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Korea’s Illicit Ovum Trade

Posted November. 07, 2005 07:23,   


Police arrested a broker who arranged deals between ovum-providing women and infertile couples through an Internet community that he opened. The broker is the first to be arrested on such a charge in Korea.

It also has been revealed that ova of Korean females have been being exported abroad, with Japan among the destinations.

It has been pointed out that laws to stop these practices from taking place or to punish those who engage in arranging deals between surrogate mothers and infertile couples are inadequate and that urgent countermeasures are needed.

Catching ovum traders-

On November 6, the cyber crime investigation squad at the Seoul Metropolitan Police arrested a 28-year-old ovum broker, Kim on charges of brokering illegal trade in ova six times and getting 3.7 million won as commission, a violation of the Bioethics and Safety Law.

The police also booked two female college students, including a 23 year old, and a housewife in her 20’s who sold their ova through Kim, and three women who paid money in return for their ova on the same charges.

The police are currently trying to trace two Japanese for whom Kim may have brokered deals to buy ova, and Korean women who are suspected of having sold their ova to these Japanese.

The police plan to investigate clinics which provided artificial insemination treatments to find out whether they got consent from ovum providers, and the distribution channels of ova to find out whether any illegal practices are taking place when ova change hands.

Selling ova online-

The arrested broker opened four Internet communities related to the buying and selling of ova on Internet portal sites starting from May this year and recruited community members. He received four million won from an ovum buyer and introduced the buyer to a female member in her 20’s in return for the money. He gave ovum providers 2.5 million to 3.5 million won. The amount of money that ovum providers received varied depending on whether their ovum resulted in a successful pregnancy or not.

The police explained that ovum sellers publicized themselves as “women with higher education” in order to sell their ova at higher prices in “the ovum trade market.”

These women wanted to make “quick money” because of credit card debts and hardships of life. One woman sold her ova more than twice.

Apart from the cases already announced, there were eight more cases where infertile couples and ovum providers made their intentions clear to sell and buy ova. There were as many as 23 more women who made a written promise to “sell ova.” Among those women was a student at a prestigious university in Seoul.

What are the side-effects of artificial ovum extraction?-

When ova are extracted for the purpose of artificial insemination, women are administered with hormone injections and about 10 ova are produced through this “artificial means.” However, obstetricians and gynecologists say that if an ovarian hyperstimulation is induced by developing multiple ovarian follicles, it increases the risk of developing a disease called Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS).

Professor Choi Young-min of Obstetrics and Gynecology department at the Seoul National University College of Medicine said, “Although side-effects from an artificial extraction of ova are not life-threatening, occasionally there have been cases where women have had to be hospitalized and treated due to abdominal dropsy and swollen ovaries.”

The police said one of women booked without detention is suffering from OHSS.

Inadequate laws-

The Bioethics and Safety Law which took effect January this year also turned out to have loopholes. The arrested broker met women who wanted to sell their ova and couples who wanted to buy ova at infertility clinics. He succeeded in arranging deals by pretending that he was brokering legally donated ova.

Although a written agreement from ovum providers is required when ova are extracted under the current Bioethics and Safety Law, the form of consent to create ova, a document mandated by the Health and Welfare ministry directive, an enforcement regulation of this law, has no signature block. Therefore, it is possible for clinics to conduct artificial insemination treatments if infertile couples bring ovum providers with them or bring ova to clinics. Therefore, there is no way to find out whether the ova were illegally provided or not after the treatments take place.

When it comes to the issue of surrogate mothers, the problem is more serious. The arrested broker received 30 million won per case for arranging deals between surrogate mothers and infertile couples. He arranged five deals in total. In those cases, ova and semen of the infertile couples were extracted, and embryos created outside human bodies were implanted in the surrogate mothers’ uteri. However, there is no law which can be applied to punish him for his involvement in these actions.

It is also questionable whether embryos or ova which are left over after clinics which conduct artificial insemination use them are being distributed legally. The police have to look into whether these clinics have disposed of remnant embryos through normal procedures, and whether they provided the remaining embryos to certain research institutes.

The police believe that ova extracted last year, before the Bioethics and Safety Law, which bans trade in ova, took effect, may have been distributed by clinics, and that related documents may have been manipulated. The police plan to investigate this as well.

Se-Jin Jung mint4a@donga.com