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.