I’ve been writing a little about gender in the gamete market. It’s stirred some discussion in the comments and that isn’t by any means resolved. Of course, there’s nothing that says it has to be resolved and in the end it is fine to agree to disagree. With that in mind, I wanted to move along a little.
I think we can all agree that the production and harvest of eggs is different from the production and harvest of sperm. And indeed, eggs and sperm have some different properties, even as they are also similar in containing 1/2 the genetic material you need to create a child. I want to think a bit about one difference here and how it might contribute to the difference in the egg and sperm markets.
Until recently it has been difficult if not impossible to freeze and thaw eggs. (They have a higher water content.) It’s quite possible to freeze sperm. Indeed, it is necessary to freeze sperm because it is typically quarantined for six months in order to retest the provider for HIV and other STDs.
What this has meant is that sperm is collected from many men and then stored. People who wish to buy sperm to use for third-party reproduction essentially shop via a catalog that lists attributes, etc. At the time the sperm is gathered, there is (typically) no particular recipient in mind. (I know this isn’t always the case–some men do what amounts to a directed donation as a known donor. But this is surely the exception rather than the rule.)
By contrast, people needing eggs have had to be matched with a single egg donor. Only after the match occurs (and various logistics have been worked out) does the process of generating and harvesting the eggs begin. (There can still be a shopping phase, but you are essentially shopping for someone who will be producing the egg in the future.)
Thus during the crucial period of time, the egg donor can (and often does) have a specific recipient in mind. I do not mean that she knows who they are, but rather that she knows there is one specific individual and/or couple who will be using her eggs. Depending on the practices of the people involved, she may even know a little something about them–base demographics or age or how long they’ve been trying to have a child or whatever.
It seems to me that this difference–which is dictated by available technologies–reinforces the gendered difference that I mentioned in the last post. Its much harder for men to think about any specific people they are helping, although they may imagine someone in the future. There simply aren’t any specific people at the time they donate. They’re making a deposit into a bank and will become a number in a catalog. This, it seems to me, does not exactly encourage men to dwell on the ways they are helping particular people have kids or to imagine particular people/children. Indeed, they don’t even know if/when their sperm might be chosen.
By contrast women can (and I gather often do) imagine the particular person or couple they are working with. After all, everything has to be synchronized fairly closely (eggs produced, IVF done, embryo transferred). There’s necessary discussion about “them.” It seems to me to be much more likely that you must be aware that you are actually working towards a common goal at the same time as those other people.
Indeed, it seems to me likely that the entities in the middle–the doctors and/or the egg center–will emphasize this in order to encourage women to fulfill all the obligations in a timely fashion. After all, if you miss that one crucial appointment, the whole cycle could be a loss. (Note that there’s nothing like this at stake for a man–if he cancels an appointment to donate, nothing follows–his sperm will be quarantined for six months anyway.)
What I wonder about is this–it’s now possible to freeze eggs. I don’t think it is terribly common and I don’t think there are many (or any?) egg banks yet, but there could be soon. That means women providing eggs can be treated more like men providing sperm–they can produce eggs that are frozen for later use by some unknown people.
Will this happen? It may not happen quickly–buyers may have a strong enough preference for fresh eggs rather than the frozen option . But if/when it does, it would be interesting to see what changes follow. It ought to mean that male and female gamete providers are treated more similarly, but with gendered differences being so deeply ingrained, who can say?