Is an $50K Egg a Bigger Deal than a $100 Sperm?


How attached are you to your eggs? Payment for a sperm donation runs about $100, but then, donation is quick and easy, relatively speaking. Some banks pay more if you are willing to donate openly, or for donors with graduate degrees. Egg “harvesting” requires a series of hormone injections and surgery under a local anesthetic, and it pays far more as a result: a study of ads aimed at potential egg donors reported in the New York Times found that ads at some colleges promise up to $50,000 (although ethical guidelines set by the American Society for Reproductive  Medicine recommend that compensation not exceed $10,000).

Eggs cost more than sperm. They’re harder, just from a purely physical standpoint, to give up. But critics of egg donation argue that it’s emotionally fraught, and that young women considering egg donation may regret the experience–a proposition you rarely hear about sperm donation, in spite of reports that a single donor in California, for example, may have fathered literally hundreds of children (even the most prolific egg donor could scarcely manage more than a dozen in a lifetime). If an egg and a sperm each provide 1/2 of the D.N.A. that combines to result in a child, why would the donation of the egg mean so much more?

No one suggests follow-up counseling for sperm donors–we’re more likely to make a couple of jokes about spreading seed and send them on their way. But for young women considering egg donation, some segments of society seem far more worried–and it’s not because of the risk of bloating and abdominal pain (and rarer but more dangerous possibilities). But both sperm and egg donors have expressed ambiguous feelings about the process–happiness that they’ve helped form a family, trepidation regarding being contacted by biological children in the future and a feeling of something perhaps best described as melancholy about the possibility that those children exist–or that they don’t. And other donors express no regrets at all. But the concerns–the papers on ethics, the worry about payment, the studies of after-effects–are far more present for women than men.

Is it because we place a higher value on mothers than on fathers? Because the biological connection between an infant and a mother is felt to be somehow greater, based on the connection that pregnancy and childbirth would establish–but of course didn’t, in this case? Or are young women just felt to be more fragile than young men, and less cavalier about their genetic material?

I have no personal connection to egg donation, but as a mother of both biological and an adopted child, I suspect that at least one thing that’s true about those different routes to parenthood is also true of egg and sperm donors, and those who make their families through donation: good, bad or somewhere in between, it never turns out exactly the way you expected that it would. I’m not sure there’s enough counseling in the world to prepare anyone for that.

Image courtesy Creative Commons.