Women are selling their eggs for up to pounds 1,000 per batch to an agency which recruits clients through a private clinic in London run by one of the country's top fertility experts.
The Hope Agency, whose symbol is a hen laying eggs, has about 80 women on its books, many of them young single mothers who donate eggs three or four times a year, it is claimed in a television programme to be screened tonight.
Would-be parents are shown a brochure listing the women by first names or initials, how many eggs have been collected from them, and the resulting pregnancy rates.
The Here and Now programme on BBC1 alleges that the London Gynaecology and Fertility Centre, run by Professor Ian Craft, is exploiting a legal loophole which bans a clinic from paying for eggs from donors, but allows it to refer women to the agency. Donated eggs may be fertilised and implanted at the clinic for a fee of about pounds 4,000.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which licences clinics, said last night that it did not have powers to intervene "as long as the clinic itself is not making a payment". It had become aware of the Hope Agency's "commercial" activities only recently, a spokeswoman said. The HFEA is reviewing the question of payment to donors because of the time and discomfort involved; however, commercialisation of the egg market is ruled out.
Professor Robert Winston, Britain's leading in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) specialist, said he was "genuinely shocked" at the size of payments for the eggs. Licenced clinics are allowed only to pay current egg donors - often friends and relatives of infertile women responding to advertisements for altruistic reasons - pounds 15 plus expenses, which usually amounts to about pounds 100. He said vulnerable women donors were in danger of being exploited.
Mr Sam Abdullah, of the Lister Fertility Clinic in London, which has the largest egg donation programme in Europe with 700 women on its waiting list, said: "We have never used an agency which provides donors and we would never advise a woman to use such an agency. Egg donation is a potentially hazardous procedure and for money to be the primary reason is very dangerous."
Mr Michael Ah-Moye, director of Holly House in Buckhurst Hill, Essex, said that he did not agree with paid donations. Mr Ah-Moye said he had heard of the existence of the Hope Agency from a patient previously seen at the London Gynaecology and Fertility Centre.
Reporters from Here and Now, posing as an infertile couple, were told by a nurse at the Centre that there could be a two-year wait for an egg donor through the normal voluntary channels, but that the process could be speeded up by using the Hope agency.
The reporters subsequently attended a meeting, which they secretly filmed, with Katherine Bristow, who runs the agency from a cottage in Par, Cornwall, and the centre's egg co-ordinator. They were told that it cost pounds 250 to register and the standard rate for a white donor was pounds 850; pounds 1,000 or more for Asian, Chinese or Afro-Caribbean donors. Donors and recipients are matched by physical characteristics as far as possible.
The Hope Agency, which has links with the Surrogacy Parenting Centre in Birmingham, last night declined to comment on the programme's claims, before screening.
Professor Craft has more liberal views on egg donation than many of his colleagues and has previously argued the case for a national organisation to recruit donors who would be counselled, and screened, "whether or not payment is made". The professor yesterday refused to make any comment on the programme's allegations and said he was unaware of the secret filming.Reuse content