A bull market for eggs

Ovum: $5,000 plus. (Fertility: priceless.) Should we worry?

By Lynn Harris
Published February 21, 2007 2:59PM (EST)

The Associated Press (here, via MSNBC) reports that more and more women -- the number has roughly tripled since 1996 -- are donating their eggs for the purpose of helping an infertile woman experience pregnancy. Of course, by "donating," we mean selling: According to the article, it appears that many of them do it for the money. (The payment is "seen as compensation for [the] time and trouble" of undergoing the process of substantial hormone tweakage and the somewhat invasive procedure of retrieving the eggs, as well as the risk of complications.) While the American Society of Reproductive Medicine has set a baseline compensation cap of $5,000, private "brokers" ignore the guideline and offer women much more.

As the AP notes, "'Egg Donors Wanted' ads are common on the Internet, in college newspapers and on city trains. And with no federal laws limiting donor fees -- and fertility doctors conceding the difficulties of policing their own industry -- one ethicist says that eggs have quickly become 'commoditized.' 'It does feel a little more like the Wild West than it ought to,' says Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics. And he only sees the problem growing as states such as California move closer to funding major stem-cell research, requiring more donor eggs."

Sure. The entire world of fertility science, like technology as a whole, generally manages to stay a few steps ahead of industry regulators.

What's interesting, though, is that you don't hear a whole lot about "commodification" when it comes to sperm donations (which are kept in "banks," for goodness' sake). Nor a lot of rumination about whether the fellas are going through the (significantly less challenging) process solely for the (significantly lower amount of) money. The case of no longer anonymous "Donor 150" and his recent reunion with several of his children was generally treated as a charming, if postmodern, human interest story. I'm not saying there necessarily should be a bigger fuss here; I'm just noting the contrast. (Also, as an aside: Though I don't think "for the money" donors necessarily need defending, the AP article also notes that many women do it for altruistic reasons. I also know one woman who, feeling that she was getting on in her single years, donated eggs simply as a means of somewhere, somehow, becoming a mother.)

Should we, indeed, be a little more freaked out by the egg market? To be sure, it is a much bigger deal than the sperm trade: more money, more commitment, more risk. Which leads to the valid concern about the degree to which brokers prey, say, on leggy blond volleyball players with excellent SAT scores and massive student loans. And which, in turn, makes me think it's important to accept, without judgment, that this is a business. As Harvard economist Debora L. Spar, author of "Baby Business," wrote: "We need to acknowledge the market that reproductive technologies have created and then figure out how to channel this market toward our own best interests ... It's no use being coy about the baby market or cloaking it in fairy-tale prose. We are making babies now, for better or worse, in a very high-tech way ... We can moralize about these developments ... or we can plunge into the market that desire has created, imagining how we can shape our children and secure our children without destroying ourselves."

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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