Friday, May 14, 2010

Ova There! Ova There! Send The Word, Send The Word, Ova There!

After reading a critical piece in the New York Times about the booming market in Ivy League ova earlier in the week, Radical Correspondent Oklahoma Annie writes that she was "incensed" by it:

What’s going on, in summary, is this: Agencies who traffic in human ova are seeking the highest achieving young women from top universities as donors, and are offering them upwards of $10,000 to donate their eggs.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which set the $10,000 cap on payments in its guidelines, is now “concerned” that young women may be lured by excessively high payments to become donors “against their own best interests.”

Now, excuse me, but we’re talking about the top percentile, crème de la crème of American elite universities, and we’re afraid they won’t be able to make informed decisions about their own health and finances?

Well, OK, so we’re also talking about 22 year olds, so there may be something to that. But hey, this is the first time I’ve heard it argued that women are being exploited by being paid too much.

I think it’s a load of paternalistic crap. (I want to see the gender and age distribution of the members of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.)

What really aggravates me is, here is one thing in which women are uniquely positioned to make more money than men, fair and square, and we don’t want to let them fully exploit their advantage “for their own protection."

Couldn't agree more, Annie. Go to this this California sperm bank and you will see that inseminations start at under $500, which means that the donors can't be getting more than a hundred dollars a squirt. Methinks you are onto something, so let's investigate further.

When you read the whole article, you will see that Annie's outrage is well founded on several levels. Egg donation, as it turns out, is not to be undertaken lightly, since the primary damage cited for women is psychological -- only several paragraphs lower does the author mention that the procedure itself, which includes stimulating the ovaries with massive amounts of hormones as well as surgery -- has medical risks. In other words, an egg is not an egg: it's a pre-baby! And for the rest of their lives, these poor women will be haunted by the specter of "their" babies out there in the world.

Not inconsequentially, the notion that every egg is a complete soul would be the position held by the Catholic Church, the LDS Church and numerous evangelical Christians, as they wrap numerous forms of contraception into their jihad against abortion. Furthermore, Annie's point about how threatening it is to the cult of true motherhood when women game the market in white designer babies has a longer history. Remember when Mary Beth Whitehead refused to hand over Baby M to William and Elizabeth Stern in 1986, and the papers kept referring to her as the "surrogate mother" -- when, in fact, she was the actual mother? And do you recall that when working-class Whitehead demonstrated true grief at giving up the baby, she was reminded repeatedly that she had no right to her feelings because the baby had been bought and paid for? That it was upper-class Elizabeth Stern who really had the right to grieve?

Clearly there are big stakes here. As Annie observes, even a liberal newspaper seems committed to constantly instructing women as to what they should think and feel. I can't help but notice that in its handling of this issue the New York Times also invokes the specious claims among anti-choicers that abortion, at any stage of gestation, inflicts lasting psychological damage on women. "Temporary feelings of relief are frequently followed by a period psychiatrists identify as emotional 'paralysis,' or post-abortion 'numbness,'" reports the conservative Elliot Institute (as if paralysis and numbness are technical terms requiring scare quotes.) "Like shell-shocked soldiers, these aborted women are unable to express or even feel their own emotions. Their focus is primarily on having survived the ordeal, and they are at least temporarily out of touch with their feelings."

Note the use of the phrase "aborted women," which cleverly conveys that these failed mothers are grieving for the privileged access to womanhood only childbirth provides, a maturing process that can never be complete once they have terminated a pregnancy. If a woman believes that she is not distressed following an abortion, it is simply proof that she is "out of touch." On the other hand, this anti-abortion website goes out of its way to urge women that they can trust their feelings and maternal instincts during the process of bringing a pregnancy to term and giving the baby up for adoption; and that they will always feel good about themselves for making this decision to give a close relative to complete strangers.

I would add a final comment: if the egg donation procedure has risks for women (and all surgical procedures do, including egg implantation), then why aren't we concerned about the routine use of these hormones and surgeries on women who are trying to use their own, or other people's, ova to grow babies in their uteruses that they cannot conceive without technology? The women who, if they are successful, often end up carrying high-risk multiple pregnancies? Because it's a multi-billion dollar industry, that's why, in which all of the money goes into the pockets of fertility docs, for-profit labs and Big Pharma! Ever wondered whether Elizabeth Edwards' battle with cancer has anything to do with the "miracle" of giving birth to twins at an age when most women are completely infertile? When was the last time you saw a front page article about the long-term risks associated with thirty-something and forty-something women juicing up their ovaries with dangerous chemicals over a period of anywhere from one to five years?

But that's cool because they become mothers, as opposed to becoming unnatural, selfish women whose only goal is to pay for college and graduate school.


Kate said...

