Rene Almeling, winner of the 2012 Forsythe Prize, on Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm

November 28th, 2012, by § Leave a Comment

I am deeply honored to be the recipient of the 2012 Diana Forsythe Prize for Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm (University of California Press, 2011).  It is a thrill to be considered to be working in the tradition of Forsythe herself, as well as the list of distinguished scholars who have received this prize since 1999, which includes many of my academic heroes!  In what follows, I provide a short synopsis of the book, and for those who are interested in reading more, there is a link to the Introduction on my website: http://www.yale.edu/sociology/faculty/pages/almeling/

Unimaginable until the twentieth century, the clinical practice of transferring eggs and sperm from body to body is now the basis of a bustling market. In Sex Cells, I provide an inside look at how egg agencies and sperm banks do business. Although both men and women are usually drawn to donation for financial reasons, I find that clinics encourage sperm donors to think of the payments as remuneration for an easy “job.” Women receive more money but are urged to regard egg donation in feminine terms, as the ultimate “gift” from one woman to another.

In the first part of the book, I trace the historical and contemporary organization of the market for eggs and sperm.  Egg agencies and sperm banks are similar in that they are in the business of recruiting “sellable” donors who will attract recipient clients. It is the details of how they go about doing this that reveal the importance of gendered stereotypes in their day-to-day operations. For example, drawing on the stereotype of women as nurturing caregivers, egg agencies emphasize the plight of infertile couples in selecting women who want to “help” people by giving the “gift of life.” In contrast, sperm banks rarely mention recipients, and they encourage men to think of donation like a “job.” (One cheeky ad calls on them to “Get paid for what you’re already doing!”). So the market for sex cells is structured both by traditional economic forces (such as supply and demand) and by cultural expectations of women and men that are associated with reproduction and the family.

For most people, the first thing that comes to mind when I talk about comparing egg and sperm donation are biological sex differences. As a result of these differences, women who provide eggs must self-inject fertility medications for several weeks before undergoing outpatient surgery. Sperm donors do not face any such physical risks, to say the least. But many people do not realize that sperm banks require men to donate on a regular basis, usually once a week, for at least a year. It costs a lot of money to screen donors, so sperm banks have to make sure that the tiny fraction of men who are accepted produce enough samples to make the investment worth it. But neither biology nor technology explains why producing eggs for money is a gift and producing sperm for money is a job. That is why I look to cultural stereotypes of women as nurturing caregivers and men as productive breadwinners for part of the explanation as to why this market is organized the way that it is.

In the second part of the book, I trace how the gendered framing of paid donation affects the experiences of egg and sperm donors. Egg agencies are constantly thanking women for the wonderful difference they are making in the lives of recipients, so egg donors spoke with a great deal of pride about helping people have children. Some egg donors even described the money they received as a “gift” for the gift they had given. Sperm banks treat men more like employees who are expected to clock in on a regular basis, and sperm donors respond by calling the money “income” or “wages.” More importantly, several of the sperm donors said they felt like “assets” or “resources” for the sperm bank, which reveals a sense of self-objectification. I did not hear that kind of language from the egg donors, even though they are making much more money than the sperm donors. These kinds of differences demonstrate the power that fertility agencies have in shaping donors’ views.  Framing donation as a gift or a job is not just a matter of rhetorical flourish; there are profound implications for how women and men experience the exchange of sex cells for money.

Egg and sperm donors also had very different ways of thinking about their relationship to offspring.  Especially for anthropologists who are interested in kinship, egg and sperm donors make for an interesting comparison because they are each providing half the genetic material needed to create an embryo, so they have the same biological connection to any children who result. Yet, I found that sperm donors have a straightforward view of themselves as fathers, while egg donors insist they are not mothers. This is the opposite of what many people would expect, given the greater physical commitment of egg donation and our cultural beliefs about maternal instinct. However, it begins to make sense when you take into account the emphasis that egg agencies place on recipients. Egg donors consider the recipient to be the “real mother,” because she is the one who will carry the pregnancy, give birth, and raise the child. Women can make this distinction because, thanks to technology, maternity is more easily separated into parts than is paternity. One woman can provide the egg, another can carry the pregnancy, and a third (or more) can raise the child. All of these women can lay claim (or not) to the label of “mother.” However, fatherhood is more often reduced to a cultural equation in which sperm equals dad. Sperm donors rely on just this definition of fatherhood, particularly because they are not asked to think much about the people who use their donations to become parents.

In sum, Sex Cells brings together social scientific research on gender, markets, medicine, and the body to propose a new way of theorizing bodily commodification.  Drawing on a wide range of research methods — from interviews with staff and donors at egg agencies and sperm banks to historical research and statistical analyses — the book demonstrates how the gendered framing of paid donation, as either a job or a gift, not only influences the structure of the market, but also profoundly affects the individuals whose genetic material is being purchased.

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