Complex Reproduction: gamete Donation in the Contemporary U.s.

Open Access
Johnson, Katherine
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
February 23, 2012
Committee Members:
  • David R Johnson, Dissertation Advisor
  • Francis Dodoo, Committee Member
  • Michael Paul Johnson, Committee Member
  • Chloe Silverman, Committee Member
  • gamete donation
  • postmodern families
  • reproduction
  • sociology
  • gender
  • feminist research
  • medical markets
Reproduction is a fundamental social process that both shapes and reflects how we as a society feel about the creation of human life, the meaning of parenthood, the value of children, and relationships between different social groups. Reproductive technology is an important aspect of our culture to examine sociologically because it intervenes and disrupts what are often taken-for-granted processes. In this project, I focused on gamete donation and the US fertility industry. Although there has been a great deal of public and scholarly discourse on these topics, there is still a lack of empirical insight that I think is needed in order to further discussions on how these technologies are actually being used and some of the implications of these uses. In this project, I address four major research questions that speak to some of the more controversial social and ethical issues raised by the NRTs: 1) How do organizations in the fertility industry help to create and delineate families? 2) Do they facilitate particular definitions of family? 3) Do egg and sperm donors, as men and women involved in analogous reproductive decision-making, have similar control over donating their reproductive cells? 4) What issues are posed by gamete donation in the context of a medical marketplace? My major research design was based on a content analysis of organizational materials from ART clinics, egg donation agencies, and sperm banks across the US. I chose this approach, as opposed to in-depth interviews with practitioners, in order to gain a more meso-level perspective on the structure and organization of the NRTs. To address the first question, I examine organizational boundary work in creating families out of donors, recipients, and donor-conceived children. I argue that organizations carefully regulate these relationships even as the industry is adopting more open policies. Regarding the second research question, I focus on access to services for lesbian and single women. Although explicit gate keeping is in the past, implicit barriers appear to persist through heteronormative framing of reproductive services. Next I turn to differences between egg and sperm donors in terms of their decision-making autonomy. I find differences in expected partner and family involvement in the donation process, suggesting that egg donors have less control over disposal of their gametes than sperm donors. I argue that this has broader repercussions for women’s bodily and reproductive control. Finally, regarding my fourth question, I examine characteristics associated with two particularly controversial practices in the medical market for human eggs: increasing donor compensation and selective donor recruitment. My results suggest that these practices are influenced by contextual factors, such as local competition, and organizational practices indicative of the increasing commercialization of egg donation. Notably, industry self-regulation does not appear to deter ethically questionable practices. Overall, I stress the need to analyze ‘on the ground’ practices in order to provide a clearer agenda for possible regulation as well as the need for feminist and other scholarly attention to this vast and growing medical industry.