Do sperm and egg donation programs treat their male and female gamete donors differently? Is one silver and the other gold? If so, why would this be?
Rene Almeling has researched the world of gamete donation and has identified some fascinating gender-based practices that seem to polarize the experiences of sperm and egg donors. She is a Yale Sociology professor and author of the book Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm. Here are some findings from her research a dozen years ago:
- Recruitment techniques
Typical recruitment techniques for both egg and sperm donors focus on reaching young, healthy, educated women and men. Postings appear in college campus newspapers and on craigslist. While the ads for egg donors are serious and focus on the need for egg donors who can help deserving, infertile women conceive, sperm donor ads often come across as slightly comical, offering men the chance to get paid for what you’re already doing. Right at the start, the difference in tone is apparent.
Sperm donors collect a sperm sample by masturbating alone in a private room at a sperm bank, and are expected to do so once or twice a week for up to one year. They are paid about $100 per acceptable sperm sample. Egg donors have more medical intervention, including complicated hormonal and surgical procedures to contribute a few or a dozen eggs, and are compensated for these procedures at the rate of about $5000-$10,000 per donation. Over the course of a year, both egg and sperm donors can earn about the same amount of money, though their donation experiences differ substantially.
- A Gift vs. A Job
Commonly, an egg donor is perceived as giving the gift of life to a woman who is unable to have a baby without the help of a donor egg. She is seen as generous and altruistic, giving of herself unselfishly, withstanding complex and uncomfortable procedures in order to do so. A sperm donor may be expected to commit to his sperm donation schedule just as strictly as he would adhere to any other schedule, and may feel he is earning a paycheck every month for going to work. Egg donors seem to be giving a gift, while sperm donation is seen as nothing more than a job.
While both egg and sperm donors may be interested in gamete donation at least partially for the financial benefits, women who express that they want to donate eggs for monetary compensation alone are typically rejected by donor programs. On the other hand, it is not unacceptable for men to indicate that this is their primary interest; a more personal or emotional motivation is a bonus, but not expected. This is not surprising if donors start off with the concept that sperm donation is a job. Women are much more likely to be expected to be selfless caregivers, while male donors are acceptable as emotionally distant breadwinners.
- Identification with offspring
In general, egg and sperm donors report rather surprising differences about their feelings about being donors. In industry terms, the donor has offspring, while the recipients have children. Interestingly, studies show that sperm donors frequently consider themselves fathers to their offspring, while egg donors do not consider themselves mothers. Egg donors feel that they just contributed an egg to another woman. They view the recipient as the mother, and many express that they feel no attachment to the offspring whatsoever.
Society seems to consider the respective contributions of men and women to the reproductive process to be unequal. However, some sperm banks are looking to shift this perception. The Sperm Bank of California takes an ethical approach to family building that includes a commitment to the well-being of donors as well as parents and children. Over the last decade, TSBC has used Ms. Almeling’s findings to improve the donor experience.
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