In the United States, there is a vast market for sperm and eggs to enable infertile couples, single women, and gay and lesbian couples to have children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that over 17,000 in vitro fertilization cycles were initiated in the United States in 2009 with donor eggs, with perhaps a third of these resulting in live births. While statistics for artificial insemination are not as carefully tracked, estimates of the annual number of U.S. women who are inseminated with donor sperm are in the hundreds of thousands, and an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 children are born each year through sperm donation, although this number is only an educated guess.
In her new book Sex Cells, Yale sociologist Rene Almeling focuses on the people who provide the raw material sold on this market: the men and women who sell their sperm and eggs. Seeking to understand why people make the decision to sell their gametes, how they view the offspring conceived with their cells, and how the rapidly expanding fertility industry is making those gametes available to patients, Almeling interviewed thirty-nine sperm and egg donors as well as doctors and staff at sperm and egg agencies. These interviews provide the basis for a rich, detailed characterization of the origin and development of the market for sex cells in the United States and the way it operates today. While Almeling aims to describe that market, the manipulation and exploitation suggested by the book’s punning title ultimately raises a question that has not yet been widely asked: Should there be such a market at all?
The decision to sell one’s sperm or eggs — and it is a sale, despite the widespread use of the term “donation” to suggest otherwise — entails letting go of something that carries an important part of one’s personal identity and to make it available to someone else. Those who become sperm and egg “donors” must be able to accept, or even welcome, the likelihood that somewhere out in the world they have genetic offspring — perhaps many of them — whom they will not meet, in most cases being raised by someone they do not know.