Human egg trade operates in regulatory void
Health of egg donors needs to be safeguarded, donor, doctor and bioethicist say
A Toronto woman who says she was paid thousands to donate her ova is advocating for Canada to protect the health of donors in the wild west of reproductive technology.
Claire Burns co-founded a support group called weareeggdonors.com. She started the donation process in 2003 and found it to be an isolating experience.
"Knowing now what I did not know then, I really feel like I wasn't able to make the most informed decision going into egg donation, and I would not donate again," said Burns, who has also written a play called Hatched, about egg donation.
"It's a women's health issue, so we need to ensure the health of the donors are being respected and prioritized."
Egg donors can face complications, said Françoise Baylis, a professor and Canada Research Chair in bioethics and philosophy at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
"How many egg donors understand that there's a possibility you could be infertile as a result of your participation in this?" Baylis asked. "The possibility is small."
Egg donation is going on overseas and in the U.S., said Dr. Matt Gysler, president of the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society.
"There is a complication called hyperstimulation syndrome," said Gysler. "Very young patients, like the egg donors often are, are at significant risk. So if you do it, it has to be done very cautiously by a very well-trained individual."
Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome is a complication of fertility drugs that leads to fluid accumulating in the abdomen. It can cause rapid weight gain, abdominal pain, vomiting and shortness of breath that is usually treated with rest.
Sometimes, medical intervention is needed.
"We're worried that maybe if some of these women do run into trouble, they don't show up in the emergency room, they don't get the help they need, and they don't get the kind of support that would be provided for them if this was happening in an open manner," said Baylis.
Shedding light on grey market
In Canada, the regulations for egg donation are in limbo, Gysler agreed. "Bring it out of the dark and into the open and surrounded by appropriate safeguards for those individuals that are willing to donate."
Baylis explained that in Canada, it's illegal to buy human eggs but it's not illegal to sell them.
"Part of the reason for that difference in the legislation is that we didn't want to target or victimize yet again the women who might be participating in this transaction."
Under the regulations, women can also be reimbursed for expenses that have receipts, Baylis said.
Baylis moderated a forum in Toronto on Thursday night that explored the ethical and legal consequences of the trade in human eggs, including the question of what are legitimate reimbursable expenses.
Burns, who was one of the panellists, said payments should be allowed.
"I was paid $4,000," Burns recalled in an interview. "It kind of left a sour note in my stomach about the financial transaction having to be so underground."
Baylis said the grey market exists because the federal government will not enforce its own legislation. "If I was being cynical, I would say it's because they don't care about women."
She called on Health Canada to fulfil its responsibilities.
With files from CBC's Melanie Glanz