British couples who travel abroad for IVF treatment and buy other women’s eggs are engaging in a form of prostitution, a fertility conference was told yesterday.
In an attack on the “fertility tourism” industry, Naomi Pfeffer warned that increasing numbers of “vulnerable women in developed countries” were being exploited by Westerners who were desperate to conceive.
Professor Pfeffer, who researches controversial developments in medicine, told the Motherhood in the 21st Century Conference at University College London: “The exchange relationship is analogous to that of a client and a prostitute. It’s a unique situation because it’s the only instance in which a woman exploits another woman’s body.”
Her comments, likely to reignite the debate on the ban on paying for eggs and sperm in Britain, were backed up by Lord Winston, the fertility expert and broadcaster. He told The Times: “She’s right, basically. It’s a form of exploitation.”
A recent study revealed that hundreds of British couples were travelling to Europe for IVF treatment every month. University College London researchers have estimated that at least 20,000 to 25,000 cross-border fertility treatments are being carried out on the Continent each year.
Donors, in destinations such as Spain, the Czech Republic, Romania and Ukraine, are paid hundreds of pounds for their eggs. Professor Pfeffer said that these women were often vulnerable, desperate and willing to take health risks to make sizeable sums of money.
She said: “Most of these women are in developing economies where access to healthcare is limited by their ability to pay. They are often vulnerable women and it’s a very unequal economic relationship.
“These women are being encouraged to take real risks with their health through ovarian stimulation and egg retrieval. It commodifies women’s bodies and treats their reproductive capacities as a service.”
Egg donors typically undergo a donation cycle of three to six weeks, during which time they take contraceptive pills to control their natural fertility cycle. Usually during the first week the donor sniffs a hormonal nasal spray, which is followed by two to four weeks of self-administered hormonal injections to stimulate egg production.
The egg-harvesting procedure takes about 30 minutes and is carried out under a light anaesthetic. A needle is guided by ultrasound through the vaginal wall to retrieve follicles containing eggs from both ovaries.
Professor Pfeffer said that even using the term “donation” in relation to the exchange of eggs was inappropriate. “It sounds as though it’s a gift. But these women are not doing it for altruistic reasons — they are doing it for money. We shouldn’t talk about them as egg donors.”
Furthermore, she said, it raised questions for the child who was conceived. “What can you tell a child when half their genetic make-up came from a woman in Romania? A woman who was so poor that she was prepared to enter [into egg exchange]? What does that child think of its social mother, a woman who was prepared to exploit another woman?”
She said that British parents should face up to the consequences of their actions. “They should know that they are using vulnerable women. These women who are buying eggs have to appreciate that the eggs don’t appear from a stork or from under a gooseberry bush.”
A private IVF cycle costs at least £4,000 in Britain but is half the price in parts of South and Eastern Europe. A recent survey showed that two thirds of Britons engaging in fertility treatment in Europe were aged over 40 because they did not qualify for free treatment on the NHS.
Professor Winston said that British doctors were fuelling fertility tourism by referring their patients to European clinics for IVF treatment because the industry was less regulated. “That is not a way for us to be behaving,” he told the conference.
Several other experts agreed that the increasing popularity of the fertility tourism industry needed to be urgently addressed.
Professor Sammy Lee, one of the country’s leading experts on fertility, said that there needed to be a debate on the British ban on buying eggs and sperm.
“This issue needs to be addressed,” he said. “One of the reasons people are going to Europe is that it is so hard to get eggs in Britain. It’s going to happen more because people are looking for areas where the law and guidelines are less strict, where they can pay donors and donors are more available.”
In July the fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, said that the longstanding British ban should be reconsidered to try to reduce the number of people going abroad for treatment.
**Beating the queue
Many British doctors refer patients abroad if they do not want to join the NHS’s three-year waiting list for donor eggs
Prime destinations include Spain, the Czech Republic, Romania and Ukraine because donors are paid
In fertility tourism, two thirds of women are estimated to be above 40. They do not qualify for free treatment on the NHS
Researchers estimate that 20,000-25,000 cross-border fertility treatments are carried out on the Continent each year
Source: Times database