When Sociologist Rene Almeling decided to look into the operations of U.S. sperm banks and egg agencies, the UCLA Ph.D. candidate in sociology thought she knew what she would find.
She figured that any discrepancies in compensation rates for the building blocks of assisted reproduction could be explained by either market forces or the biological differences between female egg donors, who must undergo hormone therapy and outpatient surgery, and their male counterparts, who, as one recruitment ad put it, “get paid to do what you already do.”
Instead, Almeling, whose findings appear in the June issue of the American Sociological Review, uncovered a topsy-turvy market that often defies not just conventional wisdom but also the basic law of supply and demand.
“Men donors are paid less for a much longer time commitment and a great deal of personal inconvenience,” she said. “They also are much less prepared for the emotional consequences of serving as a donor of reproductive material. Women, meanwhile, are not only paid more for a much shorter time commitment, they are repeatedly thanked for ‘giving the gift of life.’
“From compensation rates to the smallest details of donor relations, sperm donors are less valued than egg donors,” Almeling said. “Egg donors are treated like gold, while sperm donors are perceived as a dime a dozen.”
The inequities persist despite the fact that profiles of hundreds of potential egg donors languish on agency Web sites, far outstripping recipient demand, while suitable sperm donors are quite rare, Almeling found. In fact, only a tiny fraction of the male population possesses a sperm count consistently high enough to be considered donation-worthy, and more than 90 percent of sperm bank applicants are rejected for this and other reasons. As a result, sperm banks routinely resort to finder’s fees to meet the need.
“A pronounced double-standard exists in the way that men and women donors are valued by the fertility industry, and it can’t be explained medically or by market forces,” Almeling said. “Based on the availability of donors alone, you would expect the abundance of potential egg donors to drive down compensation fees and the scarcity of potential sperm donors to drive up their fees. But I found just the opposite.
Almeling’s findings are part of a growing body of research on the sociology of markets in life-saving and life-giving material, including blood and organ donations and life insurance payouts. But Almeling’s study, which is based on interviews with 25 staff members at two sperm banks and two egg agencies, is believed to be the first detailed comparison of gender-based differences in U.S. compensation rates for reproductive material. Almeling has been gathering data on the medical market in genetic material for the past five years.
Almeling found that it is not unusual for egg donors in large cities to make upwards of $5,000 per donation — no matter the outcome. Agencies also encourage recipient couples to provide female donors with thank-you notes, small tokens of appreciation and even cash bonuses.
In contrast, sperm banks do not pay as well or encourage such displays of gratitude. Male donors make between $50 and $75 per donation, and they are paid only when their samples meet the high fertility standards required for freezing. Over the length of their contracts — generally, an entire year — sperm donors may make as much as their female counterparts do over the course of a single six-week cycle, but only if they donate more than the required one sample per week. Invariably, however, earnings of sperm donors fell short, either because donors missed weekly sessions or their samples failed to meet fertility standards. Women also may donate as many as three times in a year, and their fees increase with each completed cycle.
So an egg donor actually stands to make far more during the same period of time than even the most diligent and fertile sperm donor.
Moreover, men work much longer for their pay than women, and their activities are much more restricted as a result. In addition to requiring weekly donations for a year, sperm banks instruct men to refrain from sex for two days prior to donation or risk the possibility that their samples will fail to meet fertility standards. Being sick or stressed also has a negative effect on sperm count.
“Even the doctors who were working with infertile couples were surprised when they learned just how demanding the process is for men,” Almeling said. “Sperm donors basically have to schedule their sex lives for a year.”
Meanwhile, their female counterparts also have to refrain from sex, but their activities are restricted only for six weeks. However, the women have to commit to a degree of bodily invasiveness not experienced by men: a six-week regime of hormone therapy, which leads to serious complications in 1 to 2 percent of cases, and a single egg-extraction procedure that causes some discomfort and leads to serious complications in less than 1 out of 1,000 cases, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
Men and women weren’t just compensated dramatically differently. They also experienced dramatically different “working” conditions. Almeling found that women were repeatedly reminded of their generosity, whereas men tended to be reminded that sperm donation was to be viewed like any other job.
“Staff at egg agencies constantly thank women and encourage them to think about what a wonderful difference they’re making in the lives of recipients,” Almeling said. “The sperm bank staff is appreciative, but men aren’t told how amazing they are and what a great gift they’re giving. They’re treated more like reproductive service workers. They come in. They clock in and out. Their sample is checked for quality. And they’re only paid when they produce an acceptable sample.”
The medical community has justified compensation rates for egg donors by pointing out that egg extraction is more difficult and risky than extracting sperm and that the female body has a limited supply of eggs, while the male body replenishes sperm. But Almeling does not believe these biological differences fully explain this market. While an individual woman has fewer eggs than an individual man has sperm, women never run the risk of “running out” of eggs due to donating. Moreover, the huge oversupply of women willing to be donors means that eggs are not actually scarce for couples seeing to acquire them.
Cultural norms of parenthood, which are perpetuated though marketing efforts, interact with these biological understandings to produce the differences in market prices, Almeling believes.
“Both eggs and egg donors are more highly valued than sperm and sperm donors, where 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 said.
Donor recruitment at the egg agencies and sperm banks appeared to reinforce these stereotypes, Almeling found. Egg agency advertisements tend to appeal to women’s altruism, while men are informed of a job opportunity. The application process for donors also favors what Almeling called “gendered stereotypes of selfless motherhood and distant fatherhood.” Although egg donors stood to be handsomely compensated, women who indicated there was a financial motive behind their participation were routinely rejected in favor of applicants who expressed more altruistic motives, such as the desire to “help” infertile couples. Sperm banks, meanwhile, were much less explicit about the need to appear altruistic.
“While most egg donors will never meet their genetic children, women are expected to reproduce well-worn patters of ‘naturally’ caring, helpful femininity, guiltily hiding any interest that they might have in the promise of thousands of dollars,” Almeling said. “This ruse is not demanded of sperm donors. Men, who are more likely to be contacted through the banks’ identity release programs, often do not even consider that children will result from regular deposits at the sperm bank.”
In fact, one sperm donor was dumbstruck when he was informed that one of his contributions had resulted in conception.
“I hadn’t really thought about the fact there were going to be pregnancies,” he said.
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