It’s funny how once you start reading about something, looking for an answer to a single question, you can end up generating more questions. That’s the experience I’ve had in the last day.
This all began with the recent flurry of stories about the pricing of eggs–human eggs, the kind used in assisted reproduction. I’ve written about this recently. I think the media was generated by a recently released study by Aaron D. Levine. (You can register and read the paper or you can just read the abstract without registering.) That study lead me to the guidelines for compensation prepared by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
As I’ve said before, the assertion that we may be paying women too much for the eggs seems wrong to me. The arguments in support of this view strike me as condescending, sexist and/or elitist. But as I’ve been reading and thinking about this, I’ve found more things to think about.
Egg providers and sperm providers are treated quite differently. There are some obvious reasons for that–providing sperm is safer, less intrusive and less painful than providing eggs. Further, as I understand it, men have a virtually limitless supply of sperm whereas women have a fixed supply of eggs.
Each of these reasons provides some justification for offering greater compensation to women providing eggs than to men providing sperm. And indeed, this is what is reflected in the market. That said, I don’t know that the magnitude of the price differential can be explained by these differences, nor do I know how I’d figure that out.
But even beyond price, it strikes me that the egg market is quite different from the sperm market. It seems to me that there is much more aggressive advertising by vendors or couples looking for egg providers than by those looking for sperm providers. Indeed, I’ve never heard of a case where an individual couple advertised for a sperm provider who met their specifications.
I can think of some reasons why the markets might be different. Perhaps the mark-up on eggs is greater than the mark-up on sperm. What I mean is that not just the gamete provider but also the clinic makes more money selling eggs. After all, eggs would be used in IVF, which is vastly more expensive (and presumably profitable) than simple insemination. That might give clinics a greater interest in securing their own pool of egg providers.
There are also historical/technological differences that might account for some of the differences in the treatment of egg and sperm providers. It’s easy to freeze and store sperm and we’ve been doing it for many years. Thus there are large sperm banks with extensive catalogs of donors. The fees are the same no matter what donor you choose. It’s almost like an industrialized operation.
Preserving eggs is more difficult and for many years was rare. (Perhaps it still is. Someone could probably tell me this?) The inability to reliably store eggs meant that the market for eggs developed differently from the market for sperm. My understanding (subject to correction by anyone with better knowledge) is that individual egg providers had to be recruited and then all the scheduling had to be synchronized. If providers were lined up one at a time, it’s more likely that the amount of money offered would vary from one to the next.
If this is indeed the way it worked than this, too, might explain higher compensation for women. It also might lead to the development of a slightly different attitude towards the women providing the eggs. While the men who provided sperm were long gone by the time their sperm was used, the egg donors must have been somewhere on the fringes of the enterprise. My hunch (and it is only a hunch) is that it would be harder to reduce the egg donor to a slender glass tube when you knew your own schedule was at least partially determined by whatever experiences she was having at about the same time.
And then there are gender differences. Given what we see about how men and women are treated and react differently, wouldn’t it be odd if you didn’t find gender differences in the way we think about/treat sperm providers and egg providers. I haven’t done anything remotely like systematic research, but it strikes me that when you read about egg providers there is greater concern about physical appearance–think blonde, tall and thin–then there is with sperm providers. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.
And there is yet still more to come.