Back To The Gendered Gamete Market: Is One Way Better?

I’ve a bunch of little unrelated matters to comment on and I wanted to run back and finish off one little line of thought before going on those tangents.   This post ties back to this thread and follows the one before last.

Remember that I’ve been working off that great new book by Rene Almeling–Sex Cells.   (You can go back to the earlier posts to catch up.)  She’s a sociologist writing about the gamete markets and gender.

I’m going to continue here with the assumption that the gamete markets are gendered.  What I mean is that women and men have different experiences in those markets (as providers of gametes).  Further, the differences aren’t entirely explained by biological differences with regard to how eggs and sperm are produced and harvested.  

(I realize that not everyone will share this view and we’ve had a lot of discussion about that.   Obviously if you disagree with the premise what follows from it won’t mean much to you, but on the off-chance that you are willing to at least agree for the purpose of further discussion, I’ll continue.)

So the nub of the difference I want to focus on is that the appeal to female providers is a more altruistic one while the appeal to male providers is a more commercial one.   Remember that (in my view) it doesn’t have to be this way.  You could make a more commercial appeal to women or you could make a more altruistic appeal to men.

My next question is whether we should care about which appeals get made.   Is one better than the other?   And I do not mean better for the vendors–from that point of view, the better approach is probably the one that produces the largest and cheapest supply.   I mean better for society generally.

I’m inclined to think that the altruistic appeal is better, but I wonder a little whether this is just because I happen to approve of altruism.   It’s fine to say that altruism is morally superior to the profit motive (and I do think it is) but I’m looking for something a bit more grounded in results or outcomes by way of a rational.   All I have for the moment are some preliminary thoughts.

Remember that the altruism appeal is found in the pitch “you’re helping someone have a child.”   That means that there is a focus on the idea that there’s a child being created.   I think that’s important, particularly when you contrast it to the profit-centered appeal.  (You could think of that as “you’re earning some money here.”)

Suppose you knew that a few of your genetic forebears had some genetically heritable disease.   If you are only in it for the money, you might be inclined to lie–especially if the odds were small–or to put it more palatably, to provide a less than complete family history.    If instead the appeal to you is to help someone to have a child, I think you might be a bit more inclined to reveal the information.   It might be that the difference here is slight, but it seems to me that even a slight difference in how people respond is a positive thing.

Similarly, if the only pitch is money then it makes sense to provide material to various banks (and as frequently as possible) as this earns you more money.   But this behavior also increases the chances that one provider ends up with dozens or scores of offspring–something I think we agree is not a great idea.   By contrast, it might be that if you are actually thinking about helping people have kids, you might pause before having so many offspring you need a spread sheet.

Again, I’m not saying that emphasizing the altruistic approach will actually solve problems.   But if we have a choice between the two approaches (and it seems to me that we could) then we should choose the one that is better, even if it is only a little better.

I guess the question is whether there is any downside to encouraging the altruistic approach?   I realize, of course, that many will find both approaches unacceptable because they don’t like the whole idea of a gamete market.  That’s a different discussion–one we’ve had here on other posts–for a different day.   If you take that view, I’d ask you to entertain the idea here as a hypothetical one:  If there is going to be a gamete market, what should it look like?


22 responses to “Back To The Gendered Gamete Market: Is One Way Better?

  1. I really see no difference between what kind of sales pitch is used. It’s the outcome that’s important.
    The altruism sales pitch bothers me more because I reject attempts to manipulate people’s emotions. Let people have their own feelings for god sake. I see offering them money as a much more straightforward way of going about it.
    But again, its the outcome that is most important. I suppose the motive might make a difference to some of the offspring but I don’t know.

    • I’ve got a few questions in response to this, but I think they are related.

      First, can we agree that motivations among those who provide gametes vary and particularly that the mix of altruism and profit-driven motives vary? What I mean is that for some people it is almost exclusively about the money and for others, while the money matters, there is also a strong sense that they are helping someone? Still others may be primarily driven by the desire to get their genes out there. (I strongly suspect that research supports this idea of varying motivations–by which I mean I think I’ve seen it though I cannot lay hands on it just now. It’s also consistent with conversations I’ve had with gamete providers, who do seem to articulate a variety of motivations. And if you look through the blog there are individual gamete providers who have written in and invoked altruistic motives, I think.)

