Egg Providers/Sperm Providers: Sameness and Difference Considered

A while back I posted an entry about treatment of different categories of gamete providers–by which I mean sperm providers (who are male) and egg providers (who are female).  It was really just a place to start thinking.  I want to pick up that thread now and use it as a start to a discussion about consent. 

(You’ll find it helpful to go back and read the original post I just linked to.   Note that I am trying to change the terminology I use to “providers” rather than “donors” as I’ve been sensitized to the point that people who are paid for their materials are not exactly what we think of as “donors.”) 

What I started to do in that last post is think about the ways in which egg and sperm providers are the same and the ways in which they are different.   For instance, they are the same in that each provides 1/2 the genetic material needed to create a child; each may be paid (at least in the US);  and each may remain anonymous, which creates issues about a child’s access to her/his genetic lineage we’ve discussed elsewhere here.   

These are all fairly obvious similarities and they support the proposition that gamete providers should be treated similarly.  For instance, whatever one thinks a about child’s right to information about a sperm provider is, surely a child should have the same right as to an egg provider.  

A number of differences are also apparent.  To start with the most obvious, the process for collecting sperm is quite different from that used to collect eggs.  Harvesting eggs is a medical procedure.   Harvesting (or perhaps gathering?) sperm is not, at least to my mind.  

And harvesting eggs is an unusual sort of medical procedure.  It is neither a therapeutic procedure (one that is designed to help the person on whom it is performed) nor a cosmetic one (undertaken to improve one’s appearance).   It is a medical procedure undertaken for the benefit of another person (the eventual recipient).   (This is true whether the provider is motivated by altruism or by the chance to receive money or by some combination of the two.)      

This difference is probably largely responsible for the price differential paid to egg providers.   After all, while the end product might be the same (a gamete), the pain, inconvenience and risk endured by the providers are not the same.   

And this brings me back to the problem of the overpaid egg provider.   I’m not aware of any corresponding concern with the overpaid sperm provider.   Of course, that’s largely because egg providers are paid a good deal more (200 times more is not unusual).   But I don’t think that’s the only reason.  

Providing sperm does not (to my knowledge) expose men to any physical risks.  They won’t use up all their sperm.   They won’t suffer side effects from medication.  It isn’t (I gather) painful.   Thus, offering money to tempt men to provide sperm doesn’t seem as problematic as offering money to women to encourage them to endure pain and undergo medical procedures that do not otherwise benefit them.  

Further egg providers, overpaid or otherwise, are women while sperm providers are men.   Women have historically been subject to much more protective legislation/regulation than have men.   I don’t particularly mean to make this sound like a good thing.   The notion that women are frail and slightly irrational creatures, less capable of making intelligent choices and hence, more in need of (male) protection has resulted in differential treatment that has disadvantaged women far more than it is helped them.   I think it quite likely that this abiding desire to protect women also contributes to concerns about over-paid egg donors. 

There’s more to say about the differences that stem from the difference in the collection of eggs and sperm, but rather than go on, let me offer one brief note about another axis of difference.   The sperm market is older and more well devloped.  It’s been possible to freeze and store sperm reliably for quite a while now.   And sperm can be used in insemination which is a quite simple (and therefore relatively inexpensive) procedure.  

By contrast the egg market is both smaller and newer.  Freezing eggs is more difficult and a bit less common.   The demand for eggs (which are used in IVF) appeared before the capacity to freeze them did.  Thus, the market developed in different ways.   This helps to explain some of the current differences in the marketing of gametes, I think. 

I’ll pick this up again tomorrow.

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4 responses to “Egg Providers/Sperm Providers: Sameness and Difference Considered

  1. Notwithstanding the newness of freezing technology, reproductive endocrinologists are aggressively marketing for donors. Some have gone so far as to brag that they will put the “fresh” donation business out of business. If these claims are true, the supply of eggs will be controlled by the doctors.

    This creates a new paradigm. Lower compensation to donors (probably). Comparatively, lower costs for intended parents (perhaps but would be a monopolistic market).

  2. By the way, the word donor is a neutral medical term that does not necessarily connote altruism. When I give a urine sample for a drug screening, my name is listed as “specimen donor.” However, I still agree with your choice of the word “provider” because of the common colloquial use of the word. (It also is decreasing in medical use.)

    • I didn’t realize that “donor” had that usage in the medical world. As you rightly surmise, it’s the inference carried by its common use I’m trying to avoid.

  3. You don’t see it that often in health care either, perhaps it is borrowed terminology. I’m not sure.

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