LONDON – An American infertility clinic is offering free human eggs to one British person who participated in an informational seminar Wednesday in London.
The promotion, described by some as a raffle, has sparked an ethical debate in Britain about whether women should be paid for their eggs — which is illegal in the European Union, but not in the United States.
The Genetics and IVF Institute held a free educational seminar for British couples on Wednesday. Normally those seeking donor eggs would have to pay an American woman to undergo the treatment cycle for donating, however the company said it would cover those costs for one of the participants of Wednesday's seminar.
The winner will be picked randomly, not according to need because that would be too complicated, institute spokeswoman Trina Leonard said. The clinic has been giving away donor cycles valued at more than $10,000 for about a year, she said.
The clinic said its egg donors are college-educated women between 19 and 32.
To donate, a woman must undergo a monthlong treatment that involves injecting herself with hormones and then undergoing a surgical procedure to retrieve the eggs.
Far more egg donors are available in the U.S. than in Britain, where women cannot be paid for their eggs and can only be compensated for travel and time off work; that cannot exceed $384 per treatment cycle.
In the U.S., by comparison, women are paid from $10,000 to $35,000 or more for their eggs.
Because the eggs being given through Wednesday's lottery would be from a U.S. donor, the company's paying for them does not technically break any British laws.
Many Europeans commonly seek treatment elsewhere to get around loopholes in their own country, like the number of eggs that can be retrieved or implanted, how much donors can be paid, and who is eligible to be treated.
British fertility experts slammed Wednesday's event as a publicity stunt.
"There's something shocking in the association of a raffle and giving away a human product," said Dr. Francoise Shenfield, a fertility and medical ethics expert at University College London. "In Europe, we have the general idea that altruism is a good thing, and we don't want to turn human body parts into a commodity."
Shenfield, who has studied Europeans going abroad for fertility treatment, said it was impossible to know how many Britons were going to the U.S., since they do not have to report it.
Britain's Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, which regulates fertility treatment, said the U.S. clinic's raffle was inappropriate. "It trivializes altruistic donation" and runs contrary to regulations "to protect the dignity of donors and recipients," the agency said.
The Genetics and IVF Institute, based in Fairfax, Virginia, countered that it was simply offering a seminar in London commonly held in the U.S.
"They're not raffling off a human egg," said Leonard, the company spokeswoman. The giveaway was promotional, she said, to introduce "new options" for people hoping to start a family.
Britain's fertility laws stem from the EU's Tissues and Cells Directive, which says donors can only be paid for their inconvenience — a figure that varies across the continent. In Spain, for example, women can receive up to about euro900 (about $1,200) for donating eggs.
Fertility expert Allan Pacey, at the University of Sheffield, suggested Britain's supply of available eggs would increase if women were offered more money to donate, saying "250 pounds barely scratches the surface" of covering for the inconvenience.
Pacey drew a line, however, at selling the eggs, and said the U.S. clinic's stunt risked turning human eggs into a commodity. "Having a lottery is not how we do things in this country," he said.
Polish citizen Hanna Tlatlik, who works in a London shop, said she thought paying for eggs was a good idea, as it would allow more women to have children. "You have to pay for everything," said Tlatlik, 24. "What can I give if not money?"
But not all women in Britain thought offering more money for eggs was a good idea.
"It doesn't feel like a commodity that should be profitable. I could never charge someone for that," said Rhiannon Prytherch, a 28-year-old actress and theater manager in northern English city of Darby. She said she might feel differently, though, if she were the one needing eggs. "If I were a woman who wanted to have a child, I would be willing to pay."