Some Further Thoughts on Gender in the Gamete Market

This is picking up from the last post which is spurred by a wonderful new book, Sex Cells, by Rene Almeling.  There’s a lively discussion over there are on the first points I made, but I’m going to move things along here.

Here’s the starting point based on the last post.   Although money plays an important role in both the market for eggs as well as the market for sperm, those markets are structured in ways that are significantly different and the differences matter.   (This isn’t a question right now of better/worse–just of difference.)

Perhaps as important, the differences aren’t explained by the biological differences between male and female reproductive functions.    Instead, it is explained by gendered assumptions about how men and women operate and what they care about.   In that light, perhaps we should not be surprised that the appeal to women as gamete donors is more oriented towards altruism than is the appeal towards men.  This fits perfectly well with the general stereotype of women as more oriented towards helping others.   (This is not to deny the role of money in inducing both men and women to enter into the gamete market.)

There’s another point Almeling makes that I wanted to highlight here.    As part of her research, Almeling interviewed a number of egg and sperm providers.   Consistent with the altruistic framing presented to egg providers (“you are helping someone else have a child”), egg providers do not think of themselves as parents.   It’s really pretty logical–if that other person you are helping is going to be a parent, you’re not.

There’s more than that behind this view, too.   Think about the cultural ideals about women and their children.  Mothers are nurturing and all that–they are present, etc.   Selling your child is out of the question–a total violation of all things motherly.   It therefore makes perfect sense that women who are getting money for their eggs won’t equate eggs with parenthood.

But it seems to work out differently for men.  Almeling finds that sperm donors are likely to describe themselves as father.  I suppose this is because a man who provides sperm has done the essential thing we expect of fathers–which is to provide sperm.   This is, in my sense, a sorry reflection on how low we set the bar for fathers as opposed to mothers.   Men who are paid for sperm do not feel that they are breaching their duty to their offspring, even though they understand that they will not be present in their lives.

So far this is all really just descriptive.  What I mean is that it describes how things work.   And so the first question has to be whether we accept this as a description of the world.  This is not the same as endorsing it or rejecting it.   The only question in this initial stage is whether it’s an accurate description.

As far as I can tell it is that.  It makes sense to me, given what I know of the world, and it is supported by the evidence marshalled by Almeling.   So I will accept it as a description.

This brings me to what are perhaps the more important/more interesting questions–what do I think about this state of affairs and what, if anything, do I think we should do about it?  That’s really a host of questions.   Is this how the gamete market ought to be organized?   (And I know others will want to ask whether there should there even be a gamete market?)   Should we treat men and women providers more similarly?  Is one way better than the other?  And at every turn, why?

Ultimately all of this ties back to the main theme I recently opened–that discussion of anonymity in the gamete market.  To draw those together one might ask whether there are ways to structure the gamete market that minimize or eliminate any/all/some of the harms identified in those earlier posts.   That’s the next step, isn’t it?

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15 responses to “Some Further Thoughts on Gender in the Gamete Market

  1. ” Although money plays an important role in both the market for eggs as well as the market for sperm, those markets are structured in ways that are significantly different and the differences matter. ”

    Again they are not really structured so differently at all. If women’s eggs could be harvested in 20 minutes the way that men’s sperm can be you’d see that its essentially just the same. Women get paid half at the beginning of retrieval and half at the end. Before they test or count the eggs. Men get paid at the end of retrieval before they count or test the sperm.

  2. You’re just missing my point but perhaps you are seeing it and rejecting it. I’d like to figure out which?

    We COULD make an altruistic pitch to men as well as to women. (Actually, that London Sperm Bank I wrote about does that.) We could also pay men a flat fee for showing up say once a week for four months and doing all the required things. If you did that, payment would not be conditioned on a producing a quality product, simply on taking the time and effort to show up properly. This is actually how it works with egg providers.

    Alternatively, we COULD pay women per egg–say 5K for 10 eggs, 10 K for 20 and so on. In that case, compensation would clearly be tied to the product. Either scheme is perfectly plausible and possible.

    The thing is, that isn’t the way the market is organized. Instead you have these different systems of compensation operating. Now the full picture is complicated because the two systems evolved in different ways–egg retrieval is medical in a way that sperm retrieval isn’t. There are lots of things to take account of if we’re going to draw out the whole thing. But I’m less concerned with origins than with how it works now.

    I think you don’t accept that they are meaningfully different. In fact, if I had to guess, I’d say you’d side with the majority view about commodification–that it’s all commodification and the details are irrelevant? (See previous post for that discussion.) Not long ago i would have fallen on that side of the divide, too, so I get that. But I am persuaded that the details DO matter. That what it is you think you are being paid for matters. And so perhaps we’ve just found another thing about which we disagree.

