It’s odd to speak of fertility as an industry, but that is precisely where we find ourselves. In order to meet the demand for embryonic stem cells and for those couples who cannot conceive without help, women and fertility clinics have taken to buying and selling eggs.
It’s a messy business. Not only is it a largely unregulated $3 billion marketplace (try getting away with that in any other industry), but the medical community has largely ignored the effects of superovulation and the extraction of eggs on the women who undergo the process.
Eggsploitation, a documentary by the Center for Bioethics and Culture, sets out to document the stories of several women who did so and experienced severe medical complications as a result. The stories are painful and often disturbing, so the documentary isn’t for the weak of heart. But by concentrating on the risks that such treatments pose for women–treatments, I would note, that nearly all women who participate in IVF undertake–the film opens up a set of questions that few evangelicals writing about the subject seem to ask.
Consider, for instance, this otherwise helpful article from The Gospel Coalition on the factors that couples should weigh when considering fertility treatment. Notice what isn’t there? Any consideration of the women’s health in light of the treatment. In some ways, that’s understandable. Ethicists have a responsibility to deliberate in light of the facts and if the medical community isn’t presenting a critical set, then the deliberation must go forward as it is.
But therein lies the dilemma that Eggsploitation faces: now that fertility has industrialized, the profit incentive means that there is every reason to avoid studies that would be damaging to the industry altogether. What’s more, the fertility industry has the added benefit of being backed by “science” and the widespread cultural blind-spot that invariably comes up when the word is envoked (usually with a mystical tone of voice, as though summoning a specter). We understand this sort of argument when it comes to, say, Wall Street. But our earnest and sincere desire to have children and our incipient scientism make critiques and cautions of the sort Eggsploitation makes rather more difficult to swallow.
Now as regular readers will probably know I admit to a sometimes grim and pessimistic view of the human condition. I am glad to say that in some ways humans today do not commidify each other in quite the same ways we used to. But in other ways human life is still commodified in ways that have been pervasive and in ways that are relatively new thanks to technological innovations. The commodification of human life seems bound to happen in each age of humanity. We no longer commodify people in the same way as earlier periods yet it is hard to assume from this that commodification doesn't happen. Consigning the unborn to the status of disposable property until they are born and thus can grow up to be taxpayers is one way, commodifying fertility is another. And human trafficking is not a small matter.
It's good, of course, that racially based slavery has been eliminated so very real and measurable progress has been made in a number of areas. Women can vote and women are not set to get more advanced degrees then men if trends continue (though if worries about an education bubble are well-founded an advanced degree may not be a good investment). In my job hunting over the last few years I've noticed more than just a handful of advertisements offering money for eggs.
I can't even begin to think I could understand how those issues work out for women because I'm not female. So while my reflex is to feel weird about selling eggs and to have some qualms about the fertility industry as an industry I'm a single guy and maybe single guys know nothing and have no basis for expressing reservations about the possibility of commodifying human life that seems inherent in the fertility industry. The reality is that every human life does ultimately have a price tag even if we tell ourselves we shouldn't measure a human life merely by that price tag. Mostly when I think of these things I remember people from the Old Testament remarking, in so many or few words, "O Lord, we are no better than our ancestors."