A recent post about an unwitting sperm donor in Delaware garnered many many comments and sparked some interesting discussion. It’s worth reading the post (and perhaps skimming the comments) but here’s the short version of the story: A woman tricked her boyfriend into giving her sperm samples which she used to become pregnant. Under these circumstances, the Delaware Supreme Court held that he was not a legal parent to the resulting child.
Several comments raised questions about gender and possible double standards. Even if we all share a commitment to equality between women and men (an assumption I’m just going to make for the moment) there are difficult questions here. When it comes to reproduction, in some ways men and women are quite similar–each contributes a gamete (men sperm and women eggs).
But in other ways men and women are not at all similar. First, of course there is pregnancy. Every person currently living developed in a woman’s womb. All children are born to women.
But even putting that to one side, men and women are dissimilar even with regard to the production of gametes. For the moment, I’ll just flag two fairly apparent differences.
First, men can produce large numbers of sperm with relatively little effort. By contrast, women are typically induced to superovulate by administration of serious drugs that have serious effects on a woman’s body. Additionally, women begin with a finite number of eggs so the production of ten eggs today means the day when all the eggs are used up is a bit closer. This calculus in inapplicable to men, who can produce more sperm.
Second, the process by which sperm and eggs are harvested (I’m not sure that’s really the right term–I’m open to amendment) is different. Without going into great detail, suffice it to say that a man could produce sperm for third-party use in his own home without the need of medical equipment or trained personnel. An egg can only be extracted from a woman through a medical procedure.
With these two differences in mind, consider whether there is a female analogy to an unwitting sperm donor (like the man in the Delaware case). I don’t think there can be. A woman cannot be an unwitting egg donor–at least not in the same sense the man in Delaware was.
But women can be unwilling egg donors–in at least two ways. First, here is a very disturbing story that originates in Greece. Women who are already victims of human trafficking have also found themselves subject to forced egg donation. It strikes me that this is akin to reports that kidneys and perhaps other human organs are taken from unwilling victims. But of course, an egg has a potential unlike that of a kidney–it can be used to create a new life. So while this is clearly similar, it is also different. I do not think it is possible to imagine any analogous treatment of men, in part because sperm is substantially less valuable than eggs.
The second instance in which a woman may be said to be an unwilling donor is where her egg is willing given for one purpose but then used for another. I’m thinking mainly of ART mistakes (which I’ve written about before) rather than intentional redirection. If a woman provides an egg with the understanding it will be fertilized in vitro and then transferred to her own uterus and if instead it ends up in someone else’s uterus, you can think of this as an unwilling donation.
Here, I think, men and women are similarly situated again–the very same thing could happen with sperm. Indeed, here is a very recent story where that is what happened. Oddly, the plaintiff in the first case seems to be Trudy Moore (the mother of the child conceived using sperm that did not come from her husband) rather than Matthew Guest (the husband whose sperm was not used). There’s something to say about that, but I haven’t quite figured out what it is just yet.
I have no grand conclusion here. I just think it is worth pausing to appreciate that there are layers of sameness and difference as we think about how to treat men and women with regard to parentage and reproduction.