Date Published: 8 September 2006

HFEA launches public consultation on donating eggs for scientific research (UK)

The HFEA is today asking the public about the detailed issues of women donating their eggs for research. The paper outlines the key details raised by the issue of donating for research, including how women donors could be vulnerable and questions about the potential safeguards that could help.

The new consultation specifically asks whether or not IVF patients, and/or women not having treatment should be allowed to donate eggs for research; and if so, what the appropriate safeguards should be. Key issues that people are asked to consider are:

The risk of the egg collection process

For example, ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) is a risk for women whose eggs are to be collected for fertility treatment or donation. More commonly, it is a mild condition that is easily monitored. In very rare cases, severe OHSS can be fatal.

The potential risk of women being coerced into donating for research

The paper gives examples of when a woman could potentially be coerced into donating eggs for research, such as:

a) If they had a partner or relative with a genetic illness that they felt research would eventually help to cure and so felt under pressure to donate their eggs to aid research.
b) If a female scientific researcher felt pressure from colleagues to donate her eggs to aid the research project, a recent issue in the South Korean controversy.

The conflicts of interest within clinics that recruit donors for research

For example, if a member of the research team is involved in talking to the women who might donate, and/or in selecting the eggs that might be donated from a patient's IVF cycle then perhaps the researcher could underplay the risks of donating and put pressure on women to donate.

Existing safeguards for research projects include preventing researchers from being involved in the recruitment, consent process or treatment of donors (unless the patient wishes to discuss the project in more detail) and that a donor can withdraw their consent up to the point that their eggs, sperm or embryos are used in research.

The consultation also puts forward a range of suggested safeguards for discussion, such as:

  • A "cooling-off" period for donors wherein a woman can withdraw her initial consent before any effective treatment or donation can take place.
  • Relatives of people suffering from a condition potentially curable as a result of research following egg donation should be subject to additional restrictions e.g. extra counselling or limitations on the specific projects to which they can donate.
  • Potential donors to see independent counsellors about the implications of donating to research.
  • Potential donors to be evaluated to check that they have the proper information.

In addition, people are invited to make their own suggestions about what other safeguards should be put in place.

Angela McNab, Chief Executive of the HFEA, said:

" We know the importance of scientific development, but it is our job to ensure that it is safe and appropriate for the patients and donors that make it possible. If that is not the case then we must act to protect their interests.

_ Research requiring donated eggs is at the cutting edge of science, and there is pressure on researchers to continue to develop new technologies.

_ There has been a lot of broad discussion on this issue within the scientific and medical community, but a more detailed and specific debate is now needed to help the Authority to make a decision on donating eggs for research."

Source: Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HEFA), UK

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