Quite a while back I wrote a post about sameness and difference for male and female gamete providers. It’s easy to see both: Sameness because each provides 1/2 the gametes used to create a child, difference for many reasons, including the process by which the gametes are obtained and the role played by men and women in human reproduction. Now it turns out there’s a new book on just this topic–Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Egg and Sperm. It’s by Rene Almeling, a sociologist at Yale University. Suddenly it is at the very top of my list of “books to buy” (and this is saying a lot because I don’t buy many books–I’m a big fan of libraries.)
Until I get the book, there’s much to think about from this interview with the author from the Huffington Post. It’s not surprising to me that Professor Almeling finds gender differences between those who provide gametes (and in how they are recruited), but the specific differences she finds and discusses here are fascinating. For the moment I’ll highlight two.
First, although women are paid vastly more for their eggs than men for their sperm, the pitch made to women is also about altruism. It follows, then, that women perceive their actions to be at least in part altruistic. Consistent with (and reinforcing) this view, women who provide eggs may well get thank-you notes from the people who use the eggs. (This is encouraged by the gamete banks.)
In contrast, men are treated as though they are being paid to do a job. In that frame, it’s hardly surprising that people who use the sperm don’t send thank you notes to the sperm-providers.
The second point that leaps out almost seems to contrary to the one just discussed. According to Professor Almeling, women who provide eggs do not think of themselves as mothers of the children produced with the eggs, but men who provide sperm do tend to think of themselves as fathers.
Professor Almeling offers a couple of explanations for this and it’s really worth reading what she has to say. I just want to expand on one of them a bit–something I would bet she does in her book.
When a man provides the sperm he has done what men traditionally do to father a child. (And I do use the verb “father” there quite deliberately.) Fathering a child doesn’t have to do with care or nurturing or with intent, for that matter. It just has to do with providing sperm. The paid sperm provider is thus in the same position as a man who has sex with a woman that results in the woman getting pregnant. He’s not missing any element of fatherhood.
Motherhood is something different. ART has deconstructed motherhood. Where once there was a unitary phenomenon where providing gametes and pregnancy were inevitably entwined, now these are two separate components. The egg provider provides the gamete but doesn’t get pregnant. She’s missing a critical element of motherhood (pregnancy) and thus may not leap to the conclusion that she is a mother. Where she is encouraged not to make that leap (as is surely the case in these situations) you can see that it might not occur.
The interview also leaves me with one question–and I’ll have to see if it is addressed in the book. It looks to me like the background assumption here is that the gametes–and particularly the eggs–are for a heterosexual couple. Thus, you are helping out a woman who needs and egg and who will then become pregnant and be a parent. This may be the pitch that is made to the prospective egg provider, but I wonder how it changes things (if at all) if the egg will be used with a gestational surrogate to provide a child for a gay male couple or a single man. Better go get that book.