The Commodification of Motherhood
This article is from the October 2006 BreakPoint WorldView magazine. Sign up today to receive the free online edition 10 times a year!
The women at elite colleges and universities see the ads all the time—WANTED: egg donor, tall, attractive, athletic, good health, under age 26, SAT scores above 1,300, compensation $5,000. A very attractive offer for a busy, cash-strapped college student. At more prestigious schools—Harvard, Yale, or Brown—the offering price can range from $15,000 to $60,000 per donor cycle. A few years ago an ad ran in the Stanford Daily offering $100,000.
Students are not the only respondents to such ads. A recent article in USA Today describes a Virginia attorney who received $7,500 for her first donation of fifteen eggs, and she expects to receive another $7,500 for a second cycle. This money will be used to help pay off her $175,000 college debt. Women with families also sell their eggs. Whether a working mother or stay-at-home mom, these women have a track record—they have already produced children with their eggs.
Even so, the attorney and the Ivy League grad student may have an advantage over the stay-at-home mom in the human egg market—a market in which the highest prices go to those who possess the characteristics most in demand: intelligence as demonstrated by academic achievement, beauty, athletic ability, and a family history of good health.
The demand for eggs is not likely to decline soon. Those in search of eggs are highly motivated, often desperate. Many are career women who delayed having children and are now in their late thirties, forties, and even fifties. At this age, the risk of genetic defects for children born with their own eggs has risen dramatically, and purchasing younger, healthier eggs is a solution.
This buying and selling of human eggs—although thinly disguised as compensation for time and trouble—is controversial. Should women sell their eggs? Should they be allowed to sell their eggs? Yes, according to the libertarian thinking that dominates the fertility industry: Consenting adults should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies as long as no one else is harmed. However, the mental, medical, moral, and social dimensions of egg donation are not that cut-and-dried.
RATIONALIZING AWAY HER EGGS
Julia Derek, a Swedish journalism student studying in the United States, discovered many of the hazards of egg donation the hard way. Desperate for cash and looking for a job, she came across an ad in the Washington Post offering $3,500 for an egg donor.
At first, she was repulsed by the idea: “If I donated my eggs to a woman—or sold actually—I would become the mother to that woman’s child, wouldn’t I?” But her desperation soon led to a host of rationalizations. It would not be the same as giving away a child. It would be like giving away a cell, the same as giving someone a hair. It could not be her child since it would not be in her womb nine months. The real mother is the woman who raises the child, not the one who only contributes her genetic material.
In the end, she started selling her body, a few eggs at a time. After all, why wait tables if you can get thousands of dollars by becoming an egg donor?
From the beginning, Julia knew that “donation” was not donation. No one would provide eggs without compensation for the considerable time and trouble—physical exams, daily hormone injections, frequent blood tests to monitor hormone levels, and ultrasounds to track development of the eggs. Then, there’s the small chance that fertility drugs, used to stimulate the ovaries to produce multiple eggs, could lead to serious complications, sterility, or even death. This time-consuming process takes about four weeks and is completed by minor surgery, during which the ripened eggs are suctioned from the follicles of the woman’s ovaries.
All of these burdens and risks were not enough to discourage Julia from donating repeatedly, sometimes providing thirty eggs per cycle—all chronicled in her book Confessions of a Serial Egg Donor. Her lifestyle and dreams demanded an income well beyond what she could earn as a physical fitness trainer. Living off “egg money” became a way of life.
But Julia’s donor career came to a traumatic halt with her twelfth donor cycle. “Another Visit in Hell” is the chapter in which she describes the consequences of a serious hormone imbalance that took months to correct—deep depression, severe headaches, prolonged periods of weeping, and suicidal thoughts. Help came from a reputable gynecologist who provided proper medical care and a six-month prescription of the anti-depressant Serafem. With time, her body regulated its hormones naturally.
EXPLOITING DESPERATE WOMEN
As Julia Derek’s story confirms, egg donation can be dangerous, even though the fertility industry touts its safety. Beyond the short-term dangers to body chemistry, no one knows the long-term effects of the powerful drugs and hormones used to stimulate and control the donor cycle. And the ovaries can be damaged during removal of eggs.
But the problems raised by egg donation go well beyond donor safety.
What about the exploitation of financially strapped young women? At twenty-four, it may be easy to say thoughtlessly that eggs are “just DNA” when anticipating a $10,000 check. At thirty-four, things may look very different when the woman starts her own family and comes face-to-face with the reality that she has other children—in London, New York, or San Francisco—whom she will never know or even see.
The psychological effects of donation, like the physical, are impossible to predict. One poor Ukrainian woman, whose eggs went to couples in England, thinks of the ages and appearances of the children who are half-brother or half-sister to her own two children. Her five donations are a closely guarded secret: “I don’t want anybody to know; for me it’s unpleasant that I have sold a part of myself. That I have sold myself for money.” Her shame springs from the magnitude of what she’s done—sold her genetic heritage, her eggs, some of which have become her unknown children, for money. Her body and her motherhood have been reduced to a commodity, sold at a price established in a competitive market by buyers in search of the perfect baby.
Yes, for prospective parents, the search is for the perfect baby. It’s not just about having a baby, any baby. It is about having a certain kind of baby, a baby that can be designed by selecting the eggs of a woman who is intelligent, beautiful, artistic, athletic, and from a healthy family. But the moral ramifications of this project are rather sinister—they’re eugenic. No, it’s nothing like the Nazi eugenics programs of sterilization, euthanasia, and death camps. Rather, it is best described as “consumer eugenics.”
Egg-donor recipients, as they are called, shop for eggs that have a certain pedigree. They talk with egg brokers. They look at pictures of potential donors and at pictures of their children, if they have any. They study the answers to extensive donor questionnaires. They may meet and interview prospective donors. Then, they purchase the eggs that best match their desires, in preparation for creating embryos by in vitro fertilization.
Additionally, they may use genetic screening to eliminate embryos with genetic defects. Screening can also permit them to choose the sex of their child, if that is one of their goals.
All of this destroys the meaning of parenting and family. Children are not seen as a gift and certainly not as a “heritage of the Lord” (Psalm 127). These children are “made,” not “begotten.”
At root, this approach to parenting is profoundly gnostic. It rejects the world as it is. It separates who we are from our bodily nature. The human will is the real self, and our bodies and all else are but raw material from which to fashion the satisfactions of our desires.
The human body, kinship, and intergenerational obligations are treated as social constructs rather than essential parts of the created order that, though broken, retains an essential goodness that can be preserved and cultivated to the health and benefit of all generations.
Biomedical technologies are being used, as C. S. Lewis worried, to seize control of human nature. “[T]he power of Man to make himself what he pleases means . . . the power of some men to make other men what they please.” In Lewis’s words, the children of egg donation are “artifacts”; they are manufactured products. The destruction of our concept of what it means to be human—the “abolition of man,” to use the title of one of Lewis’s books—is well underway.
Michael Poore is executive director of The Humanitas Project: A Center for Bioethics Education, located in Cookeville,