A lawsuit filed by a Toronto woman against a fertility clinic that she claims was responsible for the loss of dozens of her eggs has drawn attention to a reproductive industry that doctors and medical regulators say is lacking in...
Three white chicken eggs with smiley faces drawn on them peer out at me from a Facebook ad. (Notably, a Facebook ad forwarded to a listserv by a young woman in college, not one that popped up in my own middle-aged Facebook feed.) One of the smiling eggs exclaims, “Donate Me and Help Make a Family!”
Fifteen or twenty years ago, this ad would have made little sense. Donate a chicken egg to create a family? But in today’s brave new reproductive world, where in-vitro fertilization, commercial surrogacy, and sperm and egg donation are no longer obscure medical secrets but commonplace knowledge, it’s fairly obvious to most people viewing this ad that it is targeted at young women, encouraging them to “donate” their ova.
I put the word “donate” in quotes above because unlike kidneys, ova are not usually “donated” in this country. While it is illegal to offer economic compensation to people for other sorts of organ donation (due, rightfully, to the bioethical concern that this will create a market for human organs, and impoverished people will be unequally coerced into selling their body parts), getting paid for giving up your ova (and sperm) is perfectly legal in the U.S.
But why is it particularly worrisome that ads for ova donation have made it onto personalized Facebook feeds?
The Commodification of Women’s Bodies: Economic Coercion
Back when the only egg donation ads I saw were in the hallways of the Ivy League medical school in which I teach, I was equally concerned. Whether on digital or brick-and-mortar walls, ova donation ads make clear that women’s bodies and body parts are commodities to be bought and sold. Which of course begs the deeply troubling question — are women’s bodies things to be owned and traded on the open market?
Whatever a young woman’s opinion on bodily “ownership,” the economic inducement is so significant ($5,000–10,000, with higher fees going to donors with Ivy League educations, high IQs and preferred ethnic and racial features) that a young woman does not need to be in dire financial straits to feel tempted by the quick and supposedly easy money of egg donation. From medical bills to house payments to college and graduate school debts, young women use egg donation payments in myriad ways. And besides, you get to help someone, right?
Yet, the altruistic rhetoric of “helping create families” and “women helping women” only serves to distract us from the fact that ova donation is ultimately a booming business, and as such, it is about the money, honey. (Without the economic compensation, would many young women do it?) As of 2007, the assisted reproductive technology industry in the U.S. was a $6.5 billion for-profit industry, and growing. Fertility clinics and other middlemen are clearly invested in keeping this lucrative business going.
Lack of Transparency About Health Risks, and the Lack of Research
Unlike sperm donation, which has few to no health risks and indeed usually involves free porn, ova donation is a risky business. As a complex medical procedure involving hormones, injections, blood draws, anesthesia, and a surgical procedure to extract a body part, many things can go wrong with ova donation. The risks of egg donation include bleeding, pain, stroke, kidney disease, ovarian cysts, torsion, infertility, and even death. The Center for Bioethics and Culture argues,
OHSS (ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome) is caused by the process of superovulation and is well-documented in the medical literature as a risk associated with women who take fertility drugs to stimulate ovulation. It is also documented in the literature that young women are more at risk for OHSS.
These risks are not, however, freely shared with the young women donating their ova. Indeed, there is very little research being conducted, little data being gathered about the long-term health effects of ova donation — if donating ova earlier in life affects later-in-life fertility, cancer rates, or other diseases. And that, as the award-winning documentary film Eggsploitation suggests, is the fertility industry’s “dirty little secret.”
Racist Elitism: A New Eugenics
“Make another woman’s dreams come true!” cried the advertisement I used to see (and systematically take down) on the walls of the medical school where I teach. The ad infuriated me not only due to how it signaled a commodification of women’s bodies, but also in its obviously racist, and elitist, implications. “Ivy League Donors Wanted,” read the subheading. The photograph in the advertisement was of a young, smiling blonde woman, clearly indicating that this was the kind of Ivy League–educated woman who was desired. In the words of an article from The Journal of Health Care Law,
Wealthy couples, who utilize egg brokers or high-profile advertisements, do not seek general traits. These couples are seeking a “perfect gene pool” for their commodity — notice the highly sought-after donor is a woman who has blonde hair, blue eyes, received a 1400 on her SAT, attends an Ivy League school, and who preferably has some additional talents such as music, sports, or theatre.
These perspectives make women with such highly desirable traits prized reproductive commodities, and clearly sends the broader social message to all women that we are only valued for our abilities to produce genetically favorable offspring. Interestingly, a more recent study indicates that this racially motivated preference may be changing, as couples using egg donors choose “brains” over perceived “beauty.” (Although I would argue it’s just a shift in what is seen as genetically “valuable.”) In the words of Robin Marantz Henig, writing at NPR’s health blog,
But as the practice [of using donated eggs] becomes more widespread, a recent study finds, women are no longer trying to hide the fact that their babies come from donor eggs by working hard to find donors who are physically or genetically similar to them. Instead, the researchers say, recipients tend to look for other qualities, such as intelligence and athletic ability, that they hope to pass on to their children.
