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Other People’s Eggs

They come to America with altruistic intentions, to help the Jewish people reproduce and, not incidentally, to receive compensation for the enormous risk they take with their bodies. But as Ayelet Bechar shows in her front-page story this week, the growing incidence of young Israeli Jewish women becoming egg donors for infertile American Jewish couples raises profound philosophical and moral questions that must be addressed.

And it’s not likely that government will be able to provide the answers. Even if international regulations are strengthened and enforced, most of the trade will remain invisible, as Debora Spar notes. Spar, an expert in this field and now the new president of Barnard College, sees an ethical risk in promoting the idea that women can delay and delay child bearing just because it’s medically possible to implant embryos in a uterus.

No less troubling is the commodification of the mysterious process of creating life. The noble aim of enabling once-infertile couples to give birth must be balanced with a thorough examination of the implications of turning women’s bodies into gestational suppliers. Whose egg is it, anyway? Who is the mother? Are those with money and means taking advantage of those without, turning needy women into mere vessels for the fulfillment of others?

Would we feel differently about this if instead of calling these women “egg donors,” we were to call them, as bioethicist Art Caplan suggests, “egg sellers”? (And their counterparts, perhaps, “sperm sellers”?)

The first commandment in the Torah is “Be fruitful and multiply,” and though some rabbinical authorities continue to argue about whether fertility treatments satisfy that dictum, most agree that the joy and imperative of giving birth outweighs other concerns. Nonetheless, as technological innovation makes such cross-border arrangements more commonplace, care must be taken to ensure that exploitation does not corrupt the ongoing miracle of creation.


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