On Tuesday April 10, I was invited to speak at a Press Briefing at the National Press Club in Washington DC. You can watch it here on CSPAN. My colleague Josephine Quintavalle, who is the co-director of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, joined me. You may recall we were in Washington DC on March 8th addressing the harm to women undergoing egg harvesting for cloning research. The film from that congressional briefing is up on YouTube (make sure to visit the link, view it, rate it, and pass it on). Here is a summary of the points I made.
1. The surplus embryo is a myth. The famous Rand study notes that of the 400,000 frozen embryos in U.S., less than 3% of these embryos are available for research. Why is this? One major reason is the disposition decision for all of these parents is torturous. I refer you to an article in the July 2006 Mother Jones titled, ‘Souls on Ice: America’s Embryo Glut and the Wasted Promise of Stem Cell Research‘ which discusses a key study in the Journal of Fertility and Sterility. The study found, ‘Parents conceptualize frozen embryos as biological tissue, living entities, ‘virtual’ children having interests that must be considered and protected, siblings of their living children and symbolic reminders of their past infertility.’ These are desperately wanted children and these parents are affected by a sort of Chinatown Syndrome, ‘they are my children, they are tissue’. In the end, these parents are left with no decision that feels right and often choose not to make a decision over the fate of their embryos.
2. The frozen embryo is not what the scientific researcher wants. Surplus embryos will never satisfy the desires of science. 3% of the 400,000 surplus embryos will not meet the scientists’ demands for new cell lines. The Lancet article,’Clinical Challenges in Providing Embryos for Stem Cell Initiatives (July 10, 2004) states, ‘most cryopreserserved-donated embryos are of suboptimal quality. The low quality is mainly because they have been selected against, with the highest quality embryos used in the fresh cycle, and because the cryopreservation process damages the embryos…’
This great embryonic cloning stem cell debate has never been a debate over surplus embryos. The end game has always been that of pursuing human embryonic cloning—somatic cell nuclear transfer. Cloning researchers want fresh eggs of the highest quality, fresh embryos and lots of them. Instead of modeling our policies after our neighbors in Canada who have said no thank you to cloning research so vehemently that they have banned it under federal law with jail time attached, we see states like New York which has just announced they will enter the stem cell race with a goal to be second to the state of California by putting $100 million into this research in 2008, and ultimately to reach $1 billion in funding over the decade. The New York measure outlaws reproductive cloning but makes no mention of research cloning–otherwise known as somatic cell nuclear transfer—human cloning. And the nameless faceless human egg is necessary for all of this research. Robert Lanza, vice president of research at ACT, said his company has problems getting egg donors. Researchers complain about the bottleneck, slowing down their research is the insufficient numbers of eggs available. Lanza said, ‘We ran an exhaustive recruitment program over the last six months, with disappointing results,’ he says. While more than 100 women replied to advertisements for egg donors, according to Lanza, almost all of them dropped out of the process when they learned about the time and medical procedures involved. I will conclude with the final reality that needs to be addressed immediately.
3. The exploitation of women who are the resource for the coveted human egg. Annually we enjoy the traditional Easter Egg Roll here in Washington DC while children around the world enjoy Easter Egg hunts, but unlike these fun annual events, hunting for eggs, the human egg is no game. The embryo cloning research agenda will require millions of human eggs and at a great price to young women. The health risks are real as we tamper with their future fertility and their very lives and offering no benefit whatsoever to them. 25 years of reproductive technologies addressing infertility have lured us into thinking that ovarian stimulation and egg harvesting and retrieval procedures are safe. But that is far from reality, as we look at the different ways a women’s body can be harmed. First, the powerful hormones injected to suppress ovarian function and then to hyperstimulate the ovaries can lead to ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which in some women can be quite severe causing strokes, organ failure and even death. One woman died of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome as a direct result of Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. Another Stanford student suffered a severe stroke because of OHSS. A recent publication, which reviewed the literature on arterial thrombosis, reported on 34 women after ovarian stimulation. In 12 cases cerebral arteries were involved, one case had major retinal artery involvement, 6 cases had occlusions in major peripheral vessels and 2 cases with mesenteric artery occlusions. 3 women had myocardial infarctions and two had intracardiac thrombosis. The case review of these women showed the majority of them had no associated risk factors and several were left with either residual paralysis post stroke and two women had required amputation and one fatality was reported. Since June 2005- 5 women in the UK have died of OHSS. Two major studies also suggest a link between ovarian cancer and ovarian stimulation. The human cloning agenda ignores the truth that very real women will be at risk for very real harm. I ask you, are we really willing to ignore these realities? Can we ethically build a biotech agenda on our young women? Should we expect any young women to take these risks?
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