. If enough eggs cannot be obtained locally, look for egg harvesting companies to be formed to acquire ova from impoverished women in the developing world.
Such biological colonialism is already occurring. For example, destitute Indian women are paid to gestate babies and supply eggs—practices that occasionally result in their deaths. In 2010, a seventeen-year-old Indian girl died after undergoing her third paid egg extraction in eighteen months.
The growing demand for eggs also opens up the possibility of abortion becoming a remunerative activity. In order to increase the egg supply, Dutch and Israeli scientists are experimenting with ovaries taken from later-term aborted female fetuses. The ovaries are kept alive after the abortion and the fetus’s immature eggs extracted. If the eggs can ever be matured, the scientists theorize, they could be used in infertility treatments and biotechnological experiments.
The Huffington Post’s resident bioethicist, Jacob Appel, has already argued that women who want to abort should be paid to gestate longer in their term before undergoing termination. “If a woman has the fundamental right to terminate a pregnancy,” he asks, “why not the right to use the products of that terminated pregnancy as she sees fit? Many women would likely use the proceeds of such sales to finance college educations or to help raise their children.”
It used to be that women’s bodies were primarily objectified for sexual services. If we are not careful, we will soon add their procreative substances and reproductive capacities to that sorry list. Caveat venditor.