Is egg harvesting moral?

Is egg harvesting moral?

Is the harvesting of eggs from women a form of female Onanism? That’s the question Genevieve Kineke poses in a post highlighting the dangers to the donors in the harvesting of human eggs.

At first, I dismissed the thought, because an egg is simply an egg. If it’s not fertilised, there’s no life and thus if it’s destroyed, there’s no harm. (It’s the fertilisation in the petri dish and subsequent destruction that is wrong.) BUT THEN, in an “a ha” moment, I had to say: Is it possible that this is the feminine version of “Onanism” — in which it is declared sinful for men to spill their semen without the potential to give life. What exactly is the sin of Onanism, and could this be an equivalent?

Without going into lurid details that I would attract the wrong kind of web surfer, let’s just say that onanism in Catholic moral theology is not precisely a solitary act, but usually refers to contraception. The sin of Onan was the “spilling of his seed” in order to avoid conception. However, in general usage it’s often been used to refer to other immoral sexual acts.

Regardless of whether the word can be applied to this instance of egg harvesting, I think that I would have to leave it to more qualified experts, like Jimmy Akin, to discern the morality. Is it the act of spilling seed or egg, in this case, that is wrong or does illicit sexual imagination and self-pleasuring have to be an element?

My gut says that there’s something wrong with egg harvesting, although I’m not 100% certain of that. After all, could there be valid medical reasons for a doctor to harvest eggs that have nothing to do with in vitro fertilization or other destructive practices? I’d welcome other opinions.

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  • The real question is what you’re going to do wth the eggs after you harvest them.  The main purpose of such harvesting is in vitro fertilization, which is of course wrong.  Now, if they’re harvesting the eggs for research purposes, that may or may not be wrong.

    But taken from another perspective, and I guess this is where the question is coming from, a woman only has limited eggs.  And usually, egg harvesting involves taking most or all of her eggs.  So it’s essentially sterilization.

  • You may be able to come to a better conclusion after reading the segement of this article I’ve pasted below:

    When it comes to second-wave feminism, one of the movement’s most important texts was Judy Norsigian’s Our Bodies, Ourselves , which was especially concerned with the exploitation of women’s bodies. Norsigian has now quite logically applied her concern to include the exploitation of women for the sake of medical research.

    In a 2005 editorial in the Boston Globe (“Risks to Women in Embryo Cloning”), Norsigian mentions the ESC controversy, noting, “Omitted from the polarized debate is any discussion of the thousands of women who will need to undergo egg extraction procedures for such embryo cloning. A primary concern is the substantial risks to women’s health posed by the extraction procedure and the inability to obtain true informed consent from egg donors given the current lack of adequate safety data.”

    Getting more specific, she points out that 3 percent to 8 percent of women who take drugs to stimulate egg production—as women do when donating eggs—
    develop Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome, a condition that can be not only painful but occasionally fatal within “days after completion of egg collection.” A study published in the journal Animal Biology suggests the troubling possibility that ovarian hyper-stimulation treatments may lead to stillbirths and birth defects in future pregnancies. Additionally, the drug Lupron, which is “used to ‘shut down’ the ovaries before stimulation,” produces side effects including bone loss, liver problems, and acute pain. Finally, she discusses the philosophical issue of treating women’s eggs as commodities, a stance that objectifies women as mere producers of biological goods. “This is very much a women’s issue,” Norsigian says elsewhere; “there is a very strong pro-choice liberal contingent that believes there is something wrong with embryo cloning.”

    Among that “contingent” was California’s Pro-Choice Alliance Against Proposition 71 (referring to the ESCR funding bill that eventually became law). The alliance points out that thousands of women will need to donate eggs to keep up with demand from researchers, a fact that “raises troubling questions about the exploitation of women, especially those who are young and poor.”

    The feminist organization Hands Off Our Ovaries ( has as its slogan, “Because losing even one woman’s life is too high a price to pay.” They note that there have been “25 deaths and over 6,000 complaints of medical complications attributed to Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome” and urge the FDA to investigate the possibilities of ovarian cancer, infertility, and birth defects that may also result from this procedure. Medical sociologist Diane Besson said in congressional testimony that in pursuing ever-increasing demands for human eggs, “We are being asked to make women the servants of biotechnology.” This idea should appall any Democrat concerned with women’s health issues, especially when he or she realizes that Dr. Hwang’s unsuccessful experiments into human cloning used 2,221 female egg cells (“Beyond Embryo Politics,” The Women’s Health Activist ).

  • JC – I’m sorry, but that’s flat-out wrong. The only way for egg harvesting to result in sterilization would be for most of a woman’s approximately 300,000 eggs to be taken, and that’s physically impossible. Donor cycles in in vitro usually aim for about 15-20 eggs per cycle, to give you an idea of what happens. Very occasionally a woman will be (over)stimulated to the point of giving up forty or fifty, but that’s not common – it does often go hand in hand with OHSS, but that’s not related to subsequent fertility. Please, let’s refrain from muddying the waters with false information – it doesn’t help pro-life credibility if people are saying things like this.

  • I think the initial point I was making is being lost. Of course putting women at risk for biotechnology is very wrong, and performing procedures without informed consent is criminal. But I’m wondering about the very act of taking eggs—no matter for what reason.

    As I noted on my blog, a trusted priest-friend suggests that human eggs cannot be considered the equivalent of a liver or an appendix—because of their life-giving potential. Now obviously organ transplants are fine, and using an extracted piece of a liver for an experiment is alright, but he senses that eggs are singular and quite special, even when unfertilised.

    Now extracting eggs can be done without corrupting the marital embrace (unlike “extracting” sperm for medical reasons) but still, my “onanism” analogy deals with the concept messing around with [even unfertilised] human eggs.

  • Sonetka,

    In this case JC may have more of a point than you think.  There is a new form of egg harvesting where a woman has her ovaries, basically, stripped and frozen so that she can conceive later rather than sooner.  I think this does cause present infertility and I think it is troubling in that it does separate the idea of children from the complete idea of marriage.  Children are a good that they can choose when they want.  (See the WSJ today for details.)