The Ethics of Buying Eggs

Here’s a little news tidbit that is making me think.  New York State will now pay women to donate eggs for embryonic stem cell research.  No other state does this.   All other states recruit women to donate for free.  And according to the article, this is not terribly successful. 

The first thing I wonder about is whether there is some meaningful difference between paying women to donate eggs and buying the eggs.   The former is the formulation used in the article.   But is that any different from the latter?  

To the extent one sees this as a moral issue (and I think that is what the discussion here is primarily about) does it matter how you characterize it?  In instrumentalist terms, I doubt it makes any difference–whether you pay for the donation or buy the eggs, from the donor’s point of view, she gets money and the research project gets the eggs. 

Once I get past that question, I hit a second.  Eggs are widely purchased for use in ART.    Why would it be morally permissible to purchase them for ART, but impermissible to purchase them for research?   (I do understand that you might say that purchasing eggs for any purpose is immoral.  If you take that view, then the question here is an easy one–it’s immoral, too.)

There’s an explanation for this line-drawing offered in the article, but I’m not sure it really helps me.   Professor Capron essentially says that it is okay to pay for eggs for ART, because we know that ART works.   By contrast research may or may not yield results.   Somehow that uncertainty changes the moral calculus. 

I’m not sure I agree with the reasoning.  I can easily see that a woman might choose to donate (or sell) eggs for ART and not for research.  In the first instance there is a more concrete altruistic reward–you help someone have a child.  In the second, while you may see yourself as part of a larger plan for curing various illnesses, there’s nothing quite so concrete.   But that is thinking from the woman’s point of view. 

In deciding whether or not it should be permissible to pay for the eggs I think have have to reason from a broader social good perspective.   The social good may well be more certain in the case of eggs for ART.   But the risk to the woman in donating the eggs is identical no matter what the purpose.   If the social good of stem cell research is sufficiently manifest that it is okay to collect eggs for that purpose, I don’t really see why it makes it less moral to pay for them. 

It might be that what is at work here is a concern about economic coercion–that poor women will essentially have to sell their eggs in order to pay the rent, etc.   But why is that okay if it’s for ART and not OK for research?  Once again, many more questions than answers.

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2 responses to “The Ethics of Buying Eggs

  1. It’s a waste of money for the government to buy eggs. Seriously. Just like now they pay kids in some states for getting grades–all a joke. Why should the people have to pay for this–especially during hard times.

  2. Maybe, you’re right, but it is hard to be certain (at least for me) without a lot more information. Sometimes research pays off tremendous dividends, saving vast amounts of money the in future. I’m not convinced that stopping research because it costs money to do it is necessarily a good idea. And if you’re doing the research, then I think you might reach this question about the most effective way to get it done. Surely what they did in MA ($100,000 for one donor) is not better.

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