Brown’s action on female eggs bill raises questions

In vetoing a controversial bill Tuesday night that would have allowed women to receive compensation for egg cells used in research, Gov. Brown wrote, “Not everything in life is for sale nor should it be.”

But while Brown’s pithy, oft-quoted statement indicates that female oocyte cells are one of those things that shouldn’t be for sale, egg cells do, in fact, remain on the market for fertility in California, veto or not.

“It shows a glaring inconsistency in the governor’s veto statement,” said the author of AB 926, Assemblymember Susan Bonilla, D-Concord. “The veto statement was very overreaching in the fact that it was making very broad statements about what women should be able to do, and while it’s not legislation it certainly goes to a mindset that the governor has that I find particularly troubling.”

The question of equality was just one of many complex and existential issues surrounding this legislation. While proponents couched the bill in terms of gender equality, opponents focused on the questions of informed consent and research ethics presented by donation’s health risks.

Bonilla added in her written statement, “Market-driven compensation of donors by donor agencies and prospective parents continues unchecked in California.”

Given that selling eggs for fertility is still legal in California, even opponents of AB 926 may still have concerns that Brown’s veto failed to address.

“The informed consent issues are the same for both groups [research and fertility] and I think that there isn’t enough information out there to prove that these procedures are safe,” said Diane Tober, Associate Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, a group that opposed the bill. “Hopefully this will provide policymakers, people in the reproductive industry, researchers, and women’s health advocates a time to get together and start thinking about what a registry should look like so we actually can gather data on women’s experiences as egg providers.”

One of Tober and other opponents’ major arguments for a veto was that there has been no major research to consider the long term effects of egg harvesting on donors, while recipients have been tracked.

Despite all this uncertainty and controversy surrounding the bill and Brown’s veto, however, the debate in the Legislature was relatively quiet.

“I was a little surprised the bill got through as quickly and as easily as it did,” said Hank Greely. Greely is a Stanford law professor who specializes in the ethical issues surrounding this type of technology and also serves as chair of California’s Human Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee.

AB 926 passed the Assembly in early May with a vote of 54-20 and in the Senate, 24-9, about two months later. It would have overturned a ban passed in 2006, on the heels of the 2004 proposition that established its $3 billion stem cell agency the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

At that time, there was an uproar of debate regarding stem cell research and a great deal of concern over the numer of eggs that might be harvested with increased funding for embryonic research. But Greely suggested that that debate has quieted some with shifts in technology that may reduce the number of egg donors needed.

“Originally it was thought that stem cell research might use thousand and thousands of eggs particularly if it led to medical therapies based on what is called somatic cell nuclear transfer,” Greely said. “That possibility has really faded.”

Greely said that it was the development of induced pluripotent stem cells by Shinya Yamanaka in 2007 that alleviated the concerns of the stem cell debate in the early 2000s

Although Brown’s veto still makes California only one of three states to explicitly ban such compensation, it is significant given its prominence in stem cell and other research. Massachusetts, another prominent research state, and South Dakota, which bans nearly all research of this nature, are the other two states with such a ban on compensation.

The role of California in research of this nature alongside the steps proponents believe researchers could make in women’s health was Bonilla’s biggest concern, especially given that much of the research could have advance women’s fertility, she said.

“The veto of this bill shows a disinterest in allowing very important research for women’s health to thrive in the state of California,” Bonilla said. “It’s puzzling to me that the governor would not want to see California in a lead position in women’s health research.”

But opponents believe the veto will start an equally important women’s health discussion on the risks of egg donation procedures.

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