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Does She or Doesn't She?

Only Her Bank Knows for Sure

She injected a combination of Pergonal and Metrodin--follicle-stimulating hormone-- into her hip every morning. This kicked her quiescent ovaries into overdrive, swelling them to the size of oranges, and brought a cluster of her eggs to the brink of ripeness. (Rebecca Meade, "Eggs For Sale," The New Yorker, August 9, 1999)

Welcome to the Age of Advanced Reproductive Technologies (ART) a.k.a. ReproTech!

As college students throughout the USA return to their campuses for the last fall semester of this millennium, selected female students have the option of tapping into strange new sources of money to pay for their tuition. Currently over 200 private egg donation clinics, fertility centers, and agencies in the United States are competing to maintain extensive lists of immediately available egg donors. Middle class, fair skinned, blue-eyed, healthy young women with good academic records are prime, pricey candidates. Successful models, actresses, athletes, musicians, and mathematicians are also highly coveted donors.

Let's note right away that "egg donation" is a euphemism, coined to smooth over the troubling notion that live women are selling their body parts on the open market. The US has laws against the commercial sale of body parts, but a legislative loophole has made the commercial sale of eggs and sperm permissible.

Sperm donation has been around for a long time, but it differs from egg donation in several significant, gender-specific way--which doctors and lawyers have conveniently glossed over: Sperm is a constantly renewable substance. "Donors" can eject it painlessly, repeatedly, even enjoyably, in private--without medical intervention, side-effects, or harm.

Sperm can be easily frozen, stored, and shipped. Its dispensability is reflected in the cheap price it draw--usually about $50 a shot. By contrast, women are born with all the eggs they will ever have, and their eggs age as they age. Egg donation--or extraction, to be more accurat--requires a complicated, often painful regimen of drugs, medical testing, and surgical intervention. The whole procedure usually lasts more than a month. Hyperstimulation of the ovaries may cause women to release up to 20 eggs at a time. The long-term effects of hyperstimulation on a woman's "natural fertility" are not known. These and other factors make eggs a far more valuable commodity than sperm and drive up the cost: the highest publicly reported price thus far was $50,000 for a single donation--from a tall, fair, highly educated college woman.

Women and men have differing relationships to the children born from their "donated" gametes. Since ancient times, it has always been assumed that the mother of a child is clearly the woman out of whose womb it was born. The fathering role of men, however, has been far more unclear. It has always been acceptable for men to "sow wild oats," or engender children without knowing it. In advanced ReproTech, however, some women are suddenly supplying eggs without becoming mother--neither gestating and giving birth to a child, nor serving as the "social mother" who rears the child. Though some state laws release donors from responsibility for any children born from their donated eggs, most donors must sign releases and give up any future claim to their eggs or to children born from them. This protects the interests of the donor business and its clients, not donors.

Thus for women, the process of reproduction--which once essentially defined womanhood--has been separated not only from sexuality, but also from the social construction of maternity and femininity. Women can choose to sell their eggs without bothering to become birth mothers, social mothers, or even legal mothers. One might expect feminists to welcome these brave new conditions and declare (with Shulamith Firestone): "At last women have been set free from their own biology by technology! Biology is no longer destiny!" The real physical, emotional, and psychic costs and effects of egg donation on the donor, however, have not been sufficiently studied; far more attention has been paid to the suffering of infertile couples, and the wonders of ReproTech.

The basis of donor selection is testing, testing, testing. Female donors undergo far more rigorous evaluation than men. Once selected, women are subject to constant surveillance of their habits and bodies. Their ovulation must be synchronized with the birth mothers' menstrual cycles, and their services are far more costly and precarious. Even though they seem to be paid well, they have actually signed over control of their bodies and their precious products for the term of their ovulatory cycles or longer, as though they were chattel or indentured servants. When seen this way, the customary fee for the donor service--$2,500 to $5,000--seems woefully inadequate. The secret and privatized nature of donor transactions provides a perfect environment for the exploitation of client and donor alike. Under these unregulated market conditions, venture capitalism flourishes, sanctioned as a humanitarian service.

Advanced ReproTech marketing cynically plays on the so-called "natural maternal instinct" ascribed to all women. The cyberbaby industry exploits women's assumed "need" to produce children, in some form or other, in service of ever-expanding technological intervention into the body--for profit. Donor ads se'm to appeal to the donor's empathy and generosity ("Give the gift of life," they read). Implicitly, however, they play on a woman's vanity, her sense of superiority, and her economic need. Even this appeal, however, is deceiving; because it is not the woman herself who is valued, but her eggs--in an extreme objectification of the female body.

