As the UK debates how much women should be paid to donate eggs to infertile couples for IVF this Thought for the Day explores the real value of altruism, placing it in the context of Mahayana Buddhist teachings

Thought for the Day 20/10/2012



How much should women be paid to donate eggs to infertile couples for IVF? Yesterday the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority decided that maximum payments to compensate donors for expenses and lost earnings would triple  to £750. The adjustment isn’t just a technical matter. Recently, I’ve watched several friends going through IVF and seen their intense desire for a child and the agony of waiting for an egg. The chronic shortage of donors suggests that payments have been too low, and anything that increases donations is welcome; but if we set the payment too high we risk making financial gain a part of donors’ motivation.

The intimate business of giving eggs or sperm to create a new life seems so personal that I find myself questioning some of the moral arguments against paying donors. ‘The creation of life is a sanctified act.’ ‘It wrong to treat the body as a commodity.’ But many children are conceived in less than ideal circumstances and many quite personal things are bought and sold. Surely pragmatic considerations should trump these concerns.

Nonetheless, because the law has kept egg, organ and blood donation out of the commercial arena they have created a special role for altruism in our social life. People needing an egg or an organ depend on the willingness of potential donors to make an intimate gift for no gain in order to create a life or to save one. From a selfish viewpoint, there is no really reason to be a donor and a few hundred pounds either way doesn’t change that much. But from another perspective, that’s just the point.

For Buddhism, our suffering and distress often arise from an undue focus on our own concerns and preoccupations. The Mahayana Buddhism of China, Japan and Tibet teaches that the deepest kind of happiness comes when we let go of those interests for the sake of others. Mahayana teachings ask us to imagine the immense relief of being motivated entirely by a caring response to the needs we see around us. That’s what they mean by compassion. They urge us to give away everything, including the body, and in that sense to regard it as a kind of commodity rather than something special or sacred.

Such altruism is a lofty ideal, but its seed is present in any act of kindness and generosity. Those appeals for blood, organs and reproductive materials, also call out to best side of ourselves, encouraging an attitude that brings all the intangible benefits of selflessness and generosity.