by Katrina George
August 22, 2006
LifeNews.com Note: Katrina George is a lecturer in law at the University of Western Sydney and a director of Women’s Forum Australia, a public policy group on women’s issues.
The debate about stem cells and cloning is coming to a head, with Prime Minister John Howard saying he will allow a conscience vote should legislation be introduced to allow the technology.
We’ve heard a lot about promised cures for everything from spinal cord injury to Alzheimer’s. We’ve been alerted to a brain drain of scientists unless parliament gives the nod to the technology. Premiers Peter Beattie and Steve Bracks warn that Australia will go socially and economically backwards unless we jump on the biotechnology bandwagon.
Amid all the hype, there has been silence about the interests of one stakeholder: women. Cloning embryos for their stem cells depends on a continuous — and large — supply of ova. This requires high doses of ovulation-stimulating drugs, with side effects such as hot flushes, bloating, moodiness, headaches, weight gain and tiredness.
There is increasing evidence that the super-ovulation process is associated with more serious health risks. Up to 10 per cent of egg donors experience ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome, which can lead to hospitalization, renal failure, future infertility and even death. Just last week a healthy 37-year-old woman in Britain died after her eggs were obtained for in-vitro fertilization. Nita Solanki appears to have succumbed to internal bleeding and renal failure. This follows the death of a 33-year-old woman after IVF treatment in Britain last year.
The International Society for Stem Cell Research has issued draft guidelines for egg donation, insisting on informed consent. However, an editorial in the journal Nature is skeptical about the efficacy of informed consent, pointing out what reproductive specialists and women’s health advocates have long argued: that the long-term health effects of these drugs on women are unknown.
Some studies suggest the drugs may be linked to certain cancers that may not appear until women are in their 50s or 60s. Researchers say that we need longitudinal studies. But as Nature journalist Helen Pearson says, "It’s unclear who will drive the effort: private fertility clinics may have little interest in finding out the potential risks of the drugs they use."
Cloning always amounts to the commodification of women’s bodies. Even if egg donors are motivated by altruism, the biotechnology companies are profit-making ventures. In one 2002 study some egg donors used farm-animal metaphors to describe the experience. "I just got the feeling … you were second class … I’m just the produce stand … like the cow at the market," remarked Chris. Melanie likened the experience to prostitution: "I definitely wasn’t in charge there … You’ve rented your body out … It was like you were some kind of prized heifer or something."
No wonder scientists find it so difficult to obtain enough ova for experiments. Recent efforts blur the line between consent and coercion. Extensive publicity campaigns in Britain have failed to recruit egg donors without commercial payment. So one clinic has turned to desperate infertile couples, offering them cut-price IVF in return for harvesting extra eggs for research. The South Korean cloning scandal involved more than 2200 ova obtained by paying and pressuring women, some of them in subordinate positions within the research lab.
You can read the rest of the opinion article here.