March 13, 2007

Ads Target Females

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Advertisements soliciting egg donations from women at Cornell often appear in the classifieds section of The Sun from companies specializing in ovum donation and surrogacy services.

Many of the advertisements specify qualities of desired egg donors such as religion, eye-color, age, lifestyle and SAT score. While the ads serve a good purpose in helping infertile families, they also pose moral and ethical dilemmas. Should people be in the business of marketing their eggs? Should prospective parents be screening children on the basis of race, physical attributes, and intelligence?

Along with many other Ivy League schools, Cornell is a popular choice for infertile families to look for donors.

According to Darlene Pinkerton, owner and executive director of A Perfect Match, one company that solicits egg donations from Cornell students, “The amount of women to respond to the ads varies from school to school. Some schools give us five or less, and other schools give us 10 or more. The Ivies provide the least amount of donors because they have so many donor ads running at any given time, whereas some of the other schools we advertise in are not seeing the large amount of donor ads placed, so it really does bring it to the attention of young women considering donation.”

Many of the families looking for egg donors are willing to pay a substantial price for the desired ovum. While enticing to the donors, the high monetary value raises ethical questions.

Prof. Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue, development sociology and demography said, “One could decide to single out this specific ad for censure. But to do that would not help us understand how this ad came to be, and it would ignore the reality that there is a large market for ads like this one. Debra Spar, the author of The Baby Business estimates that even six years ago, roughly 6,000 babies were born from donated eggs, with top-notch eggs fetching a much as $50,000.”

Pinkerton, who works closely with both the donors and the infertile families, said, “I see that money is the primary motivating factor for most applicants in the beginning, maybe they see it as a way of paying off student debt, but I also see that once a woman is chosen by a family, the focus really does change. Now, there is a real person to whom they are donating, and it really does become more about helping that person become a parent.”

The issues circulating egg donation through these ads were posed to the Developmental Sociology 201 class entitled Population Dynamics. Students discussed the ethics surrounding egg donation.

“This is a very tricky way to earn money because at the time you are only looking for the money, but as you mature, it brings up more issues,” said Emily Klubock ’08.

Ray Panetta ’07 agreed. “The high price is unethical because it draws many people in who might not know what they’re getting in to. It may be better to have a lower price to get women who want to donate, rather than women who just want money.”

Sean Wrona ‘07, said, “I think this is a slippery slope onto the road to eugenics, but I also question who is going to give a ‘high quality’ egg for only $20,000?”

Pinkerton explains that while the monetary value involved in soliciting egg donations is considerable and plays a role in the donation process, “all the money in the world won’t make a woman do this unless she wants to help. That is what sustains her through the tough parts of the process.”

Besides the issue of placing a “price” on life, the ethics involved in specifying traits is also an issue that is surfaced with this ad. Specific qualities in the donor are requested and often strongly sought after by infertile families. Both eugenics and mating patterns are factors that sway this issue in opposite directions.

“In part the impetus for this market can be found in old and universal concerns on the part of prospective parents. Throughout history, parents have tried to achieve reproductive success by mating with successful partners or having large progenies. They have passed their advantages to offspring through nurture and bequests They have tried to reduce uncertainty over the types of children they would have, through assortative mating or by picking the time or year during which to have children,” Professor Eloundou-Enyegue explains, “We are accustomed to these practices, and do not readily view them as screening. We might not find the ad offensive if it involved a single woman looking for “a bright Cornell grad,” a financially secure man, or a tall and handsome person.”

Literature shows examples of less obvious racial and economic screening in dating and marriages. The fact that it might be innate human behavior to screen for offspring is an issue people tend to overlook. While specifying traits in an ad is a more obvious form of screening, Pinkerton said, “When someone is blonde throughout their extended family, they will specify blonde. When someone is Asian they specify Asian, the same with Jewish. The advertising families are very highly educated, so they seek donors who match them in this manner, and they do this by advertising at higher tiered schools or they will specify ‘high SAT’ in their ad. This isn’t done to enhance their gene pool as many people suggest. I work with highly educated women and this is one of the important aspects for them when choosing a donor.”

“They really do want to match themselves in as many ways possible. [Infertile families] usually pick a donor who is very, very similar in looks. They do look at education, but they also look to see a family resemblance, family ethnicity, and hobbies, anything that will help them ‘connect’ to the applicant.”

“I once matched a woman to a donor who was in the same university the intended mom graduated from, was in the same sorority, had the same major, and looked so much like the intended mom that even the donor’s mom couldn’t really tell from behind which was her daughter and which was the mom. Not all matches are quite that close, but most have many things in common.”

The many issues circulating this topic are debated back and forth, with pros and cons for each issue.

Professor Eloundou-Enyegue explained both sides of the ethical dilemma when he said, “Of course, individual needs are often out-of-sync with societal needs and the social consequences of this practice must be considered. The possible realms of these consequences include inequality and reduced diversity.”

While A Perfect Match places such ads at schools across the nation, here at Cornell another DSOC 201 student Andrea Forrest ‘08 says, “We are a fairly liberal school. It should be at the discretion of the reader whether or not they pay attention to or pursue the opportunity.”

This ad proposes many issues that society has yet to face. The importance of this issue and its cause, however, cannot be overlooked. Infertility is a very serious problem in this country.

According to Pinkerton, “Women are waiting too long to have babies because they haven’t been told that a woman’s fertility peaks around age 27. They do not choose to be infertile, and they are truly grateful to any woman who is willing to help them become a family through donation.”