    • Oi Vey. They get a flat fee per sample. So do egg providers. It just takes egg providers longer to provide a sample than it takes sperm providers. A sample of either might be good or bad large or small many or few. They are given their flat fee and sent on their merry way. If their samples were no good for whatever reason it will be the last time they are paid by that clinic for a sample because the clinic has no need for bad eggs or sperm. I’m not even arguing the altruism pitch to women more than men thing. They are not looking for bad eggs any more than they are looking for bad semen, but they will compensate you for your time at a flat fee. Women spend considerably more time to provide a single sample so they get more money than men. Based on their questionnaires and physical tests the clinic is willing to be that those special men and women will provide a sample that they can sell.
      You have your mind all made up about why I think what I think. You still say I would envoke natural law as the reason for identifying the biological parents of every child always and I’ve never stooped to supporting an opinion with morals or ethics or scripture or natural law and I did not say that I felt the details were insignificant or that women are not more inclined to donate eggs for altruistic purposes. All I’m saying is that men and women are both paid a flat fee regardless of whether or not their samples are good, but only once will the clinic do that and then it will cut its ties. Its no deeper than that.
      Do I think they are buying sperm whereas with women they are buying their time to help a needy couple? Do I see that particular difference? No. It may be a subtext but it is not the surface fluff that keeps the operation running. Officially on the record all they are paid for is their time and they are donating their eggs and or sperm. That is why they fill out a 1099 for the income they earn being paid that flat rate for their time male and female both. Whatever eggs or sperm that get harvested in each sample are donated by them, male or female. Is there a different pitch to men to get them to donate their sperm and get paid for their time than their is for women to donate their eggs and get paid for their time? Sure. Maybe. I really don’t know. But if you say so fine. I’ll go with that.

      Do I think the details don’t matter and they are just as much buying eggs as they are sperm? No. I think the details matter very much and I think you are on to something where you said they are not paying women for their eggs they are paying for her time to help someone have a child. I think its the same for men though based on the content of their informed consent forms.

      Its not the egg or the sperm that these people are paid for because if it were it would not matter if it were any good and they would get paid for bunk sperm and eggs not just once but as often as they felt like donating their bunk sperm and eggs. They are being paid for their time not at donation but after the birth of their offspring when, as biological parents, they can help that needy person have a child, by agreeing never to contact their offspring. The terms of their agreements involve performance of duties after their offspring are born. What the clinic is buying is the child they are helping the needy person to get. Its all so shady they want us to focus on eggs and sperm so we forget about the kids they are agreeing not to take care of .

      • I don’t entirely understand your thinking here (why would a for profit industry continue to pay for things it couldn’t sell, no matter how payment is structured?) but I think we’ve reached a moment where we should agree to disagree. There may be a fragment of agreement–that some of the details matter? But we may just be on opposite sides of the first line drawn–the one about whether the details of the monetary exchange matter. I think there are actually fragments of agreement (like that the details do matter?), but I’m not sure and I’m also not sure if pursuing them right this moment is productive. Hence–I suggest we agree to disagree. I’m sure we’ll come back to this.

  3. I think the women do not consider themselves mothers because psychology has not caught of with technology. the possibility of a female reproducing without being pregnant simply didn’t exist over human history. Therefore motherhood remains tightly linked with pregnancy in people’s minds, at a visceral, gut level. I myself hesitate to call egg donors mothers although I oppose the practice- after all, I’m part of human society and human culture.

  4. I’m highly sceptical that “the differences aren’t explained by the biological differences between male and female reproductive functions.” If women donated by masturbating, and men had to be injected with drugs for weeks before having their gametes surgically removed under anesthetic, men would be getting paid more and the payment structures would also be reversed.

    Small point btw Marilynn, but sperm donors at most US banks only get paid for usable specimens. That’s probably because they can just try again a few days later, which isn’t so simple for egg donors.

    • First I’m again going to refer you all to Ameling’s work. I had no idea what the demands on a sperm donor were and it’s not as easy as you make it sound–even if there aren’t any shots. Most sperm banks want a pretty long term commitment (because they want to recover up-front costs) and require periods of celibacy before each donation. I say this because I think you mean to suggest that somehow the pay structures reflect the fact that the man’s job is easy and the woman’s is not?

      Second, it would be just as easy for me to say “I’m highly skeptical” of your statement as it is for you to say it of mine. Obviously you don’t have to accept my argument, but what makes you sure you’re right and I’m wrong? Even if we have to offer some base pay to any woman who will go through with it, why don’t we offer extra compensation for those who produce lots of eggs? Wouldn’t you expect that–if we thought we were actually buying the eggs? What explains the different treatment of egg donors at that point? I think it is that we want to say that we are not buying the eggs at all.

