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Risking Women’s Health, While Widening the Door to Techno-Eugenics

Image Source: Cover Art for the book Biotech Juggernaut

In September, California’s legislature passed AB 922, a bill legalizing the payment to women for their eggs for research purposes.  Additionally, next year, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is expected to return to the voters to secure passage of an initiative that will supply billions of dollars to fund entrepreneurial bioresearch. If Governor Newsom does not veto AB 922, CIRM will have a green light to fund research that will not only jeopardize women’s health through egg extraction but will enable the controversial genetic manipulation of human embryos. (Already, there are bioentrepreneurs who have created genetically engineered human embryos for implantation.)

This human genetic engineering would be massively amplified by vastly expanding the market in women’s eggs, the raw material necessary for the industrialization of human production. (see Stuart A. Newman: “Our Assembly-Line Future? CounterPunch, July 28, 2018 ). AB 922 and the expected repeat funding of CIRM constitute the leading edge of a juggernaut roaring down the road to techno-eugenics.

When instituted in 2004, CIRM was specifically prohibited from funding research that paid women for eggs. Only reimbursement for expenses directly associated with donation was allowed. Federal guidelines similarly reflected caution and continue to do so. According to the National Academy of Sciences 2010, “no payments, cash or in kind, should be provided for donating oocytes [i.e., egg cells] for research purposes.” AB 922 constitutes an end-run around these well-justified provisions.

The Center for Genetics and Society (CGS), Friends of the Earth, Alliance for Humane Biotechnology, many women’s advocacy groups, including Our Bodies Ourselves, and reproductive justice groups, including Black Women for Wellness and California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, came out in opposition to AB 922. But this bill is only the most recent attempt of bio-entrepreneurial interests and well-funded lobbying over the course of more than a decade, to expand access to women’s eggs. The physically invasive egg retrieval process has resulted in serious complications for many women who have donated eggs and its short-term and long-term health risks have not been adequately studied. Moreover, these risks are shouldered inequitably. As a CGS and Pro-Choice Alliance for Responsible Research fact sheet on the bill underscores:

“Paying women for their eggs for research creates an “undue incentive” for women of limited financial means to participate in a procedure that has not been shown to be safe. Since low-income women are disproportionately women of color and immigrants, they are likely to be the most affected. They may also have limited access to medical care should they experience adverse health effects beyond the current standard of care for egg providers, and less likely to benefit from any scientific advances that may result from the research.”

Finally, the push to commercialize eggs has been accompanied by claims that research in human reparative medicine will be thwarted without it. But such claims should not be accepted uncritically. While ethical considerations may see some lines of investigation foreclosed, the historical record shows that scientists resourcefully find other avenues to reach desired goals. Consider, for example, the once prevailing scientific imperative that brought CIRM into existence in 2004: that human embryos, not funded as research materials by the Federal government, were the only source of stem cells that could turn into a wide variety of reparative cell types. But just two years later Dr. Shinya Yamanaka introduced the scientific community to induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These cells have much the same properties as embryonic stem cells but were made from mature tissues. Importantly, they do not require the harvesting of women’s eggs. Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize for his work in 2012. Virtually all stem cell biologists now use iPS cells instead of the embryonic ones. This includes recipients of CIRM funds as well, notwithstanding the fact that the raison d’etre of CIRM, the fact that the federal government would not fund research on the most versatile stem cells (at the time those derived from embryos), no longer exists in the era of iPCs. Why then, is the demand for women’s eggs for bioresearch growing?

One highly controversial reason is to fund research seeking to create gene edited embryos. This is something that CIRM has considered, as recounted in Biotech Juggernaut: Hope, Hype, and Hidden Agendas of Entrepreneurial BioScience. Surely the public, which pays for CIRM funded research, has the right to steer it away from techno-eugenicist uses. Blocking AB 922 would be a start.

Time is running out.  The governor has until October 13 to veto or sign bills.  It is not known when he might get to AB 922.  Please contact Governor Newsom’s office to call for a veto of AB 922.

Visit: https://govapps.gov.ca.gov/gov40mail/ or tweet @GavinNewsom to veto AB 922.

For more information about AB 922, visit:

https://www.geneticsandsociety.org/article/california-shouldnt-expand-market-womens-eggs

For more information about the risks and consequences of egg harvesting, visit:

http://www.humanebiotech.org/egg-donors-project

Tina Stevens and Stuart Newman are the authors of Biotech Juggernaut:  Hope, Hype, and Hidden Agendas of Entrepreneurial BioScience (Routledge, 2019.)

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