What’s the Right Price for Sperm and Eggs?

I’ve written with some regularity about the pricing of gametes–sperm and eggs.   I read a story this morning that made me think about the title question above.   (It’s likely related to this story about a recent study done by an influential UK think-tank.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic recently–and I’m about to read Rene Almeling’s book which is at least partly on this topic.   I thought I’d take this chance to revisit some of my thinking.

Concerns about compensation for those who provide gametes tend to fall into two categories.    On the one hand, people worry about commodification–turning something (here gametes) into a commodity.  There are also associated concerns about abuse and exploitation.   On the other hand, people say there’s a sperm shortage–which is to say the supply of sperm is not adequate to meet the demand for it.

While those who are worried about commodification are hardly likely to want to offer greater compensation, you do see people concerned with the shortage of gametes who are also worried about commodification.   I think I might fall into the latter group, although my concerns about commodification are not overly strong.

Anyway, the newest stories–the ones I’ve linked to above–are about upping the compensation for those who provide gametes in the UK.   If you read the Guardian story you can see that of the argument is about fairness of compensation as much as it is about increasing the supply of gametes.

So is there a correct price for sperm and eggs?   (Really that should be correct prices–it’s easy to see that the prices should not be the same.)   There’s at least one easy way to think about this–finding the right price is what markets are for.   If the supply is inadequate, then the price rises, increasing supply until the demand is met.   And this is likely pretty much the way it works for sperm in the US–that’s an unregulated market, which means simple forces of supply and demand regulate prices.

Now just because it is obvious doesn’t mean it is right.  Market forces give you some results we may not be happy with.  So, for example, the red-haired sperm problem of last month made many people realize that there are uncomfortable aspects to this particular market.   We might end up paying a premium on certain racial characteristics, for example.   Say there weren’t enough Japanese sperm providers–the market might respond in ways that would result in a greater payment for men of Japanese ancestry than for men of European ancestry.   For some, that is queasy making or at least problematic.   At the same time, this is less a reflection of the absolute value we as a society place on people of different races and more about differential cultural willingness to provide gametes for others.

There are also stories like this one that detail offers of extraordinary sums of money (here $80,000) for egg providers who meet specific requirements.   (I’ve never seen a remotely similar premium offered to a sperm provider, which is something to think about.)    There is something many (me included) find disturbing about the sheer amount of money.

But this is tricky to pin down.   There are concerns that women who provide eggs are over-paid–which is to say that high compensation is too tempting–but this all strikes me as essentially classist.   Here’s what I mean:  Suppose your concern is that for $80,000 women might do things that are not in their best interest.  You might decide to cap payment at $10,000.   Now its true that many women won’t be so tempted by the $10,000.   But surely some women will be–those who are poor (or at least poorer) and need the money.   What you’ve accomplished by lowering the cap on compensation is to protect those who don’t need $10,000, but those who do need it will still be tempted to do something that is not in their best interest.    Logically, the only way to avoid this is to offer so little money that no one will be tempted, which seems to defeat the point of the entire endeavor.

Anyway, to go back to the Guardian story, it seems the idea in the UK is not to leave it to the market but to find some true price–the right price–and pay that.    I wonder how that will work and whether we’ll truly know that the right price has been found when the supply meets the demand.




20 responses to “What’s the Right Price for Sperm and Eggs?

  1. The medical costs associated are fine – anything above is wrong from my perspective – you don’t purchase children. Money in adoption over an above actual costs is wrong as well.

    Personally I don’t really care if there is a shortage of either. It is not a right to have a family – it may be a desire but not a right. Until they look at and restore the rights of those conceived via IVF they don’t have my sympathy.

    In addition as an adoptee I have been told it is not my right to know where I come from, and those who desperately want to have a family via adoption or IVF aren’t jumping on board to make a difference for us or even give a fig. Even though the UN Rights of Children state it is a right to know our identity…

    • Is selling an egg or sperm (which I guess get sold in lots rather than individually) the same as selling a child? To me it is not. (If you argue that it is the same than many other things may follow from that.) This is not to say it is without issues, but I don’t think it’s an easy equivilance to make.

