Excuses for Limiting Stem Cell Research

There’s a law in California that would severely curtails stem cell research. Although Proposition 71 earmarked $300 million per year for SCR over 10 years, clinics are struggling with egg shortages. Fertility clinics are allowed to pay women to donate eggs, but Proposition 71 forbade research labs to do the same, even when there’s no other way for research to proceed.

“Without eggs, there’s no research,” said Dr. Robert Lanza, medical director of the biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology Inc.

Women routinely provide their eggs to fertility clinic patients, who pay $5,000 to $50,000.

But stem cell researchers are forbidden to pay for eggs by ethical guidelines from some of the most influential scientific organizations in the world, including the National Academies, which advises the U.S. government on scientific issues. California, Massachusetts, Canada, South Korea and the European Union all have passed laws barring payments.

The main argument for making payments illegal is that it’s exploitation: in that conception, no pun intended, paying women for their eggs will exploit low-income women, who need the money more than middle-class women. The problem is that extracting eggs is a somewhat risky procedure, with a possibility of serious complications; hence paying women will unfairly place a burden on low-income women.

However, the response to that shouldn’t be making paying women for their eggs illegal; it should be an informed consent clause. If not enough people know about the risks, the solution should be to educate them so that they can choose for themselves.

One of the problems right now is insufficient diversity in stem cell lines. Clinics only exist in the first world, which oversamples people of European, Japanese, and Korean descent and undersamples everyone else. In a specifically American context, the lower class has a starkly different genetic makeup from the middle and upper classes, because it has far more Africans and Hispanics.

Right now, lack of trust in government and scientific research on the part of poor Americans, especially African-Americans, makes the lines too white. Enough genes are race-specific that stem cell lines need to represent the entire world’s diversity; it’s obviously impossible for one country to do so, but properly representing the country’s ethnic minorities is a step in the right direction, especially when these minorities are globally underrepresented (e.g. it’s more important to get genetic material from blacks and South Asians than from East Asians).

To illustrate the importance of race here, consider HIV immunity. There’s a genetic mutation that renders an individual who has two copies of it immune to AIDS. Normally this mutation is mildly deleterious, so most populations barely have it. But among the diseases it confers immunity to are smallpox and the bubonic plague; a quick glance at the history of mid-second-millennium Europe would easily explain why the mutation’s incidence is 20% among Europeans while in China it was considered good news that there were even two people with the mutation.
Now, HIV receives enough attention that scientists know that the mutation is very rare in non-white people. But with less serious problems, it’s easy to overlook a beneficial mutation that gets rid of the problem if it’s specific to Africans or Latin Americans or South Asians, which is a serious problem since Africa has more genetic diversity than the rest of the world combined.

With the advent of gene therapy, knowledge of beneficial mutations is going to be more and more critical to curing certain diseases. It’s therefore very important for researchers to have access to the species’ entire gene pool, which means introducing some measures to increase diversity.

Paying women for their eggs is a good solution to that: it increases the number of eggs available for research, it increases the genetic diversity of stem cell lines, and it infuses poor people with money they need. Uninformed consent is a problem, and so is mistrust of science, but these are separate issues that banning payments will not solve or even mitigate. If anything, they illustrate the need for broader science education in the medium and long terms.
So yes, authorizing research labs to pay egg donors will make more low-income women donate eggs; but that’s a good thing, both for the women and for scientific research.

One Response to Excuses for Limiting Stem Cell Research

  1. David Jensen says:

    Not only is there a law, but there are two laws — one that affects the California stem cell agency and one that affects California stem cell research not funded by the $3 billion agency. The provisions are slightly different. To change the law affecting the agency it would take a vote of the people. See the California Stem Cell Report (californiastemcellreport.blogspot.com) for more on the whole subject of egg donations, risks and laws.

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