Commodification of the Reproductive Donor: Part 1 (The Recruitment)

Designer babies made to order? Source: Mark Sebastian, Flickr

Donors are subject to commodification.  What I mean is that donors, due to the bureaucratic market processes surrounding donation, can be alienated from their own bodies.  Alienation can come in many forms, in this case I am using alienation to mean separated or distanced from the body.  By separating the donor into parts, the “sellable”  facade, the actual egg (or sperm,) and the genetics, actually separates the donor from his or her body.   Though NOTA has measures in order to prevent commodification of donors, numerous outgrowths, situations and new technologies seek to complicate or overturn the NOTA measures.  (Emily Avera wrote about this subject in her recent post.)  These can be as scandalous as the Black Market in Organ Trafficking, to as infiltrative and subtle as the very language used to recruit donors, such as the commonly repeated phrase, “Give The Gift of Life.”

Egg and sperm donors face this kind of objectification as well, although with a slight twist.  The big difference between the commodification of donors and the commodification of reproductive donors is the emphasis on aesthetic or extra-clinical (or beyond medical) attributes.  Women are recruited based on “attractiveness” while sperm donors also face a harsh set of  regulations that reflect our own cultural idealized norms (Almeling, 326). Ultimately, both sperm and egg donors are recruited based on their “sellability,” which displays a perfect combination of the market force (sell) and the donorship force, (ability).

In this series of posts, I investigate some of the processes by which egg and sperm donors are objectified, commodified and ultimately reduced to their reproductive “material” or “products” through extra-clinical and aesthetic attributes.  I rely heavily on Rene Almeling’s incredibly researched article, Selling Genes, Selling Gender: Egg Agencies, Sperm Banks, and the Medical Market in Genetic Material. Besides being one of the very few articles written on specifically egg and sperm banks, he also approaches the research from a kind of Marxist-Feminist perspective, with great detail given to the sociological methods and objective data gathering.

In this first post, I talk about the recruitment of sperm and egg donors.  This entails what fertility clinics and potential parents are looking for in an egg or sperm donor, marketing strategies and how the recruitment phase sets up the commodification of the rest of the egg and sperm donation process.


Essentially, the American fertility clinic is first and foremost a business. The clinics fill a market demand – and with egg donation becoming a more widely accepted practice, fertility clinics face heightened competition to provide the “best products” to serve their clients.  And how do clinics provide the “best products”?  They provide the best girls and boys, also known as, egg and sperm donors.

But where to find the best egg donors?  More and more clinics have been turning to college campuses for a large portion of their donor population.

Many sperm and egg donation clinics are situated within a close proximity to college campuses for numerous reasons.  Firstly, college students are at the height of their fertile years, making them ideal donors.  Secondly, clinics realize egg and sperm donors are more likely to meet their appointments if the clinic is close, especially since some donors may not have access to public transit or a car.  Thirdly, the donors are educated.  All the clinics in Almeling’s research required that the donors have their Bachelors Degree, or be on a steady path towards achieving it.  And finally, college students are “cash strapped” and may not think about the necessary risks associated with egg donation (Almeling 325). (These risks include infertility, surgical risks, sharp increase in likelyhood of contracting ovarian cancers from the fertility-stimulating hormones, and the list goes on.)  By advertising on college campuses, clinics can pick the best from a relatively elite pool which of course, appeals to potential parents.

Egg donors go through an intensive recruitment and selection process which essentially resembles a beauty pageant.  Though clinics specifically look for “responsibility” as an attribute, (will the girl come to appointments on time, will she carry through with the process, etc)  but overall her most important is “sellability.”  Sellability encompasses what traits make egg donors sellable, her personalities, her “hue” but most importantly, her attractiveness.

Well, number one she’s attractive.  Number two, she has a child, which is a huge plus.  …  Great height and weight.  Obviously Hispanic, and I start reading a little bit about her, and she has phenomenal answers about why she wants to do this.  … Young, 26, young child.  There’s definitely proven fertility.  5’7”, 110 [pounds].  She’s Caucasian enough, she’s white enough to pass, but she has a nice good hue to her if you have a Hispanic couple.  … You will find that a donor’s selling tool is her brains and her beauty.  That’s a donor’s selling point, as opposed to she’s a wonderful person.  That’s nice.  But bottom line, everyone wants someone that’s either very attractive, someone very healthy, and someone very bright.  That’s her selling point/tool  (Almeling, 326 & 332, excerpt from an interview with OvaCorp donor manager).

Once women get past the initial screening they go through numerous tests involving a psychological exam, blood draws and doctor check ups.  Once deemed healthy and mentally and emotionally stable enough to handle the dangers and stress of egg donating, the women then are placed in the catalog of the fertility clinic.  Instead, men have a strict set of standards they must meet, such as being above 5’9” or not being even a little overweight, and having outstanding sperm counts. Mens’ sellability also counts greatly towards whether he will be chosen as a sperm donor.  Sellability includes desirable traits like having blue eyes, blond hair, proof of intelligence such as a high-income career and musical expertise.

We have to not take people that are very overweight because of a sellable issue.  … When I am interviewing somebody to be a donor, of course personality is really important.  Are they going to be responsible?  But immediately I’m also clicking in my mind: Are the blond?  Are they blue-eyed?  Are they Jewish?  so [I’m] not just looking at the [sperm] counts and the [health] history, but also can we sell this donor?  (Almeling, 326, excerpt from an interview with Western Sperm Bank’s donor manager)

If a man does not meet all the height and weight requirements, he could still be chosen over other males by his acceptance to release identifying information about himself so the children born from his sperm could potentially contact him in the future.  Sperm donors willing to have themselves contacted have higher priority because men are perceived as having less attachment to their sperm, than women do with their eggs.

The egg donors are placed in a catalog, (each with a few photographs of themselves, their basic information and a paragraph or two of their motivations for donating,) that potential parents can flip through, the way one would flip through a clothing catalog for the perfect dress.  Interestingly, men actually do not have their pictures placed alongside their sperm donor profile.  In lieu of a  photograph, a detailed questionnaire describes the man, not in terms of attractiveness but focuses more on his daily activities, work ethic, income, habits, education and extracurriculars.

This difference in display between male and female reproductive donors not only highlights the gender discrimination within reproductive donation, but also displays how both genders are used as products.  The clinics in Almeling’s article state how important donors are, since without the donors there would be no fertility clinics and no business.  Yet the way clinics recruit and display the egg and sperm donors alienates the donors from their own bodies and genetics by reducing the donors to be used or “productive” solely for their reproductive material and their genes.

My following post will be about how clinics “sell” donors to clients, match donors to clients and the basic walk-through of the processes the egg donor goes through in order to donate her eggs.

7 Responses to “Commodification of the Reproductive Donor: Part 1 (The Recruitment)”
    • Tapas says:

      I’ve touhght about this: it may not work out, or it may not work out well, or it may not be an issue, but I’ve opened the possiblilty for my children (when they are born and grown) to find out the identity of their biofather. That’s the best I could do. I hope for the best.

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