First, Do No Harm

by Susan E. Wills

March 9, 2007

The Hippocratic Oath has been taking a beating recently. Abortion, assisted-suicide, allowing disabled children die following preterm delivery, "hastening" a patient's death through dehydration and starvation – all these are tough to square with the aspiring doctors' pledge: "I will prescribe regimen for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone."

While most doctors would refuse to give dangerous steroidal hormones to healthy athletes, in the last 50 years, thousands have given steroidal hormones to girls and women solely to disrupt the functioning of a healthy reproductive system to avoid pregnancy despite the serious health risks long-linked to hormonal contraception.

Does the fact that patients request contraceptives relieve doctors of their responsibility? Of course not! Doctors are supposed to exercise their professional judgment, and not let patients use them like human vending machines to "get high" or get stronger or become pregnancy-proof.

After decades of sacrificing professional judgment to the demands of patients, it's not surprising that some reproductive health professionals began using even stronger and riskier hormones to produce babies for women struggling with infertility. In an estimated one-third of assisted reproductive technology (ART) cycles women are adversely affected by hormones such as human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), with 3-8% of patients showing moderate to severe reactions, including blood clots, renal and liver dysfunction and acute respiratory distress.

Increasingly, fertility doctors are using donated eggs from young women. Over 15,000 donated eggs were used in 2004, in the U.S. alone. For a fee of $5,000 - $10,000, young women have been subjecting themselves to horrific health risks, often without a clear understanding of what is at stake.

The demand for donor eggs for use in human embryonic stem cell research and human cloning attempts has already resulted in coerced "donations" of eggs from research assistants in the Korean scandal and the further objectification and misuse of women as egg factories.

Thanks to a new coalition of scientists and ethicists, the dangers of ovarian stimulation and egg retrieval are coming to light. Jennifer Lahl, founder/director of the Center for Bioethics and Culture and founder of Every Woman First, which sponsors the website, was joined at a Congressional briefing on March 8 by other experts opposed to the human egg trade.

Part of their presentation included discussion of a 2007 literature review by A. Girolami et al. on "Arterial thrombosis in young women after ovarian stimulation." Dr. Girolami and his colleagues found 34 cases of blood clots in arteries after ovarian stimulation. These produced 15 cases of ischemic strokes (blood clots caused loss of circulation to parts of the brain), and 14 cases of blockage in other key arteries. The occlusions produced 3 heart attacks and two deaths. Ten patients suffered total paralysis or weakness of one side of the body, in some cases requiring amputation. Nineteen of the affected women were pregnant at the time the blood clot occurred. Five women miscarried, 7 had "therapeutic" abortions, and only 7 children survived to birth. The 34 women studied were young (average age 32) and had no history of disease.

The immediate goal of these experts is a moratorium on human egg harvesting for research, in the interest of women's health and social justice. You can learn more about their efforts at

Susan Wills is the former associate director for education in the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.