      Second, if you agree that the motivations vary (and you can say you do not, of course) then do we (as a society) care about which groups of people we draw on? I mean as between the more profit-centered group and the more altruistic group and the “spread my genes” group, do we care which one we are drawing on? My contention is that we should care. For instance, I’d expect people who are more altruistically motivated are more likely to be honest in answer to screening questions.

      Finally, I think there might be a background question about whether providing gametes can be considered altruistic at all. Perhaps I should have started with this question. The dictionary (not always the final authority) says altruism is about disinterested and selfless concern for others. This suggests to me that it is measured by the experience of the actor rather than by some objective measure of the good of society. With that in mind, it seems clear to me that providing gametes to someone can be altruistic–you can feel you are helping a friend or a stranger accomplish something that is very important to them.

      • When dealing with large numbers of people, especially strangers, If you want people to be honest the most effective way is to formulate it in a way that holds them legally liable to some penalty if a lie is discovered.
        Appealling to their sense of ethics might work some but as a practical, overall strategy I don’t think its worth much.
        Honesty is the plug you’ve given for altruism.
        Are there any other reasons we should care what the motives are?

        • You know, I’m not sure I agree with your first statement. It’s so hard to enforce that kind of penalty. I’m afraid many people lie on their income taxes (at least a little) even though it’s a crime. People think they won’t get caught and I suspect some feel like only a fool would actually play by the rules. (My little dose of cynicism for the day.) I think it is better to try to set things up so that people don’t want to lie–but of course, you can do both, by which I mean arrange things so that people are internally motivated to be honest and also impose penalties for dishonesty.

          Next question: reasons apart from honesty while altruistic providers might be better. I think they’d be more likely to do things that would be more beneficial to any possible children. So, for example, if a child needed something from a provider–blood or other material–I think you’d be more likely to get cooperation from a person motivated at least in part by altruism. And if you can make a case that having contact with the child is good for the child, then I think someone motivated by altruism would be more likely to agree to that. For someone just in it for the money, it’s just another level of effort. At the very least, they’d expect additional compensation for it. I suspect there are other reasons as well, but that’s what I’ve got for now.

          • In theory you might be right, but look around the sperm banks. Does any of them have a clause that the donor agrees to be contacted if the kid needs blood or an organ? No they don’t. This altruism is a sham, purely marketing.
            I’m also troubled by your statement “someone motivated by altruism would be more likely to agree” to providing blood for the kid. What’s this “more likely”? There are no degrees here; anyone who wouldn’t do that could not be said to have been altruistic in any way whatsoever.

            • I’d also say that anyone who would refuse to be contacted by the kid, at the kid’s own initiative when they are old enough to make that decision, well anyone who would refuse could not havw been motivated by altruism.
              They may have fallen for the altruistic sales pitch which convinced them tat they were doingt a good thing, but thats not the same as being motivated by altruism.

              • Let me explain my reasoning: A person who would do any of those things is saying I am creating this person that I do not care about their welfare not even enough to be available for them in case of desperate need. Altruism my foot.

                • I agree with you about someone who would act like this and that is part of my reasoning. Let me try to explain it this way. The person who says “I won’t help” is entirely unaltruistic. Using providers like that is clearly a bad idea. If we only seek providers by appealing to their interest in money, we’ll get some of these folks. Indeed, that’s pretty much who we’ll get all around. If we emphasize the helping part, we’ll get some people who actually will care and will do these things. I think that’s better. I believe there are people who might not think of it by themselves but who, when presented with it, might see being a gamete provider as a way of helping other people.

                  I understand you can take the position that we should have no sperm providers. But for discussion purposes, if we agree that we will have some, isn’t it better to skew the pool towards the people who will care and who are altruistic–at least somewhat?

                  I’m not sure if you are also asserting that no providers are motivated (in whole or in part) by altruism. That just seems to be inconsistent with what people say–many providers do talk about altruism. You can see that in Almeling’s research and elsewhere on the blog and around the web. I suppose you can say you don’t believe them or that they are kidding themselves, but I generally am trying not to resort to just discarding what people say out of hand on that basis.

                • Oh! Oh that was so good.

