Fertility clinics are quick to tout their success rates to attract patients, but are they doing enough to disclose potential conflicts of interest and risks to oocyte donors?
A new report calls for professional societies to develop guidelines specifically addressing conflicts of interest in oocyte donation and to adopt tougher reporting and advertising standards (J Law Med Ethics. 2015 Jun;43:410-24.).
While at least some measure of professional guidance addresses the potential conflicts that can arise at all four phases of oocyte donation – recruitment, screening and informed consent, ovarian stimulation, and follow-up – there is “a fracture between this guidance and actual practice,” the authors argued.
Some clinics and agencies may be minimizing risks in recruitment ads and websites, incentivizing repeated donations, or overstimulating donors for the benefit of recipients and clinic success rates.
One low-cost step to better inform a woman’s choice to donate would be to make complication rates publicly available along with the federally regulated annual success rates reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Aaron Levine, Ph.D., one of the report authors and an associate professor of public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
“Sure, the clinics can complain it will require a little more paperwork and so on, but they should be tracking this already and if they’re not, a little nudge to track it better would be beneficial, in my view,” Dr. Levine said.
In 2010,Dr. Levine helped spark national debate after reporting that egg-donor payments rose $2,350 for every 100-point increase in SAT scores. The practice is not illegal and reflects, in part, the shortage of donors of certain ethnicities; however, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) egg donor compensation guidelines recommend payment not vary based on donor traits.
A separate systematic analysis of agency and clinic websites found that 34% of sites explicitly mentioned paying more for particular traits, 41% accepted donors under the ASRM recommended age minimum of 21, and many failed to present short-term (56%), long-term (92%), or psychological/emotional (77%) risks (Fertil Steril. 2012 Oct;98: 995-1000).
A simple, cost-free solution may be to publish the names of programs that fail to follow ASRM/Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART) guidelines, said study author Dr. Robert Klitzman, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, New York, and director of the university’s master program in bioethics.
“There are carrots and sticks,” he said. “You can name-and-shame or you can praise those who are doing it.”
While fertility clinics tended to observe the guidelines, the analysis found that egg donor agencies or brokers were far more likely to advertise high payments, observed Dr. James Toner of the Atlanta Center for Reproductive Medicine.
“The profession cannot control what agencies offer their donors, nor prohibit private citizens from trying to find their own donors and offering exorbitant amounts,” said Dr. Toner, who is president of SART. “The true source of these guideline violations sits outside the profession.”
Dr. Klitzman argued that longitudinal follow-up is costly, but necessary to better understand the emotional and medical risks associated with egg donation. There is little interest from industry and the egg donors themselves may not want to think about creating a child for money. But, they may also look back in regret if they are childless at age 40 and have biological children they’re not in touch with, he said.
“Of course, if you go after 18- to 20-year-olds, their eggs are going to be better quality, but they’re probably going to think of these issues less,” he added.
Several studies have also shown that sperm donor–conceived offspring often want to know who their biological parent is, partly, for genetic and medical reasons to understand disease risk, Dr. Klitzman noted. In September 2014, the ASRM Ethics Committee updated its report on the interests, obligations, and rights in gamete donation and recommended that, “at minimum, gamete donors and recipients should be encouraged to provide appropriate medical updates.”
Dr. Levine acknowledged that ethical issues aren’t new to the infertility field, but said renewed attention is called for because of the increasingly high stakes involved in maintaining an adequate egg supply, increasing evidence of limited compliance with self-regulatory guidelines, and legal challenges to professional self-regulation.
In February 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted in part the plaintiff’s motion for class certification in Kamakahi v. ASRM, a case filed in 2010 alleging that ASRM and SART engaged in price fixing by capping “appropriate” compensation in guidelines at $5,000, or $10,000 with justification.