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What’s special about selling gametes?

Dominic Wilkinson posted yesterday on the issue of whether payment for egg and sperm donation should be legalised. This question attracted significant media attention yesterday after Lisa Jardine, of the HFEA, called for debate on the existing UK ban on payment for donors. Today's Guardian contains a piece highlighting several ways in which people can already sell their bodily parts or products, ranging from livers to breast milk, and from blood to hair. Sale of many of these bodily parts/products is regarded is ethically problematic, and is, in many cases, illegal. But not in all cases. For example, few would have a problem with the sale of hair for use in wigs.

It's not difficult to see why egg and sperm sale might be regarded as more problematic than sale of hair. Firstly, we typically attach great significance to our gametes (eggs and sperm), in virtue of their capacity to create children. Second, donation of gametes comes at significant cost to the donor, at least in the case of egg donation which involves hormonal hyperstimulation of the ovaries. Sperm donation is less intrusive, though at least some might view it as involving some harm to the donor – for example, perhaps many would regard it as a harm to be unacquainted with one's own genetic offspring.

Neither their signficance nor the harms involved in their donation sets gametes apart from other 'goods' that we happily allow people to sell, however. People may sell treasured family heirlooms, despire the significance they attach to them. And virtually everyone in the labour market sells the use of his or her mental and physical capacities, though these too are highly significant to us. We are also permitted to sell goods when doing so causes some harm. I could sell my services as an asbestos remover, even though this may have negative effects on my health. Arguably, almost every sale of anything involves a harm to the seller. Not an overall harm, since the harm of losing the good sold is typically more than offset by the benefit of the monetary compensation. But a harm nonetheless. It's easy to see that the financial compensation garnered through selling one's eggs or sperm might also more-than-offset any harm involved.

It's interesting to think about what else might be special about gametes – special enough to justify a ban on their sale when we allow the sale of so many other things.

One suggestion might be that gametes are special because human reproduction is a realm in which people ought, at least ideally, to be motivated by things other than financial advantage (for example, by love). Producing or procuring gametes is, however, merely part of the process of human reproduction. Allowing the sale of gametes is consistent with leaving the overall reproducitive process outside of the economic sphere. Think of a case in which a person sells her eggs to be used by a couple who are very much in love and who have a natural desire to have a family. Arguably, this case is little different from one in which certain components in the reproductive process are achieved through market transactions (think of the sale of match-making services, or of IVF) while the crucial decision to reproduce remains a matter of love. Sale of match-making and IVF services may be somewhat controversial, but few would argue that they should be banned.

A second suggestion would be that buying and selling of gametes would simply make the provision of assisted reproduction services too expensive. if we can get gametes free of charge, through donation, why pay to get those same gametes plus a few more? However, this argument assumes that when payment changes hands, there's not a net cost to the world. In fact, there may simply be a reallocation of goods from one person to another. In the case of gamete sales, there would be a reallocation of money from the gamete recipient to the gamete 'donor'. It's not clear why this re-allocation should be regarded as a net loss, particularly since the trade of money for gametes is likely, in many cases, to be a mutually beneficial one.

Of course, the sale of gametes might not always be beneficial for both buyer and seller, and this brings us to what may be the strongest objection to gamete sale. It's easy to imagine cases in which someone in dire straits sells his or her gametes out of desperation for cash in the short term. Though the sale might fulfill some short term need of the seller, it might, in the long run, constitute a net harm. Such exploitation of the desperate is ethically objectionable. It's also an endemic feature of capitalism. Similar problems famously arise in prostitution, but also in the labour market more generally (those in desperate need of money often have to accept demeaning, dangerous, or painfully boring jobs). It's not clear, in these other areas, that the best way to prevent such exploitation is to exclude whole areas of human enterprise from the capitalist realm. Rather, the right response may simply be to introduce safeguards. Only if no safeguards would be adequate to prevent exploitation in the sale of gametes would a ban on such sales be the obvious solution.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Sales of human parts has become a matter of greed in the USA. We have for example UCLA that now twice has been caught selling body parts illegally. We have this shadow to deal with in all issues.

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