      • I *am* suggesting that the man’s job is easier than the woman’s. I think you know that I was a sperm donor, and while there’s probably more testing involved now, it’s a lot more difficult to donate eggs, and there are risks both to the health and fertility of the donor. The fact that women only have a few hundred “sex cells”, and men produce over 1000 per second on each side probably has a lot to do with it too, and also partly explains why women don’t usually get paid per viable egg. If men only ever had about 400 viable sperm, and were able to donate about a dozen at each donation, they would correspond a lot more closely to actual children, and it would feel a lot more like selling children rather than selling cells. Of course, men and women would be different too, especially if men had a biological clock, and women could basically be parents at any age.

        I think egg donors do get paid more in some places if they produce more eggs btw, though as far as I know men don’t ever get paid more for producing a donation with high volume/concentration/motility.

        • Correction: After some googling, it appears men do get paid more for producing high-volume specimens, at least at some banks.

          • It’s pretty clear (at least in the US) that compensating egg donors based on the number of eggs produced is not okay. (Which is to say, it is against all the ethical guidelines I’ve seen.) I do wonder if this will change as technology makes frozen eggs more typical because that may change the entire organization of the egg market. I don’t know and we’ll see, perhaps.

    • m166uk
      Sure and at what point do you think they determine that the specimen is usable? Let’s say a guy is approved to be a provider. He makes his first deposit and gets paid – for his time, that is the whole hook the whole roose as it were they pay him for his time then they test it. If it were not usable he’d get a letter saying don’t come back. If its usable and he gets no letter he continues to get paid and invited back because, your right its usable sperm. No they don’t pay for unusable sperm any more than they pay for unusable eggs but that is once they know you have unusable sperm or eggs. That first time is a gamble for them. And then obtaining them from that person thereafter is not so much of a gamble. But if they should ever prove unusable they wont pay them for their unusable samples. and he comes in once a week for a year.

      • I really feel like we’re not understanding each other. Let’s suppose I want to be an egg donor. I go through initial screening and all is fine. I am selected by someone and go through the process. I get paid–even if all the eggs are useless or even if there are no eggs. I may not be invited back, but I do get paid.

        Sperm donor? May get something for time and effort to go through initial screening–I’d have to check. But when time comes to produce sample–he produces sample and nothing happens–until it is determined the sample is good.

        Aren’t you confusing retention (which is almost surely related to success) with compensation for what you have done already?

        • No I don’t think so. I know that men who want to be sperm donors are not paid for the paperwork and physical tests and all that. If they are accepted based on that they can donate their first sample and they will be paid for their time in order to give that donation. If the donation rendered a sample that was not useable they receive a letter saying that they will no longer accept his donations. The process is the same for egg donors. Only I know egg donors are paid half at the begining and half at the end because it takes such a long time to give her donated sample. Also I know that its the patients paying the egg donor for her time in a more direct way – its the patient carrying the financial risk whereas the clinic carries the financial risk for the sperm donor because its just a couple hundred bucks whereas with the egg donor its thousands.
          The only thing you hit on that I had forgotten about and I am not sure how it operates is that I know that sperm donors do commit to donate several times in a year whereas egg donors do not have to promise to donate ever again. If he or she does donate again they will be paid their flat fees for their samples just like the first time. I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that they freeze sperm and not eggs, like the men can build up a stockpile of salable frozen so that when someone wants his kid they are all ready to sell his sperm, but with women it has to be fresh so there is no reason to have her make an advance commitment.
          I’m really not making a commentary on the deeper aspects just a procedural observation. It seems so much different procedure ally because women must endure so much more time and trouble but procedure-wise at the core and how it plays out in their taxes or whatever they are the same and gametes are not purchased from men or women, they’re donated and the time taken to donate them is what the clinic pays for. The approach the psychology the manipulation based on gender issues I’m sure your correct about I have not really given that any thought.

      • I think every specimen is tested before it’s frozen. They can check the volume immediately. It’s quite possible for a man to be a regular fertile donor, but not get paid for some donations. I suspect that many men wouldn’t bother abstaining if this weren’t the case.

        Knowing whether a donation of either eggs or sperm is viable isn’t an exact science btw – some men have great figures for post-thaw semen analysis, but their straws just don’t get women pregnant. They would still have been paid for their donations, but the sperm bank would ask them to stop donating. Similarly women don’t get asked back if none of their donated eggs got someone pregnant, but will get paid more the next time if they did, especially if there was a high strike-rate.

        • It appears to me that the “proven record” is more important in the marketing of egg donors than sperm donors. What I mean is, it looks to me like those selling the material advertise proven egg donors and place more emphasis on it than they do proven sperm donors. I have no idea if this is important to the larger discussion, nor do I know if it would really hold up in closer examination. It’s just an impression.

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