The US state of New York has announced plans to pay women to donate their eggs for research purposes. The plan, the first of its kind in the US, is designed to assist scientists wishing to perform human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research. The body behind the proposed schemes is the Empire State Stem Cell Board (ESSCB) which has overall responsibility for the state's $600,000,000 stem cell research programme launched last year.
Mirroring provisions for egg donation for reproductive purposes, the new rules authorise payments for 'out-of pocket expenses ... and the time, burden and inconvenience associated with oocyte donation', but expressly prohibit any payment that would amount to valuable consideration. This means that payments would be capped at $10,000 (£6,062) with any payment over $5,000 (£3,031) requiring particular justification. The board argues that 'a policy prohibiting reasonable payments because they may interfere with a woman's ability to weigh the risks and benefits of donation is unnecessarily paternalistic'.
The scheme is designed to avoid the world-wide issue of recruiting a sufficient number of women who are willing to donate their eggs for stem cell research. In the US, expensive advertising campaigns have failed to draw even a handful of donors and, in the UK, some clinics have begun offering free or reduced price IVF to donors, side-stepping prohibitions on payment. The shortage has led some labs to turn to cloning diseased human cells using animal egg sources to avoid the shortage of human eggs and thus to enable research to continue.
Though the decision in New York is the result of over a year's worth of deliberation and was cleared by the ESSCB ethics committee, it goes against existing advice on ES cell research from the US National Academies and reflects a new departure from previous institutional decisions (with some states having expressly prohibited such payments). The announcement has drawn fire from Catholic commentators stating that the payments are an inducement that will lead to the exploitation of poor and disenfranchised women.