      It’s also true while I think it is disingenuous, folks in the industry to do not usually discuss this as buying eggs/sperm. (That’s why the “donor” language is preferred by some.) It’s about compensating people for time/trouble.

      Finally, it might be a bit harder to draw the line between compensating medical costs and anything above that. What are the legitimate costs? This comes up with adoption as well. Can the parents intending to adopt pay expenses of the pregnant woman? Which expenses?

  2. that influential think-tank, the human fertilization and embryo authority, also supervises abortion rules!

  3. Julie you asked: “Is selling an egg or sperm (which I guess get sold in lots rather than individually) the same as selling a child? To me it is not. (If you argue that it is the same than many other things may follow from that.) This is not to say it is without issues, but I don’t think it’s an easy equivilance to make. ”

    If I sold an ingredient that can only be used to create a nuclear bomb can you then say it is any different than selling a nuclear weapon? You can argue it is only part of it which is fine, but you cannot argue the intent of that product was to put it on the mantle to admire as a priceless treasure. In sperm or eggs you are selling the buyer a vital needed component to the creation of a human being that without that component would never exist. Therefore you are in essence buying and selling a human being…broad brush strokes perhaps but the end game is a human being.

    • It’s true, as you say, that (generally anyway) the goal of those who are buying gametes is to create children. (There’s research uses, but I think I’ll agree to set those aside for the moment.) There’s a lot to think about there and I probably have not done an adequate job of discussing it all. I’ll try to come back to this approach soon.

      Here’s why the equivlance troubles me. If selling sperm is the same as selling a child what about destroying sperm? Is that the same as destroying a child? You can see where this leads, I suspect, and it’s not anywhere I want to go. In my view, sperm can be freely destroyed or wasted and I have no qualms about that. I don’t want to over-protect sperm because of its potential use. (And now I confess I have that Monty Python song running through my head.)

      So I suppose you and I are actually thinking about this in quite different ways. I’m focused on the thing–which I do not want to endow with such special properties. You’re focussed on the transaction–the sperm is provided in order to create a child. (Of course, many other actors in the chain may act for the purpose of creating a child–the medical technicians, the doctors, etc,–why isn’t paying them the same as buying a child, too?)

      More thought (from me) needed–and will follow in time.

  4. Julie asked: “What are the legitimate costs? This comes up with adoption as well. Can the parents intending to adopt pay expenses of the pregnant woman? Which expenses?”

    I am again only for medical expenses. Those expenses are clear cut and would expand to any physcian requested measures. Prenatal vitamins, fresh fruits and vegetables, ability to get to and from the doctors. Medical expenses could also include costs if the mother is on protracted bed rest. Anything else crosses the line in the sand where feelings of obligation and guilt then have the ability to cloud the ability to make a decision based on the mothers true wishes. No one paid the expenses of mothers until the early 90’s and it has gone so far past the line in the sand today that it is out of control. Offering scholarships to mothers who surrender = delayed payment for baby imo. It is at the level now where with expenses and the carrot of open adoption as an incentive which is not legally binding in 24? states and in the states where it is legally binding the ability of the court to rectify the situation is practically null and void. It has all gone so terribly wrong.

    • I appreciate the line you are trying to draw and also think you’ve shown that it is quite hard to draw. I’m not sure expenses are so clear-cut. Why is it okay to pay for fresh fruits and veg? The pregnant woman was eathing anyway, right? Is it because eating more fruits and vegetables are better for her? In general a better diet will be better, so maybe more for food. And housing? And what about if she works less or does less demanding physical labor? Can she be reimbursed for the costs of that?

      It is, as you note, hard to keep the line drawn, whether we’re talking about money for adoption or money for eggs.

  5. “Is selling an egg or sperm …the same as selling a child? To me it is not. …” To avoid the money issue for a second I’ll rephrase your question and say: “Is giving up gametes the same as giving up a child?” And No of course its not the same at all since the two things don’t n exist in the same time and space together; one begets the other so there is no way one could treat the act of giving up sperm with the act of giving up a child.