While there is some doubt that highly-educated, likely high socio-economic status young women at Ivy League institutions will be "exploited" by being paid for their eggs, the reason there is a cap on payments has less to do with those at the top than those at the bottom. It was crafted in response to the dangerously exploitative situation going on in Eastern Europe, where an educated young Slavic woman from Russia or Ukraine can get the equivalent of an entire family of four's yearly salary from a single egg donation procedure in a clinic in Cyprus, where infertile women from Spain and France (which severely restrict egg donation) can purchase eggs for implementation.
Unlike sperm, which are ejaculated ready to go by simple design, eggs are not meant to go outside the body in a usable form. Harvesting viable eggs from a woman's ovaries is much more like harvesting a bit of liver or blood vessel: removal of actual, attached, tissues. So the politics of egg donation can be conflated with sperm donation to minimize risk, or it can be associated with organ or tissue donation (which it medically is). So if we take it as organ donation instead of gamete donation, is it ethical to pay someone to donate tissue? The concensus in the US is a resounding no, we cannot buy living tissues for the purpose of implanting it in another body (the difference between selling blood for research and donating blood for use in hospitals). So unlike in Cyprus, we can't pay women the "market value" of their eggs (sperm donation, as legally defined "waste" can be sold for market value, though because it has a high supply, the value is proportionately less). We still want tissue donation to be a Mauss-style gift, full of altruism and lacking exploitation.
So why pay women at all? Because the procedure is dangerous. Maybe for some, a psychological danger, but for all, it is dangerous in terms of future fertility, future cancer risk, standard risks associated with any surgical procedure (bad reaction to anesthesia, etc), loss of productive labor through side effects of the drugs and surgery, etc. So in order to compensate women for the risk of egg donation, there is a monetary offer. That the money is still determined through market forces (between 6 and 10 k depending on race, education, religion, etc) smacks of the market system in Cyprus and violates that "thou shalt not be paid for this as though it were work" ethic.
But why not pay women as if it was work? They, we, labor to make ovum, through maintaining our health, right? Does not all labor carry risk of death or dismemberment? Perhaps less so in the Ivory Tower (though I"ve suffered my fair share of paper cuts and wounds to the ego), but certainly more so working an asbestos plant or deep sea fishing.
On this topic, Donna Dickerson's book "Body Shopping" provides a feminist bioethics approach to understanding how bodies and tissues flow in neoliberal/global capitalisms. She is particularly concerned with egg "donation" in two forms: one for the women in Eastern Europe and generally the state of egg fertility programs in the West, and two the state of egg donation in cloning endevors. Stem cells require a lot of egg cells, and in the case of one Korean researcher, a lot of female graduate students who, in order to get their doctorates, were asked to "participate" in the research through donating their own eggs. No payment, just a doctoral degree, assuming she complied. Lets just say this side-story was overlooked when he was eventually called out in Nature and Science for faking data, even though it was the egg-supply issue that got the investigation of his lab going.

Historiann said...

Excellent post. I once considered egg donation as a grad school funding strategy, back in the day. I didn't do it, mostly because I'm a total chicken about pain and medical procedures, and the medical procedure for egg harvesting is tortuous.

I'm with Annie/Lucy: why shouldn't women demand top dollar if they can get it? The paper of record is all about shaming and scolding ambitious women. (Is it almost time for them to run another story about the "new traditionalism" they're seeing, and how Ivy-educated women are running back home? I think Lisa Belkin's opt-out story is now 7 years old, so there should be one this fall again, if my hunch is correct.)

Susan said...

While I am concerned about the young women who donate eggs, it's not because they are paid too much, but because the hormones that are used are not good for you.

Jody said...

Elizabeth Edwards had two late-in-life pregnancies, and anyone who's gone through ART would tell you that those are surely donor-egg babies. (She was 48 and 50, I believe, when they were conceived.)

As someone who did undergo fertility treatments, I would say that the cancer risks of the hormones are actually pretty well reported. You will probably not be surprised that this (infertility treatment) is another one of those circumstances where women are considered to have f-ed up no matter what choices they made WRT their reproductive choices.

Jody said...

I forgot to mention: I hate these "the poor egg donors don't know what they're doing" reports. For all the reasons you point out.

I think they're part and parcel of the misogynistic conversation around infertility treatments. I'm endlessly fascinated by the fact that ART is one of the few realms of obstetric medicine in which men still predominate, in such numbers that an ART clinic with a female RE on hand will advertise that fact as a plus. The power dynamics, the politics, and the medical implications are all bad.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

At least the NYT bags of fuck published this in the Health section and not Fashion and Style.

profacero said...

I first heard the $10K figure at least 15 years ago, it was the going rate in Houston. Some of my students did it and I would have gone with them except I was already too old. They thought at the time that $10K was not enough, because it was quite a lot of trouble and these eggs were valuable.

Heidi said...

Have to pop in on this one. I remember reading these ads with friends about ten years ago at an Ivy, and we mostly were disturbed by the eugenic specifications (must be at least 5'5", blue eyes, 1400+ SAT, etc.). As I recall, the highest number I ever saw was $25,000, and that had a boatload of specs. The class issues at work in this discussion are interesting when compared to the new "wombs for rent" debate, particularly regarding overseas surrogates.