            • More likely is what I meant. Someone who has tried to be helpful is more likely to continue to be helpful, no? Someone who never cared at all about anything but the money is less likely. I don’t really see what you disgree with on that point.

              And more generally–is it that you think there is (objectively speaking) nothing altruistic about providing gametes to another person? We can agree, I take it, that there are people who really need/want the gametes. If you are sympathetic to them and provide the gametes, why is that a sham? Is your point that once they take the money it totally negates any desire they had to be helpful?

              But it might be that you mean that when a sperm bank or an egg provider uses an altruistic pitch that’s a sham because the sperm bank or egg provider is making money? I guess I would not use the word sham. They do not suggest that your sperm will help the sperm bank (that would be a sham), but rather that you may help someone who needs the sperm. I think that is true. I would agree that it’s also self-serving–it helps the sperm bank attract men to provide gametes. But that’s different from saying it is a sham.

              • It’s clearly a sham, because find me one sperm bank that requires that donors identify themself in case of medical and psychological need. Can’t find any? I rest my case. After all didn’t you agree with me that no altruistic person would refuse?

                • In my view your logic is flawed. I’m not contending that the banks are altruistic–and they are the ones that set the conditions. Some of the providers might well respond positively to a request for help–but they aren’t being asked. Under these circumstances, it isn’t fair to assume that all the individual providers would all say no. An altruistic pitch might well attract more people who said yes if we asked them.

                  I suppose the key point where I think your argument fails is that what we can tell from the evidence (if you are right that no one is asking the providers to help out) is that the sperm banks aren’t acting altruistically, and that’s not the contention I’m offering.

                  • Then they shouldn’t be marketing an altruistic sales pitch.
                    Actually many banks do offer an identity-disclosure OPTION. If the donors turn that down we can assume they are not acting out of altruism.
                    And why are we promoting altruism of the donors but not of the banks? This is a trend I’m seeing over and over again!

  2. Saying you want to help someone have a child verbalizes what is unsaid in in your commercially framed transaction which is that a child is the object of the arrangement rather than the egg. The goal of the fertility industry has been to keep people focused on the egg and the sperm of it in order to take attention off of what these people are actually signing agreements to do, which is give up a roll in the lives of their genetic children and contract them out of their family and into the families of people who they don’t know.

    Yes I really think its interesting that the word child has worked its way into the activities of a donor. To me the child is clearly the object of what they agreeing to do or not do, but to others I’m sure the spector of the child is unwelcome at that stage.

    • I’ve no doubt that for individuals using ART the focus is on having a child. They don’t want an egg or sperm just to have the gametes. And I think your generalization about the fertility industry is so broad as to be invalid. Those in the medical profession who work as fertility specialists are quite clear that it is all about having children and they always have been clear about that. Aren’t they part of the fertility industry?

      If you read Almeling’s research I think you’ll find you are wrong about the role of the child for the gamete providers, too. Many if not all of them are quite aware that the end goal is for someone out there to have a child. They know that they are providing something crucial to that endeavor, too. I don’t think any of this is hidden.

  3. Hi, Julie. I disagree somewhat with your initial comment, in that I do not believe that it is any “sales pitch” that affects male and female attitudes toward gamete donation as much as entrenched societal attitudes toward reproduction by women versus reproduction by men. In my reading, Almeling identifies both male and female donors as altruistic. Yes, perhaps men use more commercial terms, whereas women speak in terms of “gifts.” However, what strikes me is that most sperm donors identify as fathers, while most egg donors do not identify as mothers. This leads me to understand that the altruism of the women donors she interviews is directed toward the intended parents (they will have a biological baby, and someday I will have a biological baby), while altruism among the male donors she interviews is directed toward the anticipated child (I am going to be a dad; what will I do when s/he contacts me?). Neither of these motivations appears to me more or less altruistic or commercial. I find it fascinating that Almeling identifies a “father-like” connection between male sperm donors and their offspring, while she does not find a similar, inherent “mothering” connection between egg donors and their progeny, even though egg donation unquestionably requires a much greater (at least measured in time and risk) physical commitment of the donor. Many, many factors likely affect this. For example, women who self-select to be egg donors may already be predisposed to view their donation as a fiscal transaction (i.e. paying for college), whereas males who donate sperm may not, as a group, have been encouraged to reflect on the process quite as much. For men, the income from donation is supplemental, whereas, in the current market, a woman might be able to pay a whole year’s rent or tuition based on egg donation. The fact that women donors are compensated more highly for their genetic contribution may encourage them to view the transaction in economic terms (i.e., I respect the parties with whom I have negotiated and owe them that respect), whereas, for men, relatively meager compensation may encourage them to view donation in other terms. Further, our legal system, which persists in recognizing fatherhood via consanguinity and motherhood via the “birth experience,” encourages donors of both sexes to view their participation in family creation in distinctly different ways, both commercial and altruistic.

