Gender and the Value of Bodily Goods: Commodification in Egg and Sperm Donation
Almeling, Rene, Law and Contemporary Problems
Listing a child for sale in the local paper's classified section is unthinkable, and it is illegal for donors to sell organs in the United States. Yet fertility programs routinely recruit young women and men to "donate" eggs and sperm in return for financial compensation. Payments to women vary substantially, both within particular agencies and in different regions of the United States, but the national average is around $4200. (1) In contrast, payments to men vary little: all men who donate at a particular bank are paid generally the same rate, usually between $50 and $100 per sample. (2) This is a twenty-first-century medical market in reproductive goods, and it taps into longstanding debates in a number of disciplines about commodification of the body.
Many scholars have raised concerns about the economic valuation of bodily goods. In his classic study of blood donation, Titmuss compared the mixed system of paid and voluntary donors in the United States with the wholly voluntary, centralized blood-collection system in the United Kingdom. (3) He concluded that voluntary systems produce safer blood and are morally preferable to market-based systems, writing, "[B]lood as a living tissue may now constitute in Western societies one of the ultimate tests of where the 'social' begins and the 'economic' ends." (4) Regarding egg donation, Thomas Murray makes a similar point. He asks,
Are children more likely to flourish in a culture where making children is governed by the same rules that govern the making of automobiles or VCRs? Or is their flourishing more assured in a culture where making children ... is treated as a sphere separate from the marketplace? A sphere governed by the ethics of gift and relationship, not contract and commerce? (5)
These abstract distinctions between economy and society, between commodity and gift, are common in discussions of commodification, but empirical research in economic sociology challenges the idea of a stark dichotomy between market processes and social life.
In terms of bodily commodification, Zelizer's historical analyses of the emerging market in life insurance, (6) the changing cultural and economic valuation of children, (7) and the social and legal interpretations of monetary exchanges in intimate relationships (8) each demonstrate the interrelationship between economic and noneconomic factors in market processes. Building on these empirical investigations, Zelizer formulates a sociological model in which economic, cultural, and structural factors interact to shape market processes. (9) She writes, "As an interactive model, it precludes not only economic absolutism but also cultural determinism or social structural reductionism in the analysis of economic processes." (10)
An exemplar of this approach is Healy's cross-national study of blood and organ donation, in which he demonstrates that variation in organizational structures in different countries results in variation in the rates of individual giving. (11) He concludes, "The individual capacity for altruism and the social organization of procurement are not separate questions but rather two aspects of the same process. As organizations create 'contexts for giving' they elicit altruistic action differently across populations." (12)
Although Zelizer's and Healy's research reveals much about the interplay between social and economic factors in markets for bodily goods, markets in children, blood, and organs, unlike those for eggs and sperm, are not strongly differentiated by sex. Certainly the "priceless" children in Zelizer's study are boys and girls, and the donors in Healy's study are men and women, but gender was not the focus of their analyses.
This raises a question: Does the social process of assigning value to the human body vary based on the sex and gender of the body being commodified? This question draws on a longstanding distinction in feminist theory between "sex," which is defined as biological differences between males and females, and "gender," defined as the cultural meanings attributed to those biological differences. …