New York has become the first state to allow public money (in this case up to $10,000) to be offered to women who donate their eggs for stem cell research. While the move was heralded by many scientists and advocates, some proponents of stem cell research along with a few bioethicists are siding with conservative groups in questioning the measure.
The decision was made by the Empire State Stem Cell Board, which was granted $600,000 million by the state legislature in 2007 to devise an 11 year stem cell research plan for New York. Until now, researchers have had to rely on unwanted donor eggs from fertility clinics, which are often of poor quality and have yielded few results. [http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/26/nyregion/26stemcell.html?_r=6&ref=nyregion]
As Douglas A. Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Boston, explained to the Washington Post: "The lack of compensation has meant it's been nearly impossible to get enough eggs." [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/25/AR2009062501931.html?hpid=moreheadline]
Opponents worry that the new policy could potentially exploit women who are in difficult financial straights. Thomas Berg, a Catholic priest who serves on the Empire State Stem Cell Board's ethics committee, voted against the measure, arguing: "With the economy the way it is, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to know that when a woman is looking at receiving up to $10,000 to sign up for research project, that's an undue inducement. I think it manipulates women. I think it creates a trafficking in human body parts." [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/25/AR2009062501931_2.html?hpid=moreheadlines]
I frankly cannot think of a more altruistic action than to donate one's eggs, irrespective of whether there is financial compensation. As it currently stands in the United States, it is nearly impossible to get women to donate their eggs for stem cell research. The lengthy process involves receiving weeks of hormone shots, followed by what can be a painful extraction process. Given that fertility clinics routinely pay women to give their eggs to infertile couples, why shouldn't those wishing to donate their eggs with the equally benevolent goal of eradicating human suffering and pain also be compensated? Furthermore, participants in medical trials are usually compensated. Why shouldn't those who choose to donate eggs for stem cell research also be paid for their time and burden?
The reason New York State is even confronted with the issue in the first place is due to the years of political opposition and federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. In 2004, Californians voted to spend $3 billion in public monies on stem cell research, after President Bush restricted federal funding to only provide for research on stem cell lines that were in place by August of 2001. New York followed suit in 2007, with the second biggest state allocation of $600,000 million in public dollars. [http://www.boston.com/news/politics/president/bush/articles/2004/11/09/stem_cell_vote_blurs_religion_based_politics/]
Nurturing advancements in the use of stem cells is crucial, however, we must be careful to ensure that state monies are targeted to the most cutting edge research and one way to do this is to permit compensation for women so that researchers get the best quality eggs. The scientific and political communities in our country should take heed not to repeat the same mistakes that were made in the last several decades with regard to cancer research. Looking back at the history of funding cancer studies is very instructive. Who can forget President Nixon declaring war on cancer in 1971? His National Cancer Act vowed a dramatic reduction in cancer cases and discovery of a cure by 1976. Sadly, this did not occur as cancer death rates have only fallen 5 percent between 1950 and 2005, due in large part, as the New York Times notes, to a lack of cutting edge research. [http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A00EFDD143CF937A15757C0A96F9C8B63]
With the evident promise that stem cell research holds to combat diseases like diabetes, Parkinson's and spinal cord injuries, we must do all we can to promote the best and most efficacious research in this field. Relying on poor quality eggs from fertility clinics has clearly not yielded the breakthroughs we need. New York took a step in the right direction.
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