By Victoria Warkins.
Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Dr. Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, a biology professor at CalTech and University of Cambridge, introduced her team’s development of the first “synthetic” human embryo in June of this year. Scientists created the synthetic embryo by using human embryonic stem cells. And while the breakthrough could provide incredible insight into the earliest days of pregnancy, it also revived the debate on stem cell research.
Stem cell research is cutting-edge technology important for many areas of medicine. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning that they can become any type of stem cell in the human body. Stem cells can help our understanding of how diseases occur, help regenerate damaged tissues, and be used to test new drugs.
However, this promising research has not progressed as fast as one might think, largely due to regulatory and political obstacles. Some states, including Arizona, have gone so far as to outlaw the creation of human embryonic stem cell lines, thus stunting stem cell research. Other states allow the creation of embryos for stem cell research but struggle to obtain the resources necessary to do so. Namely, prohibitions on compensating egg donors create an obstacle to stem cell research, while compensation for reproductive egg donations is widely accepted.
To better position its universities for success and progress in this space, Arizona should allow the creation of human embryonic stem cells and compensate donors who provide their eggs for research purposes.
Current Approaches to Stem Cell Research
Although human embryonic stem cell research is legal in the United States, federal funds cannot be used to compensate egg donors for donating eggs to stem cell research. States further regulate stem cell research as they see fit, with some supporting it far more than others.
In Arizona, “[a] person shall not intentionally or knowingly engage in destructive human embryonic stem cell research.” This means that Arizona researchers cannot destroy embryos to obtain stem cells—doing so is a felony. Instead, they may only conduct research on human embryonic stem cells that have already been developed. Unsurprisingly, Arizona does not allow compensation for eggs donated for stem cell research—despite allowing compensation for eggs donated to reproductive uses. Some other states, like Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Missouri are more flexible than Arizona but maintain some limits on embryonic stem cell research. These states do not allow the creation of embryos for stem cell research but do allow experimentation on leftover IVF embryos. Still other states, like Connecticut, allow the creation of embryos for stem cell research but prohibit compensation for the eggs needed to create those embryos. Because egg donation is time-consuming and can be hard on a donor’s body, researchers in states limiting or prohibiting compensation for egg donations have found their research severely impacted.
California and New York are two of the most progressive states when it comes to stem cell research. California’s Proposition 71 allocated $3 billion to fund stem cell research, including the creation of new stem cell lines. In 2019, California repealed its ban on compensation to egg donors for research in favor of allowing compensation for their time, discomfort, and inconvenience. New York went even further, not only allowing stem cell lines to be derived using donated eggs, but allowing compensation of up to $10,000 for individuals willing to donate their eggs to stem cell research. The program was highly successful, attracting scientists from around the world until the state defunded it in 2021.
The debate around stem cell research, and consequently whether women should be compensated for donating their eggs to stem cell research, is largely a religious one. However, the argument for compensation itself is straightforward: Many jurisdictions already allow stem cell research to be conducted from donated eggs, so simply compensating egg donors for their eggs would not change any stem cell research that is already occurring.
The biggest argument for compensating women for their egg donations to stem cell research is that it incentivizes women to donate, thus increasing research resources. Opponents fear that these incentives will have undue influence on lower-income women, persuading them to participate in the time-consuming and sometimes dangerous egg donation process. However, the process for donating eggs for stem cell research is exactly the same as the process for donating eggs for reproductive uses—for which compensation has been available in the United States since 1984. In fact, Louisiana and DC are the only jurisdictions that outright ban compensation for reproductive egg donations. Egg donation for reproductive purposes is hugely successful, likely in no small part due to the availability of compensation.
There is also a commodification argument against paying egg donors—that human body parts should not be sold. However, compensation is allowed for blood donation and sperm donation. And although women have a finite number of eggs, they have more than they could ever use in a lifetime. So even though eggs are not renewable like blood or sperm, donating eggs is more like donating those bodily substances than, say, a kidney.
What Can Arizona Do?
In order for Arizona’s top research universities to stay competitive with states like California and New York, Arizona needs to begin by allowing the creation of embryos for stem cell research. But to drive this research forward, Arizona should also allow compensation for egg donations for stem cell research. Doing so will incentivize women to donate their eggs, increasing Arizona researchers’ resources for this cutting-edge research with the potential to save lives.
By Victoria Warkin
J.D. Candidate, 2025
Victoria is a proud Arizona native who grew up in Chandler. She attended the University of Arizona, where she graduated with a degree in Economics before moving back to the Phoenix area for law school. She is passionate about advocating for others and has enjoyed being a part of the Post-Conviction Clinic and the Arizona Legal Center at ASU Law. She is looking forward to litigating after law school. In her free time, Victoria enjoys baking, playing board games, and being outside whenever possible. She is an avid hiker, skier, and kayaker.