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More media coverage of surrogacy outsourcing

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on February 21st, 2008

US popular media's fascination with the "rent-a-womb" boom in India continues with a segment Wednesday morning on NBC's The Today Show, the highest-rated morning news and talk show in the United States since 1996.

The Today segment features a US couple from Texas whose surrogacy arrangement involves an on-line medical tourism company and a fertility unit in a large hospital in Pune, India. It includes a brief remark by a young woman serving as a surrogate, who affirms that the money she'll earn (about $7000) is what motivates her, and a longer interview with the contracting couple, who affirm that the money they'll save (about $50,000) is what motivates them.

Today's correspondent mentions "ethical questions" raised by surrogacy outsourcing - which, she reports, has grown to a half-billion dollar industry in India - and refers to unnamed "critics" who point out that the practice is completely unregulated by the Indian government, and that the infant mortality rate in India is 69 times higher than it is in the United States. She even gives a few seconds to Columbia University ethicist Robert Klitzman, who raises concerns about "psychological risks" and the lack of data on "medical problems and complications" that surrogates might experience.

She doesn't mention that the Texas couple's surrogate is carrying twins, which according to a policy mentioned on the website of the medical tourism company they used, means that she'll be required to have a Caesarean.

As in many other US accounts of surrogacy in India, the overall tone is upbeat and approving. A successfully established pregnancy is described as "the beginning of a new life" and "a new beginning" for the surrogate. At least as much attention is given to the intended parents' inconveniences as to the surrogates' emotional, social, and physical challenges. And the segment's wrap-up is Today co-host Matt Lauer breezily wishing the Texas couple "congratulations and good luck."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Big Bucks Become Bigger at CIRM

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on February 19th, 2008

While publicly funded with taxpayer dollars, the California stem cell research agency is exempt from many of the norms of state governance. One example is that it sets the salaries of its employees on its own, instead of using the civil service pay scale. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine drew criticism early on when it disclosed that its staff salaries would range from $125,000 to $400,000 annually. As a reference point, the state's governor is offered $175,000. Now, the CIRM's leadership is looking to up those numbers, with the top end reaching $620,000.

For now, this is a range of possible salaries, and not yet actual paychecks. But given the lack of accountability to voters or their representatives, there's little doubt that salaries will catch up with these potential ranges.

Given the dire condition of the state's budget and the recent pay scandal at the University of California, this move will only attract more criticism for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. If the compensation sums skyrocket according to the CIRM's plan, calls for its termination, such as the recent editorial in Investor's Business Daily, would likely grow more common.

Previously on Biopolitical Times;

Looking for Donor Dads

Posted by Jamie D. Brooks on February 18th, 2008

Last week the Oprah Winfrey Show featured individuals looking for donor dads. Not single women or infertile couples considering sperm donation, but rather people who are the offspring of third-party sperm providers. According to estimates, at least one million individuals have been conceived in this fashion in the United States alone. Like the prospective parents who turn to sperm donation to complete their families, these donor offspring are looking to complete their families too.

Some of those featured on Oprah's show had fairytale endings to their quests. Gavin, who was conceived with sperm donated by Todd, donor # 2053, searched for and connected with his biological father. Gavin, his mother Cheryl, and Todd have been able to establish a rapport and even take vacations together. Cheryl says, "We are definitely a family."

Others told heartbreaking stories. Susan felt she had been "lied to" when she learned at age 27 that she had been conceived with donor sperm and shared no biological relation with the father who raised her. Susan has been unable to track down her donor dad.

Today, it's a common understanding that children should be told they are the offspring of donors, because they have a right to know their medical history and in order to eliminate the problems created by secrecy within families. The US has no federal regulation around gamete donor identification.

Some experts, like the University of Alberta's Laura Shanner [PDF], argue that it's a child's human right to know his or her genetic identity. Taken together, the tales told on the Oprah episode reinforce the argument that children of sperm donors need to find their biological fathers and half siblings in order to feel complete.

Expanding the egg business

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on February 15th, 2008

Ad now appearing in campus newspapers including UC Berkeley and Columbia

Press releases issued this week by two fertility companies bespeak changing - and troubling - dynamics in the growing commerce surrounding women's eggs.

In a February 11 statement, a Charlotte, NC fertility company called REACH announced an "urgent call for egg donors" and said that it is "eyeing far more aggressive means to recruit young women for egg donations in 2008." The press release is suffused with a tone of emergency about the "alarmingly widening gap between supply and demand" and the "spiraling" wait times "for older couples wanting to start families."

But there is no similar sense of urgency on the company's "What to Expect" web page for prospective egg donors. There, not a single risk or side effect is mentioned, though the known short-term risks are significant (and include, rarely, death) and the lack of data about long-term risks is notorious.

While the Charlotte fertility company seeks to grow its business via the now-traditional model of recruiting young women to provide eggs for people who are undergoing in vitro fertilization, emerging ventures are targeting a new demographic: fertile women who choose - or can be persuaded - to postpone childbearing until their 40s or beyond. Offers to freeze women's eggs for later use - after advancing a career, or meeting the partner of one's dreams - now litter the Internet, despite the experimental nature of egg-freezing technology.

One new egg-freezing venture is a partnership between a company called Extend Fertility and a Seattle fertility clinic. According to their joint press release, they will be offering "the first elective egg freezing service" in the Pacific Northwest. Unsurprisingly, Extend Fertility plays up the "freedom" and "empowerment" that putting eggs on ice offers to women, and plays down the risks of extracting them in the first place. "Egg harvesting is a proven, safe procedure," its website states.

Extend Fertility also minimizes the experimental status and highly uncertain outcomes of egg freezing, referring repeatedly to "breakthroughs" and offering "client testimonials" from women who have frozen their eggs (though not from any who have thawed and used them to make babies).

Extend Fertility's website declares that it "adher[es] to the strictest medical and ethical standards," and implies that its service is approved by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the fertility industry's trade and lobbying group. But it doesn't mention that ASRM recently concluded that while egg freezing may be appropriate for women undergoing chemotherapy that is likely to damage their eggs, it is an experimental technique and "should not be offered or marketed as a means to defer reproductive aging."

Is anyone out there looking for a case study in the need for regulation and oversight?

Previously on Biopolitical Times

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