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Donors Sue Fertility Industry For Caps On Egg Prices


American families struggling to conceive spend more than $5 billion a year on fertility treatments - doctors, drugs, egg donors. The industry caps how much women can be paid to be egg donors - roughly $10,000. Now some donors have filed a federal lawsuit saying those caps are unfair. Ashby Jones has reported on this story. He joined me from the newsroom of The Wall Street Journal, where he told me why the fertility industry wants to keep those caps in place.

ASHBY JONES: Their rationale, really, is that they didn't want to set up a situation where younger women - maybe college students or women in their 20s - would be so enticed by large sums of money that sort of everybody and her sister would be running out and donating her eggs and maybe not pay attention to some of the health risks or maybe not pay close attention to what is actually going on here, that a woman is giving up, you know, a really sort of intimate part of her body that could have ramifications for years and years to come.

CORNISH: And we should note, for context, this is a very different approach than, say, sperm donation.

JONES: It's extremely different. And for women, it involve shots. It involves shots, typically, to stimulate ovarian productions so that you're going to get a certain number of eggs. And it does involve, you know, an invasive procedure where doctors go in and retrieve the eggs. And so there are some medical risks attendant to it. And it is much, much different than sperm donation. That's true.

CORNISH: So these plaintiffs - who are they? I mean, they're basically arguing here that these guidelines are an illegal conspiracy to sets prices. What did you find out about them?

JONES: Right. So the initial plaintiffs are two women out on the West Coast who donated their eggs and are now claiming that, because of these price caps, they were really shortchanged, and they should have been paid more. How much more is up in the air, but they say we should have been paid more in keeping with what the market would bear. The lawsuit has been posed as a putative class action, meaning that if the two women get far enough in the lawsuit, they will represent hundreds or thousands, possibly, of women who have donated eggs.

CORNISH: You write that the plaintiffs say that the guidelines amount to an illegal conspiracy to set prices and that these caps actually violate antitrust laws. Flesh out their argument here.

JONES: Yeah, that's the argument, that the antitrust laws basically say that you can't fix prices sort of across an industry. And even though the individual fertility clinics have not conspired with one another, the plaintiffs argue that just by their agreeing to go along with these guidelines, that amounts to sort of an antitrust violation. And I've talked to some antitrust experts who seem to think that the plaintiffs might have a good argument here, but we'll have to wait and see. There's been no ruling in this case quite yet.

CORNISH: Right, it's early in this case. But what, if any, response has there been from the fertility clinic industry?

JONES: Well, the fertility clinic industry really hasn't changed its policies at all. It's said we're going to go along with these guidelines, and unless and until somebody tells us we have to change, we're not going to. So they say they have a justification for it, and it's not exactly similar to other sorts of price-fixing situations where the justification behind it would just be to make a bunch of money. Here they're actually suppressing the prices, so the member clinics aren't necessarily getting rich. And they say the - you know, there is no violation of the antitrust laws.

CORNISH: This story seems to ask a question that sounds, frankly, unsavory no matter how you say it. But, you know, how much is a human egg worth, right? Like, what's fair to pay a woman going through this process? In your reporting, did you find anyone who tried to answer that?

JONES: Well, I think there are some people who say that an egg is worth whatever people will pay for it. And I should mention that there are a small subsection of fertility clinics that do not abide by these guidelines. They wind up charging whatever they like. I spoke to one woman who worked with one of those agencies, and she got $25,000, $30,000 for her eggs. And so, you know, I think that if these caps were lifted, I don't think everybody would be getting that kind of money, but I would imagine that the prices would go up to, you know, north of 10, 15, maybe $20,000 in some instances.

CORNISH: That's Ashby Jones. He spoke to us from the newsroom of The Wall Street Journal. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

JONES: Thanks very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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