The Ethics of Egg Donation

By Audrey Pollnow ’13

“Egg Donation – $6,000+ – Thinking about Egg Donation?” Ads like this are prevalent, especially on college campuses. In fact, at a college campus with Princetonian SAT scores, eggs usually go for much more than that. (A recent study by the Hastings Center found that each increase of 100 SAT points for a university’s average correlated to an increased compensation to that school’s egg donors of $2,350.) Clearly, selling your eggs is a relatively easy way to make a lot of money. But is it a good way?

To address the question of a market for ova, I will start by examining the moral status of my own eggs. Most of them are, at present, physically a part of me, just like the teeth in my head, the blood in my veins, and the kidneys in my lower back.  (I apologize to the squeamish reader, but I find bioethics comes easier with the recollection that certain blobs of tissues can write and read articles.) They are like my kidneys and my teeth in that I cannot produce more of them, though they differ in that most eggs are superfluous; only a tiny fraction are ever ovulated. With regard to availability, then, it seems reasonable to treat eggs as we treat blood, at least as long as we don’t deplete the available supply. Indeed, I can think of no obvious objection to removing eggs to use for a non-reproductive medical purpose. For instance, if injecting eggs into one’s arm could decrease the suffering involved in menopause, I would have no principled complaint to the practice.

Of course, the real issue is how the eggs are being used when they’re sold to be fertilized and implanted. Recognizing a zygote’s personhood presents many grounds on which to object here, since IVF often results in the destruction of many embryos. However, to be generous and unrealistic, let’s imagine a “safe” and “humane” process in which no fertilized egg goes unimplanted. The question, then, is whether it is acceptable to sell some of one’s own tissue to be turned into another human, gestated in a womb, and raised by another family.

Here, it’s worth considering the grounds for our prohibition on selling actual children. Even when everyone is seemingly better off, we prohibit such behavior because viewing a child as a commodity to be traded destabilizes families, is dehumanizing, and denies the importance of the parental relationship. Further, due to economic incentives the poor would be the first to suffer these harms. We prohibit prostitution on similar grounds, for the bartering of human sexuality is incompatible with the full recognition of human dignity. Indeed, in both cases, the wrongness of selling the thing in question (one’s body or one’s child) can be more clearly illustrated by the wrongness and incompatibly with economic compensation of seizing one of those things by force. If you steal something of mine, or even cause me a small degree of temporary physical harm, there is an amount of money you could pay me such that I ultimately would feel I was better off for what had occurred. The same cannot be said of kidnapping or rape, and we would be horrified to hear someone say, “They took my child, but overall it ended well, because we received $2 million which enabled all my other kids to afford college and good medical care.” Likewise for “making rape worthwhile.” It simply cannot be done, since both sex and children are incommensurable with cash.

In the case of egg donations, it is not, of course, a child that is sold, but rather tissue which I’ve suggested is morally insignificant so long as it sits undisturbed in a petri dish. And does it even matter whether the child happens to share half my DNA? After all, it’s not as though I’d have parental rights over the child of my identical twin, even though such a child would be as similar to me genetically as my own.

In fact, this identical twin example is useful in demonstrating that the parent-child relationship is not merely a function of genetic similarity. Rather, the importance of my genetic relationship with my (imaginary) child stems from the fact that she was made from my material. The importance of an egg’s origin in a particular woman’s ovary — is clear: it would be a great violation to steal a couple’s eggs and sperm, combine them, and keep the resulting children, even if it could be done non-invasively. Moreover, the severity of this violation can be seen when we consider the prospect of compensation, as addressed earlier with respect to rape and kidnapping. Stealing my egg, manufacturing a child from it, and keeping him would be the sort of violation that could not be remedied with money, even if I were ultimately happy about it. (Imagine that I’m a misanthrope who is unbothered at having my children raised by this dastardly person.)

