The exploitation of the egg

Posted: Sep 25, 2006 12:01 PM
The exploitation of the egg

Feminists, beware: Missouri may soon become the Clone-Me State. Rise up and stop it.

In Missouri this November, a misleading ballot initiative called Amendment 2 -- the "Missouri Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative" -- promises to "ban human cloning." In actuality, the referendum -- like earlier deceitful state measures in the likes of New Jersey and California -- would work to do just the opposite.

The Missouri doublespeak is all too commonplace in the cloning debate. By separating the concept of cloning for research purposes (a baby still comes out of the process, he or she is just killed before anyone can raise the child) from the "Dolly the Sheep" type of cloning (you let the clone be born), voters are fooled with the help of a willing or hopelessly ignorant news media.

The fact is, cloning by any other name is still cloning, and in Missouri, that's what Amendment 2 is all about. It also promises to exploit Missouri women.

Liberal feminists are not the first people you might think of to lead an anti-cloning fight, but they could be important leaders in this struggle. Cloning requires eggs. And women have to provide them.

There's an estimated $38 million market already in existence geared to make in-vitro fertilization possible. In an unpleasant process that includes prodding and surgery, egg "donors" are given hormones to ensure they produce more than the routine monthly amount of eggs -- more means a better shot at success. This largely unregulated industry has paid scant attention to the potential long-term harm from such hyperstimulation. As two bioethicists from Stanford pointed out last year in an article in "Science" magazine, at minimum women should be both made aware that risks include infertility and even death and that their "donations," in the case of embryonic-stem-cell research and cloning, may never actually contribute to a cure for anything.

When I went to a New Jersey fertility clinic on assignment a few years ago (after ads offering upwards of $35,000 in some college papers caught my eye), nearly everyone there at the egg "donating" information session was a college-age-range gal looking for some extra cash.

During my orientation, the risks (known and unknown) were underplayed (just expect "really bad PMS," we were told) and contrasted with a hopeful spin -- the great contribution a young woman can make to an infertile couple's life. Judy Norsigian, executive director of the old-school feminist group Our Bodies, Our Selves, told a U.S. Senate committee in 2002: "Media coverage of human embryo cloning research has largely focused on its therapeutic potential, neglecting the technology's dependence on the thousands, if not millions, of women who must undergo the substantial health risks associated with harvesting their eggs."

Unfortunately, though, few feminists are rushing to join the likes of Norsigian. In reference to restricting the egg market in California, an official from the American Fertility Association recently told a reporter: "I get concerned when some women's groups say, 'Oh, no, we have to make these decisions for women.'" But how fair is the choice these women are being offered when they don't know what they're getting into, the benefits are overhyped, and they really need the money? And as we slip deeper into this brave new world of cloning, unprecedented numbers of eggs -- and women -- will be needed. Even the failed, fraudulent South Korean cloning experiment required hundreds of eggs. As Robert P. George, a member of the president's bioethics council, and Eric Cohen, editor of The New Atlantis, recently wrote: "For this research to proceed beyond South Korea's failed attempts, whether in Seoul or at Stanford, many thousands and perhaps millions of women would need to become egg donors -- or (as some say) egg mercenaries. No responsible doctor would allow his patient to undergo such risks and burdens simply to aid a speculative project of research, no matter how altruistic the aims. And no decent society would countenance the buying and selling of human eggs on the open market."

Of course, for those who (like me) oppose human cloning on more than the ground of exploitation, there's more at stake and a long battle ahead. But for now, when the cloning debate is such a mess that few people even know what they're talking about -- or voting on -- a creative coalition between pro-lifers and feminists is a golden egg to embrace. Without it, a lot more states than Missouri will soon be vying for the title of the Clone-Me State.