Professor Julie Shapiro weighs in on last night’s ABC News story with some perceptive observations:
Why would eggs from women with particular characteristics (say blonde women) be worth more? (I’m going to stick with hair color here because I think (but do keep in mind that I am not an expert) that hair color is basically genetically determined. This does not mean that if you buy an egg from a blonde women you will necessarily have a blonde child, but a blonde donor will increase the chances of a blonde child.)
So why would eggs from blonde women be worth more? Basic economics would suggest it would be because there is a greater demand for those eggs or a lesser supply or both.
Now there are at least two reasons why there might be greater demand, both of which are suggested in the ABC piece. First, people might just want blonde-haired children. Perhaps this is so. There’s certainly enough advertising around (or was) that suggests being blond is better. (I will date myself, but I remember both “If I’ve only one life to live, let me live it as a blonde” and “Blondes have more fun.”) This is the designer baby rational.
Alternatively, you could assume people want a child who will resemble the woman who will be the child’s mother. It’s clear that this sort of family resemblance is important to lots of people. This means that lots of people actually wouldn’t want eggs from blonde women. But blonde women would. This is the family resemblance rational.
As between these two rationals I’m more inclined towards the latter, but I confess I have no evidentiary basis for it. I’ve never seen any studies of how people select among gametes. But the family resemblance rational makes much more intuitive sense to me and I’ve also seen it at work a number of times. By contrast, I’ve never heard of an instance where people actually preferred blonde hair on what are essentially esthetic grounds. It’s also perfectly possible, of course, that both rationals are at work at the same time.
With all this said, what might explain a blonde premium? Is it possible that there are more blonde women out there seeking to buy eggs, hence a greater demand for eggs, and hence a higher price? Or is there a reason why blonde women would be less likely to sell their eggs than other women, thus diminishing the supply? I’m not sure, but I’m left with the sense that the idea of a blonde premium fits with the idea of the designer baby.
In fact, I think the “designer baby” label is unfair. I suspect virtually all people who purchase gametes shop selectively. To take the most obvious example, if a single-race couple is planning to have a child, I suspect they typically select gametes that match their race. I don’t suppose many people find this shocking.
But consider this: Different cultures (and cultures are often associated with races) have different ideas about the propriety of selling gametes. It would seem to follow that there are few donors from some groups. Thus, if a couple from within that group wanted gametes, they might have to pay a premium to get it.
Professor Shapiro raises a very important point. Certain ethnic groups are culturally less inclined to donate. Asian and Jewish egg donors are among the most highly-sought donors because there are so few willing to donate. Is there something inherently malevolent about this? This is why this issue of compensation can be so difficult to navigate. What if a recipient couple comes from a family of academics and only wanted a donor who had a doctorate? Women who fit this criteria are likely working in highly paid occupations and receiving a donor fee of $6,000 might not be enough inducement to secure their participation, yet $10,000 might be sufficient to make the commitment. This is not elitism or eugenics but rather a simple cost-benefit analysis. Why should we discourage a sliding scale in donor compensation?
Lastly, did anyone else find it odd that ABC News did not reveal which donor agencies were violating the ASRM Guidelines? Why not name and shame? Or at least confront the donor agencies and inquire about the underlying motivation to pay different amounts for certain traits?
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