    • I think you are quite right to point out that it is a very complicated picture with a lot of different factors influencing people’s behavior. It’s undeniable that there are real differences in the mechanics of sperm vs. egg retrieval, for instance. And that necessarily means you have to treat men and women involved in the process differently. At the same time it is also (and perhaps here I should say “in my view” because some might disagree) that men and women are socialized differently in a host of things, including what a typcial or proper parent/child relationship looks like. You have to consider those differences as an overlay to the first set of differences. And that’s only the merest sketch of a very complicated picture.

      Given all this I think you can certainly question the extent to which the sales pitch offered by the gamete banks matters. But I do think it is one thing that helps people set their frames of reference. It also apparently changes who is attracted enough to participate. I’ve been following the blog of the London Sperm Bank (which I wrote about before:
      think they are choosing to use a different pitch and it seems to have some influence on the pool of people they attract.

      I do not mean, however, to overstate the importance of this one factor. I don’t mean to suggest that a different advertising pitch is a cure for all ills or anything remotely like that. All I want to say is that it seems to be one of many factors that might matter. I’m also very interested in the gendered differences that are manifest in this area and the factors that shape this–the law included, as you note.

  4. (This reply is slotted in the wrong place because we’ve used up all the levels of reply for the moment. It’s really about Kisrita’s most recent comment which is down a big. Sorry for confusion.)

    All sorts of for-profit companies use altruistic pitches to attract customers. I’m not sure we can regulate this sort of advertising consistent with free speech. And in general, if you are trying to get someone to do something that really might be altruistic, why can’t you point that out to them, even if you actually stand to benefit from their altruistic actions? Maybe it would be a better world if we were all required to act altruistically, but that’s not our world.

    To go back to the root question–would you agree that some providers do act at least in part altruistically? And that those who do act altruistically are going to be more likely to do other things you might like–such as to allow disclosure of identity–if we ask them to? I’m not trying to duck your concerns about the banks, but I do want to know what you think about the providers.

  5. As a primary motive? Very few.
    Many more act out of illusory altruism as a secondary motive, having bought the company marketing line which encourages to them to think of what they are doing as a benefit to society, but discourages them from thinking too closely about the consequences.

    • Perhaps I’m just more willing to take what people say at face value. Some of the providers speak compellingly of altruistic motives (which is not to say that the money is totally irrelevant.) And I’ve seen the same thing with surrogates.

      I understand you to suggest that the providers may actually be wrong about their own motivation–having been sold a bill of goods by companies. As a general matter, I’m trying to avoid reaching that conclusion when it seems to me people speak from their own experience. I’m afraid heading down that road lets you credit what you want to believe and discard what you don’t want to believe. (I’ve been brought up sharply on this anytime I appear to discredit the expressions of the donor conceived, say.)

      As in other areas, we should probably just agree to disagree. I think some–perhaps many–gamete providers are motivated by altruism and I think that’s worth nothing. You don’t and you don’t. It seems unlikely either of us will convince the other.

      • I don;t understand, I thought you agreed that a truly altruistic donor would certainly agree to make himself available for his genetic progeny in need? Yet most don’t.

        • I think that’s partly at many sperm banks that isn’t an option or, if it is, no one explains why it matters. If you look at a sperm bank that values identity release (indeed, the place that invented the name–I’m thinking here of The Sperm Bank of California) you’ll see that many if not most of their donors do agree to that. And I suspect there is change over time–that more recent providers are more likely to agree to identity release. But I am not looking at statistics just now. I can look tomorrow to see if I have any.

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