Conference debates treatment of Canadian egg donors
Published Friday, September 23, 2011 7:26AM EDT
TORONTO - A discussion about whether women who donate eggs for infertility procedures are adequately looked after in the process descended into a verbal mauling at the annual meeting of the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society on Thursday.
And in the main, the audience loved it.
Dr. Robert Stillman, medical director of a Washington, D.C. fertility clinic, verbally eviscerated the two other members of a panel that was meant to look at issues related to egg donation.
He dismissed as "anecdotes" the concerns raised by Alison Motluk, a Toronto-based freelance journalist who has investigated why women donate eggs and how they are treated in the process.
But Stillman saved his worst for Jennifer Lahl, executive director of the California-based Center for Bioethics and Culture.
Lahl is highly critical of assisted reproductive technologies or ART, as the field is called, and showed segments of a documentary she'd made called "Eggsploitation" to bolster her argument that egg donors face health risks they aren't told about by an industry that focuses its concern on helping infertile people have babies.
There's been no research on whether the donation process affects the health of women whose ovaries are stimulated to generate multiple eggs for harvesting, Lahl said. Without that, she argued, one can't say women donating eggs have given informed consent, a legal necessity.
But Stillman suggested Lahl had a religious bias against assisted reproduction, saying he was insulted by her arguments and her assertion that egg donors are exploited.
After the panel discussion ended, he ran through the types of claims he said Lahl routinely makes about the fertility industry when she talks on university campuses. Campuses are a rich recruiting ground for American fertility clinics and infertile couples, who can and do offer to pay thousands of dollars for donor eggs.
Canadian law bars any financial compensation for human eggs.
"'Plunder.' 'Total lack of regard.' Not lack of regard, not enough regard -- I'm fine with those. One can certainly argue that there isn't enough regard, that there should be more regard," Stillman said.
"(But) total lack of regard for the donor's well-being. It's simply not true. It's not accurate."
One woman in the audience chastised Stillman for his treatment of his fellow panellist.
Diane Allen, co-founder of the Infertility Network -- a charity that provides information to infertile people and advocates for the rights of donor offspring -- said it made her uncomfortable to see any speaker treated with disrespect.
"I said I was uncomfortable. I should have said I was ashamed as well," Allen said after the session concluded. "I was just shocked. I'd be shocked to see any speaker, whether I agree or disagree, treated like that."
Lahl too seemed dazed. "Do I have a personal faith? Absolutely. But I didn't come at these issues saying 'OK, I believe X about the cosmos, therefore I believe this about ART,"' she said.
However, the 150 or so people in the session appeared to think Stillman was on the money, answering his scathing attack with sustained applause. When Allen was explaining to a journalist how unsettled she was by his talk, a stranger interjected that she should have been proud.
Almost lost in the heat of the discussion was the fact that there was some common ground among the panellists.
All agreed that not enough is known about the women and their care. Stillman even advocated creation of a mandatory donor registry that would track outcomes of fertility cycles using donor eggs and medical complications donors experience.
He suggested as well that there should be pre- and post-donation psychosocial support, a standardized informed consent form and limits on the number of donation cycles women donating eggs can undergo.
Lahl said she liked a number of the recommendations Stillman made, but expressed pessimism that the industry would adopt them. "It's like herding cats," she said.
Stillman acknowledged he too was pessimistic, a rare moment of agreement in an otherwise combative session.