My argument thus far has not excluded the permissibility of voluntary egg donation. Rather, I’ve said that if we can conclude from the severity of the violations involved in rape and kidnapping the wrongness of prostitution and child-sales, we can also conclude from the severe wrongness of egg theft (with fertilization) the wrongness of egg-sales (with intent to fertilize). Of course, the conclusion that sex and parenthood are morally significant (which I’ve above drawn from the obvious and extreme wrongness of rape and kidnapping) does not just mean that it’s wrong, or socially damaging, to sell sex and children, but also that we have a moral obligation to treat them with particular respect. Since biological motherhood is important, it’s rather perverse to intentionally initiate it with the knowledge that you’ll not keep your child, just as it would be irresponsible to intentionally get pregnant because there are many good childless couples out there, and surely one of them would want your baby. However, instead of making a broader case against IVF I will here restrict my arguments to those against an egg market.

I’m surprised there hasn’t been a stronger feminist outcry against egg donation. I assume it’s because, when the steps of the process are separated, selling one’s eggs (or acting as a paid surrogate) is an exercise in “autonomy,” consistent with a woman’s claim that she’s unaffected by maternity. (As to why anyone would make such a claim, I’m unsure.) Even “humane” sorts of prostitution might be fine on such grounds. Yet I can imagine the feminist outcry which would rightly occur if a package service appeared: “For a one time fee of $25,000, you can impregnate a woman the good old fashioned way, and then keep the kid!”  Or, for a more appropriate service, “Rich family looking for a peasant child? Just pay us and we’ll grow you one of our own!” Each of these setups is clearly dehumanizing, yet it’s unclear why such combinations of services wouldn’t be allowed in a society where we accept the voluntary and paid provision of sex, eggs, and gestation.

Beyond the wrongness of purchasing eggs lies the further moral question of trait selection. As I noted earlier, having higher SAT scores can result in more valuable eggs. Some have argued that this is fine and dandy; after all, we seek intelligence in our sexual partners, and often with a mind to having smart offspring. Is this any different? Here, the problem of a multi-step reproduction process again comes into play. In a normal marriage, love of a partner’s good traits typically coincides with a desire for these traits in one’s children. And though marriage intersects with economic issues (couples must support one another and their children), it is not an institution that can be accurately described by purely economic terms. (If this is unintuitive, try to make sense of “The Gift of the Magi” using utils.) It is precisely because of this that it affords dignity to its members and provides a good way to generate and raise children.

It should also be noted that there are elements of medical shadiness surrounding egg donation. As Michael Collins noted in a Daily Princetonian op-ed several years ago, donors can be misled about the health risks, especially since the doctor advising a potential donor of the risks has generally been hired by the infertile couple in pursuit of eggs. The risks of donation are not entirely clear, and many donors have regrets, particularly those who were motivated by financial reasons. I imagine that younger women, who are presumably more likely to donate for money, are particularly prone to these risks. On these grounds alone I would caution women considering donation, but this article is not intended as a groundbreaking exposé on the evils of the reproductive health industry. My aim has merely been to examine the ethics of ova sales, even in a world where the process proved reliable and medically safe.

Audrey Pollnow is a sophomore majoring in philosophy from Seattle, WA. She can be reached a

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One thought on “The Ethics of Egg Donation

  • May 15, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    This reasoning is really delightfully shoddy for a magazine that has plenty of time to edit its content:

    Mrs. Pollnow’s logic that selling something which should not be taken by force can be extended to many other issues:
    – Slavery is taking labor by force and is inexcusable, ergo labor should never be sold in a market
    – the privacy of the home should never be invaded by force, ergo it is wrong to pay people to film documentaries in their homes
    – wouldn’t adoption and lawful intercourse with someone who does not pay for the act be non-permissible by the same reasoning? What if you sell it for a low price, like a romantic dinner, perhaps?

    She tries to circumvent that objection by an ad hoc argument that stealing an egg secretly could not be remedied by money (which does not address the slavery example just given – slavery is presumably not remediable by paying money). Also: Really? I don’t think everyone feels that way, as having something taken from me without my pain or awareness does not seem problematic and is one of a row of non sequitur in the article.

    The argument completely veers off into farce at the point where she mentions that obviously human sexuality is never for sale anywhere. Ever heard of the Netherlands? So it’s a non sequitur sequence of unrelated concepts of theft and appropriation whose connection is assumed not proven and the transferred as a “parallell” to a case that is not obviously similar unless tautologically assumed to be so.

    Don’t submit this for an ethics class where you actually have to show your assumptions…


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