Just Asking…..More on the Egg Market

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.

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5 responses to “Just Asking…..More on the Egg Market

  1. Julie you say:”there is greater concern about physical appearance–think blonde, tall and thin–then there is with sperm providers”

    I disagree. The websites advertising sperm donors go into great detail, and as many people have noticed, remind a lot about advertisements for escort-services. They promote blond and blue-eyed Scandinavian sperm donors with such an enthusiasm, that it almost leaves the “Lebensborn” project in Nazi-Germany in the dust.

    I think we should be honest in the way we talk about things. The exchange of sexual favours usually takes place within a relationship based on love or mutual sexual attraction. When it is bargained away on an open commercial market, we call it prostitution. The same thing applies to reproductive relationships.

    • I don’t agree about calling in prostitution. Whatever is being bought/sold it isn’t sex, and that is what calling it prostitution suggests, at least to me.

      I don’t have anything statistical to back up my sense of the difference between sperm provider listings and egg provider listings. It’s really just impressionistic and of cousre, I could be wrong. But the sperm provider listings often talk about what a person is majoring in or whether they are musical. Height and weight is generally included, as are hair color and eye color. But nothing in them says ‘attractive.” This stress, though, on attractiviness seems to pervade the ads for egg providers. As far as I know there’s no scientific reason why an attractive egg provider would be any more or less likely to produce an attractive offspring than would an attractive sperm provider.

  2. Sorry for my late response.

    Many people have noticed the similarity between donor catalogues and the corresponding catalogues for escort services. You say that what is bought is not sex, but the sperm donor is payed for performing a sexual act, namely to masturbate in a cup. So were the people in the porn magazine he is reading in the ‘collection room’ (at the moment there is a debate in the UK about the porn purchased by the government for the public fertility clinics). Sperm donation has a lot to do with sex, but not with the kind that we like to talk about.

    You say that in the sperm provider listings nothing in them says ‘attractive’. This is definitively wrong. The listings have always included ‘staff impression’ on a scale from 1 to 5 based on attractiveness. With single women now being the main group of customers of the fertility industry, this has been expanded into sound tape interviews, videos (with the face blurred), handwritten donor essays and so on. As an example, many single women who purchase sperm asks for a donor with a sense of humour(!)

    The sex industry and the fertility industry have a lot in common. The sex industry commodifies what is usually associated with love and passion. The fertility industry commodifies human reproduction which is usually associated with love and responsibility. Generally it is about richer men and women preying on vulnerable young men and women. A 20 year old sperm donor wrote in his ‘donor essay’: “If the baby is a boy, I hope for him that he will never have to sell his sperm”. This insight is rare because many young men (boys) don’t understand what they are doing.

    • An older woman was recently referred to me for locating and contacting the father of the child she’s raising. She had all the non-id stuff that you are talking about Nelly, Audio tape and handwriting samples the list goes on and on she was real interested in having him meet his kid. She explained that she chose him because he’s the kind of guy she would want to have dated and said “but of course I’m much too old for him”. Indeed she was much too old for him she was in her mid 50’s with a with a toddler. She’d already hired private detectives and a nanny (she’s a busy attorney). Nanny worked out but the detective did not which is why she ended up talking to me. I was happy that she wanted to find him praised her for that then she said she was not actually the child’s real mother she paid for the egg and sperm both. She said she was not interested in finding the genetic mother though, just the boys father.

      There were many siblings on DSR so I encouraged her to start with getting to know the brothers and sisters while I chewed on this for a while. I wanted to find the father for the child but it felt a little bit like the escort catalog thing. I know its not but it has that same feel sometimes.

    • I don’t want to overstate my point about the differential treatment of egg and sperm donors re: attractiveness. It’s quite true that there are physical descriptions of both male and female gamete providers. But my sense is (and I have nothing more than an impressionistic sense) that there is more emphasis on the accomplishments of male providers (studies chemistry, plays guitar, etc.) than on the female.

      I’m still not persuaded about the sex industry and the fertility industry although you suggest interesting parallels. I suppose I think when you buy sex you that’s the end in itself–you want to have sex and you just buy it. If you buy sperm it is as a means to an end–having a baby or raising a child. It’s rather more like buying a component part that you need for a project. But I will confess that I haven’t put my finger on the exact reason that I am not persuaded.

      Your analogy does, however, highlight the difference between the experience of being a female gamete provider and that of being a male gamete provider. I assume you would agree that the experience of the female gamete provider looks nothing at all like sex. It’s clearly a medical procedure.

      I think your final point about regret is interesting. I wonder how often men feel like they have to sell their sperm, though. My sense is it is predominantly college students picking up a few extra bucks. I’ve not read much that raises the same issues as those in the fore when the price for eggs rises.

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