The debate about stem cells and cloning is coming to a head, with Prime Minister John Howard allowing a conscience vote should legislation be introduced to allow the technology.
We've heard a lot about promised cures for everything from spinal cord injury to Alzheimer's. We've been alerted to a brain drain of scientists unless parliament gives the nod to the technology. Premiers Peter Beattie and Steve Bracks warn that Australia will go socially and economically backwards unless we jump on the biotechnology bandwagon.
Amid all the hype, there has been silence about the interests of one stakeholder: women. Cloning embryos for their stem cells depends on a continuous - and large - supply of ova. This requires high doses of ovulation-stimulating drugs, with side effects such as hot flushes, bloating, moodiness, headaches, weight gain and tiredness.
There is increasing evidence that the super-ovulation process is associated with more serious health risks. Up to 10 per cent of egg donors experience ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome, which can lead to hospitalisation, renal failure, future infertility and even death. Just last week a healthy 37-year-old woman in Britain died after her eggs were obtained for in-vitro fertilisation. Nita Solanki appears to have succumbed to internal bleeding and renal failure. This follows the death of a 33-year-old woman after IVF treatment in Britain last year.
The International Society for Stem Cell Research has issued draft guidelines for egg donation, insisting on informed consent. However, an editorial in the journal Nature is sceptical about the efficacy of informed consent, pointing out what reproductive specialists and women's health advocates have long argued: that the long-term health effects of these drugs on women are unknown.
Some studies suggest the drugs may be linked to certain cancers that may not appear until women are in their 50s or 60s. Researchers say that we need longitudinal studies. But as Nature journalist Helen Pearson says, "It's unclear who will drive the effort: private fertility clinics may have little interest in finding out the potential risks of the drugs they use".
Cloning always amounts to the commodification of women's bodies. Even if egg donors are motivated by altruism, the biotechnology companies are profit-making ventures. In one 2002 study some egg donors used farm-animal metaphors to describe the experience. "I just got the feeling ... you were second class ... I'm just the produce stand ... like the cow at the market," remarked Chris. Melanie likened the experience to prostitution: "I definitely wasn't in charge there ... You've rented your body out ... It was like you were some kind of prized heifer or something."
No wonder scientists find it so difficult to obtain enough ova for experiments. Recent efforts blur the line between consent and coercion. Extensive publicity campaigns in Britain have failed to recruit egg donors without commercial payment. So one clinic has turned to desperate infertile couples, offering them cut-price IVF in return for harvesting extra eggs for research. The South Korean cloning scandal involved more than 2,200 ova obtained by paying and pressuring women, some of them in subordinate positions within the research lab.
There is evidence that the high payments for ova in a commercial market induce disadvantaged women to assume the health risks of ova extraction. Last month, Britain's Daily Mail exposed the exploitation of east European women by fertility clinics. Some had been rendered infertile by egg donation.
Will this be the brave new world for Australian women?
These concerns have united an international coalition of women who have put aside their different views on other issues. Hands Off Our Ovaries! - with signatories from over 17 countries - has called for a ban on egg extraction for research until such time as scientific research yields enough information to establish adequate informed consent.
The response of the Lockhart review to these concerns was to recommend the use of animal ova for cloning with human cells. But it's doubtful whether the public is ready for the truly Frankenstein scenario of animal-human hybrids. Scientists will look to women for their raw material.
Ironically, Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, a long-time defender of women's rights, is among those at the vanguard of cloning advocacy.
We need to make women's health a focus of this debate. Community standards demand that women are protected from exploitation and harm in the application of science. Politicians and scientists must not use women as guinea pigs in a technology that has no proven benefits.
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