Picture credit: Scottish Government
Artillery Row

The Scottish Government are being bad eggs

State institutions should not be encouraging a potentially painful and dangerous procedure

The Scottish Government wants healthy specimens of breeding age to “give the joy of starting a family to those who need help becoming parents.” To this end, over the past few years £186,500 of tax-payers’ money has been spaffed on a campaign to encourage altruistic egg and sperm donation with the oozingly cutesy hashtag #JoyLoveHope. The digital adverts feature animated visuals of an egg and sperm joining together. There is no mention of the potentially grave medical consequences for women donors, nor of the psychological impact on children who will never know their parents. The increased risk of consanguineous relationships is also curiously absent from the uplifting pink and blue themed campaign.

Helen Gibson, founder of Surrogacy Concern, who sent freedom of information requests to uncover the cost of the initiative, said the group was “dismayed to see a national government targeting people as young as 18”:

Gametes are not a public resource to be harvested and shared out. Aside from the huge waste of public money, the adverts did not list health risks, and will lead to a feeling of entitlement to women’s eggs. This is dystopian in the extreme and grossly irresponsible.

However, the Scottish Government in partnership with NHS Scotland claim that the adverts are needed as 200 people are currently awaiting gamete donations. A leaflet for potential egg donors explains this includes people who are infertile as a result of cancer treatment, those who are at risk of passing on a serious genetic illness to their children and same-sex couples.

It should be noted that whereas for men, passing on genetic material requires little more than jizzing in a jar, for women the process can be physically brutal, psychologically traumatic and fraught with medical risk.

One woman, whose case was uncovered by Surrogacy Concern, explains what the process was like for her:

The procedure, involving a very invasive internal probe with a thick needle attached, and said needle repeatedly puncturing through your vagina walls and your ovaries to suck out all the egg-containing fluids, was by far the most painful experience I have ever had. It felt exactly as one might imagine, like being repeatedly stabbed internally whilst the nurses pressed down on the side of my stomach to ‘hold’ my ovaries in the right place.

Following the 15-minute procedure she was left shaking and unable to stand. She had recurring nightmares about her visit to the clinic. But her experience could have been worse. Two women in the UK have died from complications arising from ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), a condition which is caused by egg retrieval. Such cases are rare, but other medical side effects have been widely reported.

“We have been contacted by women who have nearly died from OHSS,” Gibson says, “And who have suffered bowel perforation, abscesses and passing out from the pain during egg harvesting procedures.” Meanwhile, the NHS Scotland soothingly says “donating your eggs is generally very safe”, and that women “may feel a little sore or bruised”.

For those who desperately want children, the news that they can’t will be devastating. But that is not the government’s problem to solve, and young women’s health ought not to be risked to ease the pain of infertile or same-sex couples. 

Ultimately the state doesn’t just need to stay far away from its citizen’s wombs, it needs to keep out of their heads. Marketing egg donation as an altruistic act is a gross dereliction of duty to the well-intentioned who may be unaware of the risks. And missing in the messaging about giving “a wonderful gift to people who long for a child” is any mention of regret.

Doctors are generally reluctant to perform hysterectomies on premenopausal women in case they change their minds and decide to start families. So one wonders why there isn’t a similarly cautious approach towards those who are effectively signing-up to motherhood by proxy, passing on a part of themselves so an unknown couple can bring up their genetic child. It seems unlikely that one pre-donation counselling session will adequately prepare anyone for living with this uncertainty.

When companies fail to explain risks or prey upon good intentions for dubious ends, bodies like the Advertising Standards Agency step in. Yet it seems the only groups holding the Scottish Government and NHS Scotland to account over their promotion of potentially dangerous fertility treatments are small groups of activists, a few religious organisations and feminist campaigners.

Disturbingly, it seems likely that other governments could soon follow Scotland’s lead. After decades of hand-wringing about the environmental devastation caused by overpopulation, states are beginning to wake up to the economic collapse that a decline in the birth rate will precede. To this end, this week it was reported young women in China have received a text message from the government encouraging them to have more children, meanwhile in France President Macron has stated that he views a decline in the birth rate as a national threat. Arguably, promoting fertility treatments is a shortcut that avoids costly long-term solutions, such as restructuring society to value parenting, or accommodating the particular needs of mothers.

Telling people who desperately want children that the state won’t support them will be tough — it’s a harder message to sell than the breezy #JoyHopeLove of the Scottish gamete donation campaign. But no one has an inherent right to be a parent. And the alternative, pushing ahead with medical procedures that risk women’s health and children’s futures, is unconscionable. The government in Scotland and elsewhere should remember its role is to protect its citizens, not to give them babies.

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