Does the market for sperm donors and egg donors tell us something about stereotypes of mothers and fathers? Rene Almeling, a Ph.D.-candidate sociologist at UCLA, thinks it does.
In a survey of staff members at sperm banks and egg donation agencies, this is what she found:
Egg donation is a tricky process. Donors restrict sexual activity for six weeks. They are given a course of hormone therapy, and they finally undergo outpatient surgery, during which eggs are harvested. For that, they are paid as much as $5,000 or more in large cities, no matter whether the egg leads to a pregnancy or not.
Egg donors are also valued, even cherished. Women are prepared for the emotional consequences of donating their genes and are repeatedly thanked for "giving the gift of life." Almeling says agencies often encourage couples to send thank-you cards, small gifts or even cash bonuses to egg donors.
The same is not true of sperm donors. The attitude, as one recruitment ad put it, is that sperm donors "get paid for what you already do." Men are given far less preparation to help them understand what it means to donate their genes, and they are rarely acknowledged by the couples they help, Almeling found. Her findings appear in the June issue of American Sociological Review.
This disparity might not be too surprising; women donors undergo surgery, and men don't. Men are paid $50 to $75 per donation. But here's the surprise: Almeling found an oversupply of egg donors, and so few sperm donors that sperm banks routinely pay finders' fees to attract donors.
A further problem for sperm donors is that they are paid only when their samples meet a very high fertility standard. Only a small percentage of men are fertile enough to qualify, and even those often give samples that do not quality -- and they don't get paid.
Sperm donors, like egg donors, also must restrict their sexual activity to certain allowed days, and they often sign year-long contracts. So the impact of donation on their sex lives is greater than the impact of donation on women's sex lives.
Almeling thinks the higher prices paid for egg donation partly reflect a social bias that values motherhood more than fatherhood. "It is not just reproductive material but visions of middle-class, American femininity and masculinity and motherhood and fatherhood that are marketed and purchased," she says.
The donor selection process, Almeling says, reflects the stereotype that mothers are selfless and fathers are distant. Women who said they had a financial motive in donating were often rejected in favor of those with more altruistic motives. Sperm banks were far less clear about the need for altruism.
It seems clear from Almeling's survey that two things are responsible for the difference in fees paid to sperm donors and egg donors: the comparative difficulty of extracting the sperm or egg, and some interesting and unfortunate gender stereotyping. But it's hard to know how much each of those contributes to the economic disparity.
At the very least, Almeling has shown us that there is more to the gene-donation market than supply and demand.
Maybe a thank-you card to a sperm donor wouldn't be a bad idea.