The tagline of our film Eggsploitation is “The infertility industry has a dirty little secret.” In the film we seek to expose the many facets of the market for human eggs, which very few people are aware of. These dirty little secrets include:
• Egg donors aren’t tracked over their lifetimes, so we have no idea what the long-term effects on young women’s health are.
• No major peer-reviewed studies have been done on the long-term effects of super ovulation on this donor population.
• Eggs aren’t tracked, so once they leave a human body it’s difficult to know where they end up, which sometimes literally means they can be halfway around the world.
• Many of the drugs used with egg donors carry risks of cancers, and some drugs have never been safety approved for this sort of use.
• Children born via egg donation often aren’t told of their conception story, and they often don’t have access to important information about their genetic mother.
Because of what might arguably be described as a cavalier attitude toward young women, their eggs, and their reproductive health, a great deal of important information is never recorded as part of their medical records. I often wonder how many women receiving a cancer diagnosis have in their history the fact they sold or donated their eggs. How many women struggling to conceive today were egg donors during college, for example? Since the egg donor is not considered a patient, often her primary care physician doesn’t know to ask or to include this information in her health history. Women may not even think that the fact that they donated their eggs is relevant to include in their medical histories and thus may not inform their physicians.
Take, for example, the recent case of Brittany Maynard. Brittany is remembered mostly because of her decision to take her own life after receiving a tragic diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, glioblastoma. What most people don’t know about Brittany’s medical history is that she was an egg “donor.” A year ago, a close family friend of Brittany’s, who has asked to remain anonymous, contacted me. This friend knew about my work exposing the risks to egg donors, and was worried, wondering if Brittany’s decision to sell her eggs and expose herself to potentially harmful fertility drugs might have any connection with her cancer diagnosis.
This important part of Brittany’s health profile does not appear to be part of her medical history, and it certainly was not part of the larger, very public conversation that followed once she made the decision to end her life.
As with many egg donors, it’s often a secret that only a few know. I’ve interviewed countless women who sold their eggs, and this is rarely on the top of their list of things to talk about. Often it is only when an egg donor suffers health-related problems that this information becomes known to others.
What do we know about glioblastomas, and might there be any connection with hormone use in egg donation? Glioblastomas are more common in men than women. This tumor is more common in older people than in younger people, primarily striking those between the ages of 45-70. One reason it is less common in women is because of the protective effect estrogen has for women. Some research suggests that there is evidence that hormonal factors might influence glioma risk. This clue initially came from the fact that women are significantly less likely to get such tumors. Then researchers discovered that exposure to estrogen due to early age at menarche may act to protect against DNA damage to glial cells. This is discussed in a prospective study by Silvera, et al., (2006:1322). In other words, estrogens appear to be neuroprotective.
Is it possible that, during the Lupron phase of egg donation when estrogen production is blocked and the woman is put into a medically induced menopause, the woman is exposed to risks from which she would otherwise be protected? What might the repeated effect of this be for women, like Brittany, who donated her eggs more than once?
I wonder about the children born from Brittany’s eggs who should know about their biological mother’s health history and diagnosis of glioblastoma. What, if anything, will they ever be told?
When will we finally track and monitor women who donate and sell their eggs? When will we do the studies necessary to ensure their health is protected?
Of course, I wish that policies would change so that women wouldn’t be targeted for their eggs and that this practice would be stopped altogether.
But the bottom line in Brittany’s case is that she had repeated exposure to a medley of hormone altering substances during her young and all too short life.
As I was finalizing this piece for publication, Brittany’s husband, Dan Diaz, announced he is going to work to expand the legalization of assisted suicide. This effort is deeply mistaken on many levels.
My point here is this: eggsploitation is real. I will continue to work to expose the dirty little secrets of the practice. And I wish, for the sake of the health of egg donors like Brittany, that her husband would join me and put his efforts into protecting women like his wife.
Jennifer Lahl is founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network. Lahl couples her 25 years of experience as a pediatric critical care nurse, a hospital administrator, and a senior-level nursing manager with a deep passion to speak for those who have no voice. She serves on the North American Editorial Board for Ethics and Medicine and on the Board of Reference for Joni Eareckson Tada’s Institute on Disability. In 2009, Lahl was associate producer of the documentary film, Lines That Divide: The Great Stem Cell Debate. She made her writing and directing debut producing the documentary film Eggsploitation, which has been awarded Best Documentary by the California Independent Film Festival.
This article has been reprinted with permission from the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network and can be found at http://www.cbc-network.org/2015/01/is-brittany-maynards-husband-fighting-the-wrong-battle/.