When I read about President Obama’s new stem cell research policy, I realized that it was yet another compromise half-measure. Yes, it removed the Bush moratorium, but it only allows federal funding for new cell lines derived from embryos created for in vitro fertilization. While this is a step forward, it is unclear if cell lines developed from these embryos, some of which were not used due to concerns over their status, would actually be good cell lines. That means we need egg donation. Unfortunately, as Seed’s Evan Lerner describes in “New York’s Stem Cell Coup,” it’s difficult, if not impossible, to convince women to do this for free. Egg donation is not like drawing blood—it is an invasive surgical procedure. To overcome this reluctance to donate, New York will allow women to sell their eggs.
As with any issue involving lady bits, this presents a superb opportunity for philosophical grandstanding. (Note: I have no ethical problems with embryonic stem cell research; obviously, if one does, then this particular debate is moot. Payment or no payment, it is unethical.) I think this is an intelligent policy. While I am concerned that some women may do this solely out of economic desperation (of course, critics might want to focus on that problem), we compensate research subjects all the time. Some might argue that this is selling one’s body (literally). But research studies perform biopsies all the time. To me, this is no different than any other biopsy, except that this biopsy is from part of the reproductive tract.
To the extent that there is a controversy, that is what will drive it: Lady bits are icky—even though half of all people have them. Go figure. People will freak out over this because it involves reproduction. If it were colon biopsies, no one would care. But mention embryos and suddenly people get queasy. Never mind that it is only a few eggs—and we do need to establish limits on the amount because this procedure is irreversible. (No give backsies!)
I also find it interesting that there has been so little mention of this in the popular press. Maybe “cultural” issues—that is, the agenda of the theopolitical right—does not resonate so well in the midst of an economic crisis, while the potential to cure disease has far more staying power, if not sex appeal.
Except for the lady bits.
Originally published July 22, 2009