The Unwitting Sperm Donor and the Illegally Harvested Egg

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.

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3 responses to “The Unwitting Sperm Donor and the Illegally Harvested Egg

  1. The mistakes that Julie is talking about are the very mistakes that I think need to be detected before the child spends time with the wrong family – or absent one of its parents. Those are the instances where the woman who gives birth needs to be informed upon the birth of that child that A) the child is not her offspring, or B) the child is her offspring but not the offspring of the man she named as the child’s father, or C) the child is not the offspring of either one of them. And then the discussion needs to begin with that woman – did she employ the services of a fertility clinic? If so, are the results of the genetic tests consistent with the results that she paid for and expected? If so, then what is the donor # and clinic name so that it can be checked that the donor did properly sign forms relinquishing their rights to raise their offspring and so that the number of offspring from each donor can be tracked and CAPPED. If the DNA does not match the Donor the woman picked – does it match other donors? No? Then run that child’s DNA against every other patient of that clinic until a match is made. If it turns out to be the DNA of another patient – that patient needs to be contacted and informed of the birth of their offspring and then that person can either give that child up for adoption or enter into a joint custody arrangement with this stranger who is the other parent of their child. If that customer’s genes were mated with that of donor, then I think they may have right to sole custody – if the woman that gave birth is not related to the child.
    I’m coming to realize that I don’t think people have the right to reproduce other people’s genes – I think you have the right to reproduce your genes and I think you have the right to find someone else willing to reproduce their genes with you anonymously – but I don’t think its really anyone’s place to come involve themselves as a third party to mix two anonymous people’s genes together to create their offspring. I’m not yet able to articulate this gut feeling intellegently. Forgive me. I need to think about this more.

  2. With regard to the question of parenthood, I think sperm donors (men) and egg donors (women) are situated in exactly the same position. If the question was about compensation, or awarding of damages then yes, there is a difference. But if the question is the relationship to the child, I fail to see why the technicalities of the procedures, and whether they are easy or difficult, are at all relevant. What does one thing have to do with the other?

  3. And why should consent or intent matter either? We didn’t choose our parents. We didn’t choose our brothers and sisters. We didn’t even choose our cousins. At most, we chose the type of interaction we will have with them.

    So why do we suddenly think we have to choose our children?

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