The Price of Eggs

An article in the New York Times provides an unnerving look at egg “donation,” a pillar of the assisted reproduction industry.

Up till now, prices for eggs have been limited by voluntary guidelines, set in 2000 by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, that deemed it “inappropriate” to pay more than $10,000 for a woman’s eggs. The guideline is being challenged by a class-action lawsuit on behalf of egg donors, spurred by strong supply-and-demand forces. If unconstrained, these forces will rev up an already humming, $80 million market in a big way. 

As the Catholic News Agency reports, egg donors are typically students responding to ads posted by “egg recruiters” in cafes, fitness centers and school newspapers. The article sums up the allure: “Dangle $8000-$10,000, per monthly cycle, in front of a cash-strapped college student or a barista struggling to live in an expensive city and you’ve got donors.” Roughly one in seven American couples now suffers from infertility, and demand for eggs is strong. And not just any old eggs. There are plenty of people willing to pay large sums of money for eggs they deem of premium quality. The Times reveals one agency promising $50,000 to $100,000 “to egg donors who meet stringent, personalized search criteria.” Donors considered premium include actresses, models, Asians, Jewish women and Ivy League students with high SAT scores. “For us, a first-time Asian donor might get $10,000-$25,000, and a repeat donor might get to $40,000, occasionally $50,000,” says Darlene Pinkerton, a founder of A Perfect Match, an agency in Southern California.

The Times article quotes a lawyer named Sierra Paulson, who asserts that the class-action lawsuit “is raising awareness of the commodification of the whole thing, and that’s good.” Lest you think that she’s condemning this commodification, she hastens to clarify: the problem, in her view, is not commodification, but insufficient compensation for producers and sellers.  “The guidelines are skewed toward the intended parents,” says Ms. Paulson, whose online forum, We Are Egg Donors, represents donors’ interests. “We’re in America — the market would take care of itself without guidelines.” Essentially, the lawsuit she supports is charging price fixing in the egg-“donation” industry.

Egg donation industry?  The very term signals the confusions and contortions that inevitably result when we attempt to impose the template of the market upon the reality of human biology and reproduction. One has to be a rigidly ideological free-market purist to remain undisturbed by the obvious moral dangers involved in monetizing human anatomy on an individual retail basis. What about the dilemmas of offering money to economically disadvantaged people for bodily organs, for instance? And, in the case of eggs, what about eugenic considerations? There’s already a school of thought that holds that class stratifications are being accelerated by the cognitive elite’s tendency to seek out partners from its own ranks. Why stop there? After all, the über wealthy now routinely pay many millions of dollars for a luxury Manhattan apartment. Why not pay millions for tall/beautiful/athletic/ high IQ eggs to create a luxury designer baby?

This is a confounding situation. “Become an Egg Donor,” online ads invite young women; “Give the Gift of Parenthood.” Essentially, a patina of charity is being used to mask a highly profitable business. The Times article captures the dilemma in a nutshell, quoting Debora Spar, president of Barnard College and author of a book on assisted reproduction: “Our whole system makes no sense. We cap the price because of the yuck factor of commodifying human eggs, when we should either say, ‘Egg-selling is bad and we forbid it,’ as some countries do, or ‘Egg-selling is O.K., and the horse is out of the barn, but we’re going to regulate the market for safety.’”

Catholic teaching on this subject could hardly be clearer, anchoring that “yuck factor” in a theology of human dignity. A statement on the USCCB website details problems with egg donation and in vitro fertilization, including excessive cost, health risks, confusions of parentage for the child, and the destruction of human embryos, before homing in on the theological heart of the problem. It quotes Donum Vitae, the 1987 CDF instruction written by Cardinal Ratzinger, condemning reproductive interventions on the grounds that “through these procedures, with apparently contrary purposes, life and death are subjected to the decision of man, who thus sets himself up as the giver of life and death by decree.” These views are updated in Dignitas Personae, the 2008 instruction addressing newly emergent embryonic controversies.  Dignitas Personae insists that “human procreation is a personal act of a husband and wife, which is not capable of substitution,” and asserts that while couples struggling with fertility problems understandably want help, “the desire for a child cannot justify the ‘production’ of offspring, just as the desire not to have a child cannot justify the abandonment or destruction of a child once he or she has been conceived.”

Via these instructions the Church has taken a stance against a large range of fertility and reproductive interventions. Not all of these interventions will strike all Catholics as wrong. The USCCB statement itself acknowledges that “the immorality of conceiving children through IVF can be difficult to understand and accept because the man and woman involved are usually married and trying to overcome a ‘medical’ problem (infertility) in their marriage.” Similarly, it can be difficult to grasp why IUI, in which the husband’s sperm is collected and concentrated, then introduced into his wife’s uterus to assist  conception, should be proscribed. Unsurprisingly you’ll find American Catholics agreeing with these proscriptions partly, wholly, or not at all. There are gray zones, in other words, even – or perhaps especially – for American Catholics.

Yet some zones, to me at any rate, seem pretty black and white. Isn’t it obvious that there’s something grotesque in assigning a sliding scale of value to potential lives and funneling large amounts of money to buy eggs from Grade A females in order to manufacture perfect children for the wealthy? That “yuck factor” mentioned above is another term for moral intuition, and the fig leaf of “donation” suggests widespread qualms about letting markets value human anatomy and reproduction. Inchoate moral intuitions, however, often have a hard time standing up against the force of the market.

Opposing a ramped-up market in egg “donation” may not pose a big problem for Catholics whose opposition is grounded in church teaching and papal pronouncements. But what about the American public at large? Shouldn’t most Americans, including those whose moral compass is not set by an abiding religious faith, be able to share that gut intuition? Do people really need a codified theology in order to understand what human dignity has to do with the price of eggs?

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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