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Eggsploitation: The Dirty Secrets of the Third-Party Reproductive Industry

Yorgos Nikas/Wellcome Images CC

Kathleen Sloan - published on 08/13/15

Using marginalized women for their wombs is exploitative, endangering them and the children created

I’m sure you’ve seen them in the media: attractive, well-off, smiling parents holding adorable infants created by third-party reproduction and assisted reproductive technologies (ART). Of course, the narrative goes, this development is a win-win for all. Who could object to children being created for those who through either infertility or biological sex are unable to reproduce?

But this picture hides the highly profitable fertility industry’s dirty secrets. It ignores what is required to create these children: exploitation, health endangerment, and the commodification of human life. An honest look at the facts and circumstances surrounding third-party reproduction and ART should give any thinking person pause.

The Exploitative Consequences of Egg Harvesting and Surrogacy

Third-party reproduction first of all requires the procurement of gametes, a man’s sperm and a woman’s egg. The egg is artificially inseminated, and a woman must gestate and give birth to the resulting embryo or embryos. What, in terms of chemicals and technology, is involved in obtaining the necessary human gametes? Here, biology is not exactly fair. While sperm is obtainable through the straightforward process of male ejaculation, it’s a radically different situation to obtain eggs. The egg provider must undergo weeks of painful self-injections of carcinogenic synthetic hormones and other drugs followed by surgery for egg retrieval.

Normally, a woman produces one or two eggs per month, but third-party reproduction calls for more. The object of eggsploitation is to generate as many eggs as possible at once. What is eggsploitation? Eggsploitation is the artificial procurement of an unnaturally large number of eggs—sometimes dozens—from healthy young women.

But acquiring eggs isn’t enough. You also need a womb. The surrogate mother, the woman who will gestate and give birth to the resultant embryo, must undergo a similar regimen of dangerous and painful procedures to prepare her body for implantation and gestation.

All of these procedures to which the egg provider and surrogate are subjected pose devastating short- and long-term health risks. The short-term risks include ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), characterized by difficulty breathing, excruciating pelvic pain, swelling of the hands and legs, severe abdominal pain and swelling, nausea, vomiting, weight gain, low urine output, and diarrhea. OHSS can be fatal. Other short-term risks are ruptured cysts, ovarian torsion, blood clots, chronic pelvic pain, premature menopause, infection, difficulty breathing, allergic reaction, bleeding, kidney failure, stroke, and even death.

The long-term risks include cancer, especially reproductive—ovarian, breast, or endometrial—cancers, and (in a sad irony) future infertility. Both surrogates and egg providers are typically given Lupron, a drug that is notapproved by the FDA for fertility use (it is used to treat men with advanced prostate cancer) to produce the onset of menopause with potentially incapacitating and long-lasting effects. Lupron and Synarel are used off-label and are Category X drugs, meaning that if a woman gets pregnant while taking the drug, the fetus will be harmed. Lupron also puts women at risk for intracranial pressure.

Real People, Real Lives at Risk

It is important in any discussion of these issues not to get lost in abstraction. The new documentary Eggsploitation: Maggie’s Story, produced by the Center for Bioethics and Culture, provides a very up-close-and-personal view of what actual women are subjected to by fertility clinics and the tragic consequences that can follow egg selling.

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