Review of Rene Almeling, “Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm”

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Rene Almeling’s new book, Sex Cells:  The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm, explores the inner workings of the world of donor gametes, and then sets these observations in the larger contexts of gender and commodification.  Almeling, a sociologist at Yale, collected data on six different kinds of donation programs, interviewing staff members as well as egg and sperm donors.  Through this intensive research, she found that the donation programs  emphasized that egg donation involves caring and helping others, and tried to encourage feelings of altruism even though, like sperm “donation,” this too involves money.   Egg donation was framed as a gift, sperm donation as a job.  On the other hand, while egg donors rarely think of themselves as mothers to the offspring who are born from their gametes, sperm donors consistently think of themselves as fathers to any resulting children. This may, she speculates, be the result of cultural norms concerning the causal relationship between sperm and fatherhood that differ when it comes to eggs and motherhood:  women experience substantial interventions before an egg turns into a baby (nine months of pregnancy and the birth process).  Indeed, Almeling found that egg donors (more than sperm donors) are quite conscious of the recipients of their gametes, and accord great significance to the role of the woman who actually gestates and bears the child.

Ultimately, Almeling concludes that commodification is a social process, and, in the gamete world,  the market draws on cultural understandings of biological differences  to satisfy consumer demand for eggs and sperm. The book marvelously shows both how gender shapes the donation process  for the egg agencies and sperm banks as well as for the  gamete providers, and how the donation process is framed by the intersecting rhetorical devices of gift and market.

-Naomi Cahn

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