    Anyway its pointless to draw the comparrison between the two things when their consent agreements require donors to do both – donate their gametes and seperately, relinquish all rights and obligations to their offspring at birth. So if a child was created by a man who donated sperm and someone says “its not like he gave you up all he did was donate his sperm.”, the kid can go “no, donating his sperm was the first thing he consented to do, not seeking custody or contact with his offspring was the second, agreeing to cooperate with my intended parents in a formal adoption should one be necessary to secure parental rights from the state is the third thing and confirming that he informed his relatives never to contact me or seek a relationship with me by citing the paternal connection is the fifth, etc etc I could go on but you get the idea. He is a sperm donor when he signs the agreement before his offspring are born, but the majority of what the donor agrees to occurs after the child is born when he is a biological father. After all the donor has to not talk to his kid and keep his family from talking to his kid and keep doctors aprised of his health for at least 18 years after his offspring are born. Clearly the terms of his agreement require more of him as an abandoning bio parent than as a gamete donor. Relinquish is the term used in their agreements maybe abandon would be better since legally they were never aknowledged on the birth cert as parents.

    now to the money..you cant pay someone to donate and if it were a donation it would be tax deductable so it would have to be assigned a value and we are back to that net worth problem again.
    What they do is I think the best they can do which is to pay them for their time taken to donate. So far they are getting away with it but anyone with half a brain can spot the trick. If the compensation is for the time it takes to donate the gametes but not for subsequently relinquishing responsibility for the child they’d have to pay people for the time taken to donate gametes whether they agreed to give up the kids or not. They could go so far as to donate them but not even allow them to be used for research if its the sperm they want they can have it from anyone. That to me is funny. We should make clinics prove they are reimbursing for sperm not sperm plus parental obligations.

    • I don’t think you are right about separately giving up sperm and relinquishing rights. Perhaps this is true i some place but not, say, in Washington. (Or California.) If a man provides sperm for insemination–whether he is paid or not) he never acquires any parental rights. That’s the way the law is structured.

      You might think this is splitting hairs, but I think it is not. He agrees to provide sperm. You’d hope that somewhere in there you’d have a conversation where he’d ask about parental rights and find out that he wouldn’t have any and so you might say that there is some sort of implicit relinquishment. But it makes no difference whether that conversation occurs or not–he could be completely ignorant of the law–the law would still operate and he would not have parental rights.

      • Ok lets try this another way because I am not arguing with you on your point about sperm donors not being fathers. You showed me where it said that and I pay attention. Let me walk you through the logic

        A man is reimabursed for his time taken to donate sperm, but not to give up his right to raise his offspring. That is the party line. If he gives them sperm he will be compensated for his time at $150 a pop just for giving the sperm right? Well, there is a consent form he has to sign in order to get his 150 dollars and it says he has to agree to reproduce and agree not to try to contact his offspring and to not seek custody or challenge paternity with dna evidence that demonstrates his relationship to the child is as biological father. What if he said I agree to donate my sperm but do not agree to those terms, you can study my sperm motility but you may not do this that and the other thing. Well its within his purview to place limitations on the use of his semen by the recipient – he can opt not to donate if they don’t like it or they can opt not to accept his donation. But if they they say its for time spent donating, he has a claim against them for not paying because he donated, its just they want something besides sperm or they will not pay they want him to agree to XY & Z and XY &Z happen on a timeline after his offspring are born and not before. So saying the money is for time taken to donate when clearly the terms of his agreement extend well beyond that both in scope and in terns of duration. I’ll look for links

      • Here is a link to a list of donor consent types from what I believe is the University where you teach. Forget that I ever used the words parental rights. Just roll with me on the fact that the recipient (the university) needs more than than gametes from donors they need their signed agreements that the gametes can be used in a certain way that may result in various outcomes that must be dealt with by the donor in a particular way. Nobody forces people to donate their gametes nor does anyone force them to agree to the terms of a particular agreement. Sometimes creating children for strangers to raise and never having contact with their offspring is required under the agreement and clearly that person can opt only to create children that they themselves will care for. They are in effect giving up their option to raise whatever children they create.

  6. If you think something has high potential for exploition than you should ban its sale outright, like kidneys. whats this number game? seem like its more about making eggs more accessible to the customers than about protecting from exploition.
    For analogy purposes, Prostitution is one thing that is banned because of its high potential for exploition. So would someone solve this problem by capping a prostitute fee at 25 dollars????? lquite the opposite. absurd, both equally absurd.

