Here comes the Egg Biz

Back to Contents of Issue: June 2003

Ova operations open in Japan.

by Mayumi Saito

This February, a South Korean ovum bank started operations in Shibuya, Tokyo, arranging for ovum donation from a third party to infertile couples. As the Japanese media promptly declared: "The egg business has landed."

The Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology accepted such donations only from anonymous third parties (and with no financial interactions) in 2000, and it still opposes commercial trade in the industry. Nonetheless, no clear penalties have been enacted against private sector operations for the time being.

DNA Bank, which is headquartered in Seoul, claims to be Asia's first, best and largest egg bank in the business and has been targeting Japanese couples since its launch in December 2000. Over 40 Japanese couples have consulted the company and four or five have achieved conception, according to DNA Bank Japan's manager, Seong Nagh Il.

More than 100 infertile Japanese couples travel to the US annually for artificial insemination as a last resort. Meanwhile, Korean companies see a tremendous cost advantage over their American counterparts; in addition to the comparatively miniscule airfare for the journey, the entire procedure is half the price in South Korea. Also, Asian eggs are naturally easier to find in the neighboring country.

The gap between
conservatism and
marketing widens

Among the DNA Bank list of young and healthy donors, mostly in their 20s, many are highly educated and/or good-looking. Still, Seong says, "A lot of couples select a donor mainly because she is in some way similar to the wife." Each recipient can meet with up to two donors in person before making a final choice, and the entire cost for the ovum recipients is 19 million won, or JPY1.9 million. This includes the registration fee to view donor information, the IVF-ET operation costs and the medical fare for the donor and the recipient, as well as the agent's fees. The recipients' own airfare and accommodation fee in South Korea is not included. If an exclusively Japanese donor is requested, an extra JPY800,000 is required for the donor's trip.

DNA Bank enforces a written agreement between both parties denying the ovum donor parental rights or guardian duties. The contract also prohibits the donor from meeting the recipient or the child after conception. "No troubles have arisen so far," Seong says.

Taking a slightly different approach, obstetrician Yahiro Netsu in Nagano Prefecture announced last June the start of a "self-egg bank," a facility which preserves young women's ova for their own fertilization later in life. The maverick director of Suwa Maternity Clinic is also known for having performed the nation's first and second surrogate births, achievements that enraged members of Japan's gynecological panel and heated up the debate considerably.

His method is to freeze ova after using ovulation stimulants and to extract the ova later using the same methods of IVF operations. The cost is JPY250,000 for extracting and freezing the ova, JPY20,000 for annual preservation and JPY150,000 for the eventual defrosting. He has reportedly already completed a facility that can preserve tens of thousands of eggs at his clinic.

Netsu also says that if a donor gives birth naturally, or dies, her no-longer-needed ova could be offered to infertile women -- for free.

The health ministry's gynecological panel, however, recently concluded that freezing human eggs for clinical applications is premature, because no safe method has been established. (The ministry did allow egg preservation for explicitly research-related purposes last December.)

"The fertility of ova will be about 90 percent maintained throughout the freezing and defrosting," Netsu writes on his Web site. "But discerning whether the ova are fertile or not before freezing is impossible. Thus freeze-preservation is not 100 percent reliable."

Netsu foresees troubles if the melted ova turn out to be useless. "Egg banks from overseas or surreptitious egg businesses at domestic hospitals will increase and create a black market through the legal loopholes. We need to establish an official and accountable egg bank for society," he says.

The gap between the government's conservatism and the private sector's realistic marketing of alternative reproduction seems to be widening. Interestingly, however, the Health Sciences Council, a health ministry division, is currently studying the establishment of very progressive laws regarding children born through egg or sperm donation.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that if the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry accepts the advisory panel's recommendation for legislation, the children of donated ova or sperm will have access to the names, addresses and other data of their biological parents. Once such laws are enacted, Japan will become one of a handful of nations to fully acknowledge the right of such children to learn about their biological parents.

The information on egg and sperm donors will be kept for 80 years at a public organization, and children aged 15 and older will be able to apply for access to the information. @

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