Global Trade in Human Eggs Thriving

The Associated Press
Saturday, January 27, 2007; 12:53 PM

PARIS -- Chemotherapy beat back her ovarian cancer, but took Sophie Valot's fertility with it. Her doctor said she had just one option to start a family of her own: Find an egg donor, have children and get a hysterectomy _ in five years or less, or risk relapse.

But French fertility clinics were in crisis, unable to meet the demand for donated eggs. Strict egg donation laws have caused a severe shortage of donors, and backlogs at clinics reach five years. So Valot took her search abroad.

After two trips to Spain in 2002 and 2003, Valot has two young boys and the family she always desired. She is among thousands of women and couples willing to travel and pay for eggs. A thriving global fertility industry welcomes them with open arms, promising babies.

Belgian, Spanish and Greek clinics court women on the Internet, flashing images of pregnant bellies, nursing mothers, and frolicking families. They boast large donor pools and competitive rates.

Online forums buzz with women discussing the reputations of foreign clinics and offering advice and support. Associations have sprung up across France that, for a small annual fee, help women connect with clinics abroad and provide discounts to certain centers.

American women use seasoned French organizations to hook them up with clinics in Greece or Spain. Even with air fares and hotels, the costs can be just 10 percent of treatments in the United States.

Couples looking for black donors, a rarity in any country, fly to African clinics in Cameroon or Burkina Faso.

Frozen sperm and eggs can be bought online, ordered from U.S. storage banks by phone and shipped to clinics.

Experts caution that buyers need to be careful about the sources of eggs.

"Women need to do a little checking into the background of the donor. I feel confident that there is deception out there on the part of some people who misrepresent themselves to brokers, and then brokers who don't do a thorough job checking their donors," said Dr. Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "We see a wide variability in success rates, which aren't always explained to customers."

In France, treatment is free. The state foots the bill for recipients and donors, who get only the satisfaction of having helped a couple become pregnant. The government has taken a firm ethical stance against payment for eggs, arguing that human parts are not commodities.

But the ethical high road comes at a cost. French women wanting donations wait years with no guarantee they'll end up pregnant and no clear indication of where they are in line. Doctors give patients priority at their discretion. Recruiting a donor is a known strategy for jumping ahead on the list _ an incentive aimed at alleviating the shortage.

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