The question of whether women should be allowed to donate their eggs for scientific research has provoked much debate. At the moment women are able to donate their surplus eggs for the treatment of others as well as for research, such as fertility treatment. However, the recent rise in the embryo research has created a higher demand for fresh human eggs.

Should this donation be permitted?

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is currently asking for comments on whether IVF patients and women not having treatment should donate their eggs and if so, what safeguards should be put in place to ensure the protection of the donor. At the moment the procedures and drugs used to stimulate ovulation could cause women to suffer from ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) which, if severe, can be fatal. Further, scientists are not fully aware of the long term consequences of taking fertility drugs and fear that it may increase the chance of certain types of cancer. Even though the percentage of women who could have a severe form of OHSS is rare (less than1% of cases) and to date there is no conclusive evidence to show the link between ovulation drugs and cancer, many believe that the benefit does not justify the risk that women may run.

The HFEA identifies other issues that need careful consideration. First of all donating women must be advised by an independent person, and not by the person involved in the research project, otherwise the donor can be influenced and pressured into donating. Secondly, women donating eggs should not be paid as this could encourage women to donate eggs purely for financial reasons. Donors should only be reimbursed their expenses and be given a limited compensation for loss of earnings. Further, UK arrangements for obtaining eggs for research could affect the international use of the results of any successful research, particularly whether stem cell lines derived from UK donated eggs could be used internationally. Possibly stem cell lines could be shared with other researchers to prevent unnecessary repetition of experiments and waste of valuable material.

The consultation aims to find a balance between the well-being of the donor with the improvement in the treatment of conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries and diabetes. However, many have questioned the relevance of it as a team in Newcastle has been awarded a temporary licence to offer discounted IVF treatment if patients donate eggs for research. Nevertheless the HFEA has stressed the importance that women, who want to contribute to medical research, are given the chance to donate their eggs and that procedures and controls are in place to ensure that women donors are properly informed and free from any pressure.

If human egg donation were authorised, it might help to reduce shortage of human eggs available for research. This might reduce the need for the creation of human-animal embryos, or so-called “chimeras”, which some groups oppose on ethical and religious grounds.