Commodification of the Reproductive Donor: Part 2 (The Matching Process)
I ended the previous article in my Commodification of the Reproductive Donor series discussing the “donor profile” and the donor catalog. In this second part of the series I show how egg donors are commodified through the matching process with prospective parents; specifically, how these processes advertise and treat reproductive donors as objects or products. (To make it clear, I use the terms “donor” and “egg/reproductive provider” interchangeably.)
Using various activities, interests and hints taken from the egg provider’s application forms, the fertility clinics create a profile for the egg provider. Specifically created to be as appealing and as marketable as possible, the providers’ profiles feature numerous pictures (some are professional head shots paid for by the fertility clinic), including during infancy and childhood. An egg donor I interviewed gives insight to the anxieties egg donors can feel when viewing their donor profiles.
I only looked at it once because it was kind of weird. I sent in a picture, a head picture that I knew was going to be the profile picture, and it just said my age and kind of weird interests that they gleaned from the applications. It was very strange. Like I remember it said that I played piano currently but I was like, yeah I played piano for ten years but I haven’t in the past two, you know? I mean I played for a long time but I wasn’t very good at the piano.
The donor profiles are then placed in the clinic’s own catalog in online and/or print media. For most prospective parents and egg donors the donor profile is the closest the two parties will ever come to meeting each other. Only on very rare occasions do egg donors and prospective parents ever meet. This is in distinct contrast to to the relationship building that prospective parents and surrogate mothers create. Due to this highly separated relationship, the clinics have to make an egg provider’s profile as marketable and eye-catching as possible. There is no other avenue to capture a prospective parent’s interest. If a prospective family decides upon an egg donor, the prospective family has to contact the fertility clinic and express interest in working with that specific egg donor. In this case, one can literally purchase a body (and the subsequent genetic material) from a catalog – not too dramatically different from ordering clothing.
There are some instances in which prospective parents do not know which egg provider to select or cannot decide between a few providers. In these cases, the opinion of a clinic’s doctor becomes very influential–ultimately life-changing. Fertility clinician doctors, nurses and employees can help decide which egg provider the potential family will choose by playing up the egg provider’s qualities, or by using pressure, even fear or anxiety (Almeling, 2007). Commercial motives and biases often underpin clinical advisement. Fertility clinics realize the potential family wants a pregnancy as quickly as possible, and a happy paying client equals a thriving business. If accentuating an egg provider’s specific qualities does not prove an effective deciding factor, some clinics will play off a prospective family’s fear or anxiety to pressure them to choose an egg provider. They induce a sense of urgency, emphasizing the need to make a swift decision in the competition to obtain a desirable egg provider. In turn, prospective families are more likely to choose that provider. According to OvaCorp’s donor manager, “99.9 percent of the time [recipients] will go with [a donor], especially if they know someone else is waiting” (ibid).
This quotation shows the darker side of how fertility clinicians can sell their egg donors. The egg donors are still being treated and sold as objects, but their exclusivity and availability (or scarcity) are emphasized to make her seem more desirable. Similarly with the recruitment of egg providers, the matching of prospective family to potential egg donor is also wrought with commodification. Treating and advertising egg donors as products instead of complete human people affects the donor’s sense of individuality. Egg providers have little to no control over the egg providing process and rely upon the pre-established rules of the fertility clinic. These fertility technologies are relatively recent and expanding at a high rate. The federal government has not yet created a distinct set of rules on the treatment of egg donors, surrogate mothers and other reproductive providers. Since the fertility industry is relatively unregulated, (e.g., the in-vitro fertilization procedure is still considered an experimental) fertility clinics have chosen to heavily focus on their profits, letting the main structures of capitalism and consumerism drive guide their development.
I am not saying that fertility clinics should completely disregard their profits, however, the treatment of egg providers needs to change. Perhaps it could be as simple a step as letting egg donors create their own donor profile – instead of having the fertility clinic decide what is most marketable. Or maybe egg donors and prospective families should be encouraged to meet each other face to face, instead of relying on a few pictures and a donor profile. While these options may have their own bioethical brambles, these measures at least shift the emphasis from commdification to the humanity of donors.
Almeling, R. (2007). Selling genes, selling gender: Egg agencies, sperm banks, and the medical market in genetic material.American Sociological Review 72(3), 319-340.