Despite the fact that there is very little proof or likelihood that a donor's most coveted assets--complex traits such as intelligence, musical talent, kindness, and the like--are genetically transmitted and inheritable, the ads for egg donors continue to list these assets. This represents a false and dangerous eugenic thinking. The American fertility industry is based upon the conviction that a person is the agent of his or her own destiny--that fate or fortune are fashioned, not inflicted. Why then should you be concerned? Advanced ReproTech claims to be a humanitarian service industry that uses miraculous new biotechnologies to secure offspring for infertile people and non-traditional parents (gay and lesbian couples, singles, old couples, dead people, etc.). In actuality, it is a commodities industry--an unprecedented profit-driven evolutionary experiment that uses genetic engineering, gene manipulation, and eugenic selection.

Just as the rush to map the human genome is fueled more by the medical and drug industry's quest for greater profits than by "pure" scientific inquiry, so advanced ReproTech is propelled by a racist/sexist "new eugenic consciousness" In effect, it promises parents miracle babies for large sums of money. It preys upon the seductive commodity desires of middle class citizens. ("We can make you the most beautiful and successful child ever born," the industry promises), in order to fund an almost completely unregulated private experimental industry that uses willing and eager human test subjects--who will pay handsomely for the privilege! No wonder many ReproTech doctors and scientists believe they have died and gone to heaven.

Share the secrets...Explode the Myths

Note: Let us be clear that subRosa is not technophobic, or against advanced technology per se. We take a critical stance, however, toward the power relations and market drives that determine the applications and development of advanced technologies.

subRosa Suggests:

subRosa believes that the time has come for all citizens to openly, critically, and publicly discuss all aspects of advanced reproductive technology. If you are thinking about selling (donating) your eggs, you may want to consider the following:

  1. Perform your research critically and skeptically. Don't accept any one expert's word without cross checking it against many other sources and authorities. See the reading list below, or consult our website for more information.
  2. Ask and Tell: Talk with other women who have donated eggs or who are considering the prospect. Discuss your plans with reliable and supportive friends, your women's support group, spiritual guides, medical personnel, or family members. Remember, secrecy primarily protects the industry, not you.
  3. Consult your own family doctor or another doctor who knows your health history--and who does not have a stake in the ReproTech industry.
  4. Consult a lawyer. You are considering a major, binding decision--one that could have consequences far beyond your own life-span. Don't give away the power over your body.
  5. Become proactive by informing yourself, and questioning new biomedical technologies, processes, and treatment. Check out the subRosa panel on "Women, Health, and Biotechnology." See particulars below.

subRosa invites you to share your story with us if you have been an egg donor or if you are in the process of becoming one. Help us to help other women and men by creating a responsible, critical public discussion of this subject and other gender issues related to the body, bio-technologies and medical innovations, and sexuality. You can contact us in complete anonymity and confidentiality.

--Faith Wilding, 1999



Corea, Gena, et al., Man-Made Women: How New Reproductive Technologies Affect Women (London: Hutchinson, 1985).

Critical Art Ensemble, Flesh Machine: Cyborgs, Designer Babies, and New Eugenic Consciousness (New York: Autonomedia, 1998).

Davis-Floyd, Robbie, and Joseph Dumit, eds., Cyborg Babies: From Techno-Sex to Techno-Tots (New York: Routledge, 1998).

Hartouni, Valerie, Cultural Conceptions: On Reproductive Technologies + The Remaking of Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

Lublin, Nancy, Pandora's Box: Feminism Confronts Reproductive Technology (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998).

Stanworth, Michelle, ed. Reproductive Technologies: Gender, Motherhood, and Medicine, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987).

Silver, Lee M. Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World (New York: Avon Books, 1997).

Haraway, Donna. Modest_ Witness @Second_Millenium. FemaleMan _Meets_OncoMouse TM: Feminism and Technoscience (New York, London: Routledge, 1997).

"Fertility" (special issue), New Observations (Summer/Fall 1998).

Emily Martin, "The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a RomanceBased on Stereotypical Male/Female Roles," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1991, vol. 16, no 3.

Faith Wilding, "Where is the Feminism in Cyberfeminism?," n. paradoxa., vol. 2, 1998.


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