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Culture Challenge of the Week: Reproductive Exploitation

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Jennifer Lahl, president of The Center for Bioethics and Cultural Network, is a kind, deeply caring woman. A health care worker for 25 years, she’s seen medical care at its best—when it gives fresh hope and renewed health to suffering patients.

These days, Jennifer is a passionate advocate on behalf of young women who’ve experienced medical care at its worst. In the upside-down world of assisted reproduction, too many fertility specialists have dashed the hopes and compromised the health of previously healthy young women—egg donors.

Next month, Jennifer’s award-winning documentary, Eggsploitation, will play across college campuses, warning young women about the dangers of egg donation. The film follows several young women who underwent egg donation as a way to pay tuition or dig themselves out of debt--they also welcomed the emotional payoff of helping an infertile couple have a child.

But for these women, donating their eggs triggered serious complications resulting in infertility, disability, and lingering health problems. One woman nearly died.

Nobody told them egg donation could end up this way.

As infertility climbs, so does . Most of us know families whose children were created with help from fertility specialists or who owe their existence to egg donors. And nothing I say here intends to minimize the pain of infertility. But the fact remains that young women---my own daughter’s peer group—are being exploited as egg donors.

Our young women need to know the truth.

Egg donation exploits young women for the benefit of older women. The fertility business needs an increasing supply of “donor eggs” from healthy, fertile young women, ages 19-29. The pitch? Money. Students and young women don’t have much, but many older infertile couples do--at least enough to pay for donor eggs. Donor agencies place ads in university newspapers or on, promising anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 to women who donate eggs. Repeat donations (up to six) are encouraged. Economically vulnerable young women face an undue temptation to trade their eggs for money--and they have no idea what they are signing up for. Is it right that would-be moms pursue their dream by leveraging a younger woman’s vulnerability?

Egg donation itself carries significant risks because it requires fertility drugs, anesthesia, and invasive egg retrieval. Donors take drugs first to induce temporary menopause, then to hyper-stimulate the ovaries so they’ll produce from 16 to 35 eggs in one cycle. Worse, doctors really don’t know the long-term risks to egg donors, because so few studies have been done. And fertility specialists are in no hurry to find out. Is it right for fertility docs to submit one woman to unknown risks to fulfill the dream of another?

Fertility treatments are big business, generating layers of people who depend on its expansion: doctors who retrieve, fertilize, and implant eggs; pathologists and lab techs who grade, sort, store, and test eggs and embryos; agencies who match donors and parents; lawyers to write contracts; counselors to screen donors and parents. There’s money to be made—and the easiest, cheapest payoff goes to egg donors. Women’s bodies become mere commodities in a larger business. Is it right that others profit by putting young women at risk?

How to Save Your Family By Protecting the Vulnerable

The action here is simple: watch Jennifer's movie and share it with others. Do your best to get it in the hands of high school and college students.

Jennifer Lahl’s work brings pro-lifers, feminists, parents, and young women together in conversation about why it’s wrong to take advantage of those who are most vulnerable—and why we should never pressure or tempt someone to consent to something harmful. Their “yes” is our wrong.

Parents of young women should discuss specifically why egg donation harms their dignity, and may harm their health as well. The take-away for all of us is that we must work to create a culture that never demeans our humanity by allowing others to be treated as a means to an end.

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