Ova bank presents legal issues

In mid-May, a Kobe-based private organization called Oocyte Donation NETwork (OD-NET) announced that it had registered nine women who would offer ova to women who could not become pregnant due to abnormal ovarian conditions. It also announced that it had selected three infertile women to receive ova.

If things go smoothly, it will start ova collection and in vitro fertilization in about a half year. OD-NET’s move comes in the absence of a law governing the type of service provided by the organization. Legal problems are possible.

Already a few clinics in Japan have carried out in vitro fertilization using ova taken from sisters or friends of women who want to have children. In the case of OD-NET, women who offer ova have no ties to ova recipients. They are volunteers and do not receive monetary rewards.

For women who cannot ovulate but whose uteruses are normal, getting ova from other women is regarded as the only likely way to become pregnant. It is estimated that more than 300 Japanese couples get ova overseas annually by paying expensive fees before having their babies in Japan.

Many developed countries have enacted laws aimed at resolving problems that could arise from widespread use of in vitro fertilization using third-party women’s ova. Japan has not yet created such a law. The Diet and the government should quickly enact a law capable of dealing with this situation.

The Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology wrote a guideline more than 10 years ago, but many doctors chose to ignore it. In a 2003 report, a panel of the health and welfare ministry conditionally approved the use of ova offered by third-party women for fertilization, yet virtually banned it by stating that such fertilization should not be carried out until a relevant legal framework was established. The Diet has taken no action for the past 10 years on this matter.

A child born from in vitro fertilization using ova provided by a third-party woman has two biological mothers — the woman who gave birth to the child and the woman who offered the ova. A Supreme Court ruling states that the woman who gave birth is the legal mother of the baby, but the Civil Code has no relevant stipulations. Thus the legal status of children born with the use of ova offered by third-party women is not clearly defined. It’s possible that such children could end up in a disadvantageous position in matters of inheritance in the absence of a will.

Other legal problems involve potential risks to ova donors from drugs used during ova collection. Moreover, OD-NET says it will disclose the identity of women who have offered ova if children request this information after they become 15 years old. The appropriateness of this policy should be discussed.

Clearly, there are a number of issues that must be dealt with by the Diet and the government. They should seek the opinions of experts including bioethics experts and legal professionals.