National / Science & Health | FOCUS

Japan seen lagging in creating egg donation system for infertile women

Kyodo

Recent news about a woman with ovarian problems successfully giving a birth via an egg from an anonymous donor may offer hope to those facing difficulty getting pregnant because of advanced age.

But a child born through this process technically has two mothers — a birth mother and a genetic mother — and this could spell trouble in Japan, where there are no laws regarding parent-child relationships stemming from such procedures.

On Wednesday, OD-Net, a nonprofit organization supporting fertility treatments, said the woman, in her 40s, gave birth through in-vitro fertilization using her husband’s sperm and an anonymous donor’s egg.

“I never imagined such a day would come,” said Sachiko Kishimoto, leader of the Kobe-based nonprofit group. She said she shed tears upon hearing the news.

Kishimoto has a daughter with Turner syndrome, which makes her unable to produce eggs. About four years ago, when she established the group to mediate between egg donors and recipients, she was worried no one would donate, she said.

The woman who donated her egg was delighted to hear the news over the phone, saying, “I’m glad,” according to Kishimoto.

“I believe she felt that (the donor) was able to cooperate to create a happy family,” Kishimoto said.

Regarding egg donations, a health ministry panel said in 2003 that they “should not be expanded blindly, from the perspective of bioethics,” though it endorsed letting infertile couples receive eggs from a third party under certain medical conditions.

At the same time, the panel concluded egg donations “should not be made until the necessary rules are in place.”

Since then, no laws have been enacted to regulate egg donations. A small number of fertility treatment clinics, meanwhile, are forging ahead by setting their own guidelines.

OD-Net limits egg recipients to those diagnosed with problems including ovarian hypoplasia, early menopause and Turner syndrome, meaning women who are infertile due to advanced age are ineligible.

According to a fiscal 2012 estimate by the ministry’s research team, Japan sees about 300 to 400 babies born per year via mothers who received eggs overseas. Their average age was over 40.

Considering the pregnancy rate, nearly 1,000 women could be traveling abroad each year to obtain eggs despite the physical and financial burdens, as private facilities can collect up to several million yen in intermediary fees.

“Infertile women with advanced age comprise the largest number of applicants,” said Dr. Katsuhiko Takahashi, a member of OD-Net.

“Though we cannot mediate for those people, we’d like to make progress . . . so we can respond somehow to their hopes,” Takahashi said.

Domestic facilities are banned from making financial transactions that lead to sales of eggs, though the process of collecting eggs from a donor imposes physical burdens.

In Britain, where some 2,000 babies are born as a result of egg or sperm donations, women can receive around ¥100,000 from a government institution for donating their eggs.

“The number of donated eggs is totally insufficient,” said Yuri Hibino, an assistant professor at Kanazawa University. “If Japan wants to introduce full-fledged (donations), there should be discussions about compensation based on cases overseas.”

Yasunori Yoshimura, honorary professor at Keio University, pointed out that increasing egg donations would require the establishment of a legal parent-child relationship and a public institution to manage the practice.

OD-Net said a child can acquire donor information after turning 15.

“We will consider telling the story about donations using a picture book when the child is around 3 years old,” Takahashi said, noting that at present there is no established system for notification.

Experts are also debating whether it is appropriate to oblige a private entity to manage extremely sensitive personal information over a long period time.

“Overseas, a woman who is infertile is given the choice of receiving a donated egg when she reaches a certain age,” said Yoshimura. “It is up to society to decide whether to approve this kind of medical treatment.”