Dynamist Blog

A Buyers' Cartel

In theory, if all buyers of a product agreed not to pay more than a certain amount for it, they could keep prices artificially low. In reality, that doesn't happen because there's always an incentive to cheat, getting access to scarce supplies by bidding up the price. But what if you get a professional society, and perhaps the law, to deem paying market prices--or, for that matter, anything at all--unethical? Then you'd have a bit more enforcement power.

That's what scientists who want to do embryonic stem cell research are trying to do with women's eggs. A new report from the National Academies recommends ethical guidelines for stem cell research, including what Rick Weiss of the WaPost characterized as a surprising call for a ban on paying egg donors.

I'm not so sure we should be surprised. Scientists are as self-interested as anyone else, especially when it comes to stretching scarce research dollars. What the guidelines do is try to set up a buyers' cartel.

Eggs are the scarce resource for producing embryos, including clones, for research. Donating eggs is not the least bit like donating sperm. It's no fun, and involves lots of nasty hormone injections and more than a little risk. (One of my relatives, who was young and otherwise healthy, was once hospitalized because of complications from an attempted egg donation.) Women who donate eggs for fertility treatments are well compensated for their troubles. (This site gives a price of $5,000.) And these women get the psychological compensation of knowing they're helping a couple have a much-wanted child. For most people, contributing to the incremental progress of medical research just doesn't have the same emotional punch.

It's not clear where researchers think free eggs will come from. Either the no-payment plan is a subtle way to sabotage research cloning by depriving it of eggs, or it's an economically naive effort to exploit idealistic young egg donors. Neither motive strikes me as ethical.

The National Academies information page, including a link to the full report, is here.

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