I recently joined the ASRM, mostly to try and keep up with what’s going on in ART. One perk of membership is a weekly publication called Fertility and Sterility. Most of the contents is way beyond my comprehension (it’s aimed primarily at medical folk, I think.) But each issue I’ve received so far contains one tidbit of interest.
This week there was a short paper by several scientists describing a study examining the attitudes of infertile heterosexual couples towards use of third-party gametes. (I can link to the abstract at a public site, so I’ve done that. You may need access to a university library or something like that to get the full text.)
I’m not in any position to critique the methodology of the study. That’s way beyond my expertise. And the authors themselves note that the study design has certain inherent limitations–for example, the participants in the study agreed to participate. Some people with strong feelings might have declined to do so. All that aside, the conclusion the authors reached is quite intriguing.
The authors looked at male/female couples who, because of infertility issues, were considering the use of third-party eggs or sperm. They wanted to assess the attitudes of the men and women involved towards the use of these materials, and in particular to compare the attitudes of men and women with regard to third-party eggs and sperm. They concluded
“both men and women from infertile couples have a more negative attitude toward the use of donor sperm than donor eggs. Fears of marital conflict, an incomplete gestational experience and societal opinions of parenting abilities were all worse with donor sperm compared with donor eggs.” (emphasis added.)
Stating this slightly differently, the report also says:
There was a pervasive negative connotation with the use of donor sperm that did not exist to the same degree for donor eggs.”
I think what is noteworthy for me is that men and women agree that the use of third-party sperm is more troublesome than the use of third-party eggs. If I’d had to guess, I would have surmised that sperm posed more of an issue for men while eggs posed more of an issue for women, but that’s not the case.
Assuming the finding is sound (and I’m going to make that assumption since I’ve no reason to question it) the question, of course, is why, across gender lines, there are more negative feelings about sperm than about eggs. At this point I think all the answers I can offer are speculation (this question was not within the scope of the study) but even that speculation is interesting.
One concern was the degree to which the prospective parents might have felt that they would be able to bond with the child. For a couple using third-party eggs, the woman would still be pregnant and give birth, albeit to a child she had no genetic relationship to. Thus, the use of third-party eggs might dilute her social status as mother a bit, but she would still have the experience of pregnancy/birth to rely on.
By contrast, the man’s status as a parent might rest more heavily on the contribution of genetic material. Using third-party sperm would deprive him of that connection. So perhaps all agreed that the loss of genetic connections was more critical for a man than for a woman.
This is, as I said, just speculation. And it is only one possible explanation I can think of. I suppose part of what intrigues me is that the study suggests similarities between men and women regarding the meaning of the differences between male and female contributions to the production of children. That’s something I’d like to think about a bit more.