[This might seem a bit of a digression from the ongoing consideration of harms that I’ve been carrying on, but I think it will actually fit in nicely. Still, if you were closely following that thread, think of this as a little off-shoot. You may need to bear with me a bit here, though, as there is ground to cover.]
In the last few days I’ve had the opportunity to read Sex Cells, a book by Rene Almeling. I’ve mentioned her work before but hadn’t had a chance to read the actual book until now. My short take? everyone should read it. But until you do (and just in case you don’t) I’ll go on here.
Her work has made me want to revisit a topic I’ve written about before and revise what I said. Actually, it makes me completely want to reject what I said there. Always good to be open to new thoughts, don’t you think? Let me explain.
While Almeling’s work in the fertility industry is new, she is working on some thinking about commodification developed by Viviana Zelizer and it seems fair to give credit to the underlying insights, too. To some people, commodification is an on/off switch. Either you offer money and thereby commodify something or you don’t. Doesn’t matter how you dress up the money–as soon as you’ve offered the money, you’ve commodified and that’s that. The earlier post of mine espouses just such a view.
Zelizer suggests that it’s all far more complicated than that–the details and the context matter. The same basic exchange (money for whatever) can have different meanings to the participants, depending on the surrounding circumstances. Almeling takes this insight and examines the egg/sperm markets.
Let me be a bit more specific and concrete. Some people would look at the money/egg exchange and say that it doesn’t matter how you dress it up–whether you say you’re buying eggs or compensating for time/effort, it’s all commodification and it’s all the same. (And generally once you call it commodification, many people will say it is bad.) That’s basically what I said in my earlier post, though I didn’t conclude it was bad.
Zelizer and Almeling ask us to look more closely: You can offer to simply buy a woman’s eggs or you can ask if she’d be willing to help someone else have a child (stressing the altruistic aspect of the act) and offer to provide money in recognition of the time/effort she’ll need to devote to that altruistic project. From the point of view of a woman being presented with this proposition, there’s a real difference here. She’ll experience the transaction differently.
Now obviously you can reject this view, but it seems to make a great deal of sense to me. Despite what I said before, we don’t just think about money. We think about the whole package deal. And if you talk to egg donors (which Almeling did) you find that they do that as well.
Transactions for eggs are fairly carefully structured to be more like the second transaction outlined above than the first. You’re helping someone out. You get the same money whether there are two eggs or twenty or none at all. That’s because you put in the time and effort no matter what the outcome–and we’re not buying the eggs. (If we were buying the eggs, you’d get paid depending on results.)
I don’t mean to suggest that this tells you whether a particular practice is good or bad, by the way. And it still means that there are a host of questions. But it seems to me an important insight to have in view.
It also suggests an interesting contrast, one that Almeling discusses at some length. Sperm providers are paid generally paid per acceptable specimen. In other words, their gametes are much more simply commodified. If the sperm count is too low, no money–it’s pretty clear you’re buying the sperm and not paying them for time/trouble.
Now of course there are many differences between providing eggs and providing sperm and the practices around them have developed quite differently. You can say that some of the differences are the result of biological differences between men and women. But the difference in how compensation works isn’t dictated by that difference. You could pay for eggs by the piece or you could compensate men for their time and trouble. We don’t. And that, Almeling suggests, is about gender at work. It’s about how we think about men and women and money. Stripping it to its simplest, men engage in paid labor while women care about other people.