    • I think that’s a useful analogy and I think I’d like to spin that out in another post sometime. I suppose the answer is that we’re not capping the price–we’re saying that it cannot be bought/sold but that you can be compensated for expenses. Thus, the money isn’t “price.” The problem, though, is that money is money and it all looks the same to the women receiving it–whether we call it being paid or call it compensation for expenses.

  7. Adopted ones I have a question, How can there be medical expenses for hopeful adopters to pay? If the pregnant female is under age she will be carried on her parent’s policy or covered by the state if her parents are uninsured. If she is an adult and is not covered by her employer the state provides prenatal care and other services for pregnant women. At most she’d need to pay a co-pay for her office visits and maybe a monthly bus pass to get to and from the doctor. She does not need a car or gas money etc etc.

  8. Lets say someone willing to donate their gametes could recoup lost wages and transportation costs for the time it takes to donate. That is reasonable and they really are not being compensated for their time they are being reimbursed for the money they would have earned had they worked. If they have paid sick or vacation leave then they would not have lost anything by donating and they should not be reimbursed for lost wages.

    Now that I think is reasonable but again the clinics really should be reimbursing people for taking the time to donate sperm even if the sperm is sterile and cannot make a baby, or if they agree to donate but not to allowing someone else to raise their offsprring. Really there is more to their donor agreements than donating sperm, much more and yet they act like the duties to be performed by the donor under the agreement stop with sperm donation

    • Co-pays, bus tickets, things the insurance does not pay for. Perscribed bed rest is really the only time when expenses should be more than nominal amounts. I have heard there are some elective choices in delivery that aren’t covered and those should be as well. Who should pay any of those expenses is up for debate – the paps – from a pool all paps with the agency contribute too – from the profits of the agency?

  9. if the clinics continue to rake it in, there is absolutely no excuse for them not to pay the donors.

  10. kisarita,

    Adoption agencies, lawyers, facilitators, broker etc have been raking it in for decades…it is still not acceptable and prohibited by law to pay the mother or father for their child. Something about not being allowed to sell another human…(sarcasm)

  11. On Sat, Oct 22, 2011 at 10:04 PM, marilynn huff wrote:

    No Kisarita, it seems that way on the surface but

    Organs and tissue should not be assigned a market value. To do so would increase a person’s net worth by the value of their salable parts. We’d pay property tax on our own bodies and money received for an eggs or sperm would be taxable income, and clinics would have people fill out a 1099 form.

    But, wait..they do have to fill out a 1099 form and the money they receive is considered taxable income:


    Whats going on here? I thought the gametes were donated! The cash value of items like cars or boats are tax deductible when donated to a hospital! Shouldn’t the hospital provide a receipt to the gamete givers stating the cash value of the the gametes so they can deduct the value of their charitable donation from their tax debt?

    But, wait…the gametes are not suppose to have a cash value because its against the law for anyone to buy or sell them including the hospital.

    Whats going on here?

    The clinic spends money retrieving gametes from providers, testing them, storing them and marketing them to customers retreiving them from storage processing them for implantation into the body of a gestating female. Those services are associated with managing a storehouse of valueless gametes. It seems fair, at first, that customers would pay the clinic for services rendered in association with managing distribution of donated materials, but that the eggs or sperm on their own could not be the source of income or of a deduction – but if the eggs or sperm were some other product like lumber and the clinic were home depot, all those costs for managing shipping grading and storing the lumber are passed on to the customer in the price of the wood – it can’t be considered seperate if, in order to get the thing you want you have to pay that price. Wow I think the clinic would have to donate their services as well.

    I can see the clinic reimbursing someone for out-of-pocket expenses up to the least expensive mode of transportation to and from the clinic and for lost wages for hours that the provider did no receive sick pay. But they could not pass the cost on to the recipient because then that would become the cost of the gamete. I don’t think there should be any compensation to the provider for time spent to retreive the gametes because the object of the retrieval process is the egg and in the end retrieval price is what people will pay to get the egg.

    Very comple and I’m not done thinking thru the variables.

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