Whether it’s shopping for blonde hair or brainiacs, the eugenic implications are still the same. These sorts of genetic preferences in choosing an egg donor are still part and parcel of the social pressure on people to produce “perfect” children genetically related to at least one parent. They are still part and parcel of a mentality which, for lack of a better word, is ultimately about “designer babies.”
The Surveillance Society: Facebook Algorithms See All
With all of these disturbing aspects of the ova donation industry in mind, the commodification of bodies, the eugenic tendencies, and the ill-explained or known health risks, the additional digital twist of the personalized Facebook ova ad is particularly disturbing. Like Big Brother or some dystopian fascist corporation from Blade Runner or Minority Report, Facebook algorithms see all — our age, gender, height, weight, ethnicity, and education — and make conclusions about the genetic desirability of our reproductive parts, our possible willingness or need to donate ova for compensation. As early as 2009, Jennifer Lahl, the president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture, was demanding that Facebook take down egg donor ads targeting young women. One blogger posted a critique of multiple aspects of the practice in 2011 called “Facebook Thinks I’m an Asian Egg Donor.”
Where to begin?? Let’s start with the copy:
“Asian Egg Donors Earn $8K”
I get that they’re trying to customize this ad somewhat to my ethnicity by putting “Asian” on there. But does this mean if I were of another race, that I would earn more or less? Does my ethnicity equate my monetary potential in this market of egg donors?
I’m assuming this company went about facebook [sic] targeting the same way a lot of us do — select from Facebook’s menu of options and then add some keywords. They probably entered some common Chinese/Japanese/whatever they think is “Asian names — and I guess my last name (which is a pretty popular Asian name) fit into the category they are targeting. However, I wonder if they considered the fact that I may be adopted, or that I may be half-Asian, or I married an Asian guy. But I guess this sort of crass targeting fits into their overall way of thinking …
Similarly, another young woman posts the following about Facebook’s targeted ova donor ads:
Amongst the weight loss, cellulite reduction, online dating, and hair removal advertisements featured in the margins of my Facebook account, there have been an increasing amount of advertisements requesting college-age egg donors. With an alluring compensation of $100,000, I couldn’t help but click on the ad. The ad took me directly to a site called “Elite Donors: Creating Happy Families,” a site that recruits egg donors for infertile couples for the purpose of In Vitro Fertilization into the female client or surrogate. The site was plastered with photos of smiling babies and mothers, all with blonde hair, blue eyes, and perfect white teeth.
Intrigued to determine whether or not I have “elite” status, I searched their criteria for an eligible donor. The standards were as follows:
- Height 5’9″ or taller: You may apply if you are shorter, but it helps to have family members who are 5’9″ or taller.
- Caucasian: Check back in the future if you are a different heritage.
- Very Attractive: Modeling experience is a plus, but not required.
- Must be 18–28 years old.
- Proven Intelligence: We are looking for a donor who has graduated from a top 100 four-year college.
- Athletic Ability: Looking for a donor who has a history of participating in athletics or dance. Playing or performing at a college or professional level is ideal.
- No Genetic Medical Issues: This criterion is absolute.
The writer goes on to wonder if with her history of braces, her less-than-4.0 grade point average, and her non-modeling / normal woman weight, her ability to earn might go down and down. She concludes, “I guess if these are the standards by which one measures women, we’re not worth a whole lot, are we? Be more than what someone is willing to pay for you: Protest egg donation advertisements on Facebook today.”
In the end, I agree with the writer above. It’s creepy enough that Facebook knows whether I am in the market for a new dentist or dining room table. It freaks me out infuriates me that the digital giant is also now in the business of luring young women into selling their body parts for profit. But as I wrote about recently in regard to Facebook offering to pay for female employees who want to freeze their ova, the corporate giant clearly thinks that women’s reproductive parts and wholes are part and parcel of their global purview. Facebook’s ova donation ads don’t signal a brave new world, just old exploitations packaged in slick, sophisticated, and frighteningly targeted digital packaging.
Sayantani DasGupta is an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics and a core faculty member of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. She also teaches in the graduate program in Health Advocacy at Sarah Lawrence College, and is a prose faculty member in the summer writing conference Writing the Medical Experience at Sarah Lawrence College. Dr. DasGupta is co-author of The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales (1995), author of Her Own Medicine: A Woman's Journey from Student to Doctor (1999), and co-editor of Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies (2007).