Canadian women flout laws to donate eggs
Published Tuesday, March 27, 2012 6:35PM EDT
For the last eight years, it's been illegal in Canada to pay for human eggs or sperm. But the practice continues nonetheless, with Canadian women earning good money donating their eggs to couples desperate for children.
And all of this goes on, say critics, because no one is enforcing the law.
CTV News met with a Canadian university student who recently made $5,000 for selling her eggs. The woman, who wants to remain anonymous, says she did it in part to help a desperate couple, but also to help pay her tuition.
"I thought that would be a good way to earn the money that I needed," she told us.
The woman says she heard through a friend about an agency here in Canada that matches young women who want to donate their eggs with couples from around the world who want babies. She says she knows a number of other women who have done the same.
In order to become an egg donor, the woman injected herself for a month with prescription fertility drugs. Then, when she was just about to ovulate, she went to a Toronto fertility clinic where doctors performed a procedure to retrieve the eggs.
"Since I am so young I took really well to the hormone medications and I think by the end of it, I had 24 eggs that were taken," she says.
Under the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, what this woman did was illegal. The Act states: "No person shall purchase, offer to purchase or advertise for the purchase of sperm or ova from a donor or a person acting on behalf of a donor."
The Act does allow donor and surrogate mothers to be reimbursed for "legitimate" expenses, but what constitutes a legitimate expense is not spelled out.
When a CTV employee, posing as a prospective egg donor, approached the agency brokering the sale of donor eggs, she was told that human eggs cannot be "sold" but under the law, donors can be reimbursed for expenses.
In a telephone consultation, the agency told her: "An expense has not been defined, so it can be whatever you decide your expenses are, to about $5,000."
She says that at no point, did the agency or the recipient couple ask the woman to submit any expense receipts. Yet in her bank account, the agency made a deposit of $900 around the time she began the fertility treatments, and then another $4,000 after the eggs had been retrieved.
Under the law, anyone violating the Assisted Human Reproduction Act could be fined up to $500,000 or face 10 years in jail. But since the law came into effect, no one has ever been charged with violating the law. And yet it appears that a "grey" market continues, with ads offering compensation to Canadian egg donors found easily online.
The situation is a mess, says Sara Cohen, who specializes in fertility law as a partner at Raviele Vaccaro LLP.
"Unfortunately, what we have done with this legislation is drive everyone underground, and that benefits no one," Cohen tells CTV News.
"It doesn't benefit the parents, it does not benefit the donors and it doesn't benefit the children conceived using these donor eggs."
A federal agency, called Assisted Human Reproduction Canada, is supposed to be in charge with enforcing the act and policing the country's fertility industry. But in recent years, a number of key members of its board have quit in frustration.
The agency currently receives $10 million a year and now, some are watching this week's federal budget to see if the agency continues to receive money or if the agency is scrapped.
Margaret Somerville, the founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, says she find it worrisome that no one appears to be regulating the buying and selling of human reproductive parts in Canada.
"We turn into a society where everything's for sale. I think that's a disaster for some of our most important values," she says.
Somerville says charges should be laid if fertility clinics and agencies are violating those laws.
"We have to say that is wrong and we're not going to let you do it and we're going to do everything legal in our power to stop you from doing it," she says.
At the end of 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that parts of the reproduction act were unconstitutional and that it should be up to the provinces to regulate and license fertility clinics and doctors.
Yet since that time, the act has not been rewritten and there has been no word on when it will be.
Dr. Roger Pierson, a professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Saskatchewan and a past president of the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society, says the federal government needs to answer the question: Do we allow the selling of eggs or don't we?
"It does absolutely no good to have a law on the books that is neither enforceable nor enforced. That leaves people on both sides of the equation in a quandary," he says.
"We can't have wishy-washy enforcement of the law. Either enforce it or take it away. But you have to make a decision."
Cohen says she thinks the law should be scrapped and barriers eliminated so that couples wanting children can be free to build their families.
"I have a really big problem with the law. I think it is very paternalistic and it assumes that women don't necessarily know what is best for them and can't make reasonable and informed decisions."
The egg donor who spoke to CTV News says she has no regrets.
"I would definitely do it again," she says. "It is such a great opportunity to help someone who is infertile or can't have children and there is really no downside to it."
With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip