In the last few days I’ve seen a lot on the web about this story: A clinic in the US is “raffling off” an egg (from a donor of the winner’s choosing) and accompanying fertility treatments. Estimated retail value, over $25,000. Needless to say most of the coverage has been sharply critical (which is probably putting it mildly.)
I suppose there are (at least) two ways to approach this. First, here’s a story from Salon. One point made here is that this wasn’t, strictly speaking, a raffle. No one walked around selling tickets–$25 each, five for $100. Instead, the sponsor (Genetics and IVF Institute) offered free services to one couple, chosen at random, attending a seminar the clinic held in London. Seen this way, it’s just part of the clinic’s marketing program which includes, if you look at the website, a money-back guarantee if you don’t take home a baby on your first try. (It’s on the webpage–one of the messages in the rotating box on the right.)
Now the first question, I suppose, is whether it makes one (me? you?) feel better to understand that strictly speaking this isn’t a raffle, it’s more like a door prize. Perhaps it is slightly more palatable, but ultimately I think this is a distinction without a difference. Raffle or door-prize, there’s still something vaguely unsettling about it.
Which brings me to the second way of approaching it. Isn’t this just a logical extension of the commercialization and commodification found in ART (particularly in the US)?
The package being offered has two components: services and a donor egg. I want to think about the separately first.
It seems to me that the offer of free fertility-related services shouldn’t particularly bother me. It’s like offering a free spa treatment to one lucky person who attends a presentation about some new spa technique. Surely if you can sell fertility services (and I don’t think anyone things that’s wrong generally, do they?) you can give them away?
Does it matter that it is medical care? I suppose we wouldn’t want people raffling off (or offering as a door-prize) necessary medical care. But I think this is said to be elective or optional care. Could a doctor offer free Botox injections to one attendee at a seminar she or he was holding on modern cosmetic surgery techniques? I bet that’s actually happened.
The other part of the package is a donor egg. Of course, if you object to the commodification of human gametes–that is, if you think buying/selling eggs is itself wrong–this is likely to seem a horrible extension of this practice. Condemning it would simply be consistent and logical.
But I’m not generally opposed to commodifying gametes, which means I have to think about whether offering one as a door-prize is meaningfully different from simply offering one to someone who pays for it. My visceral reaction is that it is different, but frankly, I’m having a hard time articulating why it is different.
One obvious thing is that offering the door-prize adds an element of chance to the equation. There will be one lucky winner. By contrast, offering it for sale (and practically speaking, for sale in unlimited quantities in the US–I don’t think we have an egg shortage, though they are pricey) means anyone who can pay for it can have it. Yet that is still true–even after the door prize is awarded, anyone who doesn’t win and can pay for it can buy their own egg.
I suppose the door-prize approach also turns the egg into a kind of advertising gimmick. This is, after all, a for-profit clinic. They aren’t in the habit of giving things away. The reason this offer makes sense from their point of view is that it encourages larger attendance at the seminar. People will come in order to have a chance to win that egg. Nevermind that the odds of any one person winning are small (one egg vs. however many attendees).
Maybe it’s this–the use of the egg as a lure–that bothers me. Though again I must ask myself, if it could be sold, why couldn’t it be offered like this? I suppose I still haven’t worked this one out.