By Libby Nelson
Stem cell researchers in New York can now use public money to pay women who give their eggs for research, a decision that has opened new possibilities for science but raised concern among some bioethicists and opponents of such research.
The decision by the Empire State Stem Cell Board, announced two weeks ago, is believed by the board to be the first in the country allowing state research money to be used for this purpose. The board agreed that women can receive up to $10,000 for donating eggs, a painful and sometimes risky process.
Until now, researchers have relied on unused embryos from in vitro fertilization, as well as reprogrammed skin cells, for their work. Eggs, which offer other avenues for research, have proved more difficult to obtain.
Proponents say compensating women for their eggs is necessary for research, and point out that women who give their eggs for fertility purposes are already paid. Others worry that the practice will commodify the human body and lead to the exploitation of women in financial need.
“What we’re doing is making it in some ways more reasonable for women who are interested in donating for research to do so,” said Dr. Robert Klitzman, director of the new master’s degree program in bioethics at Columbia University and a member of the stem cell board’s ethics committee. “And at the same time, the goal is to move the science ahead, but we don’t want to just move science ahead regardless of people’s rights.” The board’s ethics and finance committees voted to approve compensation.
National Academy of Science guidelines prohibit paying women for eggs used in stem cell research, but researchers say recruiting unpaid donors has been unsuccessful.
“There are many questions you can only answer by studying human eggs,” said Dr. George Q. Daley, a stem cell researcher at Harvard and at Children’s Hospital Boston. “I think it’s a gold step for New York State, and it will mean a tremendous advantage for New York.”
Dr. Daley’s research has so far used poor-quality eggs discarded after in vitro fertilization, a process he said has yielded modest returns but no stem cells.
However, Dr. Daley said, concerns that payment alone could induce women to give eggs were valid.
In New York, payments will be carefully evaluated by an institutional review board, Dr. Klitzman said. But that safeguard did not assuage the concerns of some critics that money, and not altruism, would motivate women to give their eggs.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that this is going to create a kind of undue inducement, a scenario in which a person can feel unduly compelled to take advantage of a situation,” said the Rev. Thomas Berg, director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, a Roman Catholic research group, and the only member of the stem cell ethics committee to vote against compensation.
Stem cells, the origin of all cells in the human body, have the potential to transform medicine by providing new ways to treat diseases and disorders that include cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and paralysis. But because stem cell research often involves human embryos, its financing has been a source of controversy for more than a decade. Congress bans the use of tax dollars for any research that results in the destruction of human embryos. In March, President Obama removed restrictions on federally financed stem cell research, but the Congressional restrictions are still in place.
States responded to the federal financing restrictions by pledging money of their own, including $600 million from the New York Legislature in 2007 for an 11-year stem cell research plan. Scientists say the New York board’s decision to permit compensation, reported online Thursday by The Washington Post, is likely to give the state an advantage.
Father Berg, who opposes stem cell research and in vitro fertilization, said he had found “strange bedfellows” in bioethicists who share his concern. Among them is Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics, who said he feared that compensation would lead poor women to ignore the risks egg donation can pose.
“The image of women having their eggs harvested in a market is one that the industry is going to find difficult to destigmatize,” he said. “That notion of being treated as an object to derive those kinds of materials is not one that will sit well.”
The internal guidelines of some New York stem cell research centers, including Rockefeller University, Cornell University and the Sloan-Kettering Institute, prohibit paying for eggs. But for researchers without those prohibitions, it opens possibilities, said Susan Solomon, founder and chief executive of the New York Stem Cell Foundation.
“If you’re donating oocytes, there is time and burden,” Ms. Solomon said. “And in our society, we compensate for time and burden.”