In vitro debate: Is it wrong to sell donor eggs at high prices?

In Britain, women can only sell donor eggs for in vitro at modest prices. In the US, human eggs command high prices.

Alastair Grant/AP/File
Louise Brown (front center) and Alastair Macdonald (front fourth left), the first in vitro fertilized female and male babies born, attended an anniversary reunion in 2003 for an IVF clinic near Cambridge, England. This month, an American infertility clinic has offered free donor eggs via lottery to one British woman. The controversy has sparked debate in Britain and highlighted the market-driven differences in the two countries: high prices/high supply of donor eggs in the US and low prices/low supply in Britain.

Last week a Virginia fertility clinic raffled a free cycle of IVF to British women, using eggs sold for $thousands in America. This caused quite a stir, particularly amongst regulators of artificial human fertilisation. The lottery itself was a marketing stunt, but the reason behind it is clear – in Britain, there is a shortage of egg donors and a law that prohibits giving eggs for any more than a minor sum for expenses, so demand is high. In America, there is a healthy market in these eggs, so the supply can potentially meet any demand from Britain. The clinic was putting the two together to drum up new business.

Personally, I can’t see what all the fuss was about.

Josephine Quintavalle from ‘Comment on Reproductive Ethics’ argued that “women selling their eggs are taking a huge risk with their health and future fertility simply because they need the money."

An argument to control the commercial sale of eggs for the sake of the donor’s health can only work if two claims are substantiated: Firstly, that the donation of eggs is a health risk to the donor woman, and secondly, that it is right to legislate to prevent women undertaking such a risk to their own bodies. Naturally, as someone who advocates self-ownership, I firmly reject the second assertion, but the EU unsurprisingly disagrees with me.

If we however accept that I am wrong, and the government is right, why is the logical response not to protect donors’ health by banning donations altogether, rather than allowing it, subject to an arbitrary price control? Clearly the regulators don’t think there is that much of a health risk.

When not opposing this on health grounds, they instead argue that “it trivializes altruistic donation, whether of eggs, sperm or embryos", as the British Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority said. However, if the regulators are so confident of the European ‘culture of altruism’ (Ayn Rand fans in the readership should know they have my sympathy), why is there consistently a shortage of eggs available for donation? This culture of altruism is obviously not pervasive enough to ensure results.

Whilst I am usually fond of highlighting the ‘unintended consequences’ of government action, the results of this policy have been anything but surprising or unforeseeable. Price controls cause shortages, and force people to contract elsewhere, outside the regulators’ jurisdiction. Simple and predictable.

If I were more cynical, I might suggest that the regulators’ indignation and the desire they demonstrate to control the choices of adult women is not about protecting anyone but the regulators themselves. They enjoy a privileged position in matters of life creation, and don’t want to see that threatened by forces they can’t control.

Maybe they’re worried that we might come to a point where people can sell organs, not just sex cells. Frankly, I say ‘Why not?’ At least it would be voluntary… unlike in China.

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