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A booming market for sperm, egg cells and embryos

Munich, 06/17/2013

Sociologist Professor Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim studies responses to and repercussions of globalization. At LMU she gave a lecture on reproductive medicine in a global context. 

Foto: arahan /
Foto: arahan /

What impact is reproductive medicine having on parenthood as such?

Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim: Would-be parents now have entirely new options available to them. First of all, thanks to new reproductive technologies, lots of couples who would otherwise be compelled to remain childless for medical reasons can now have a child of their own. But many other categories of people can do so too – single men and single women, postmenopausal women, gays and lesbians with or without a partner, men and women whose partners have died, and parents who have lost an only son or daughter but yearn for grandchildren.


Is this what researchers intended to provide?

Not at all. Their initial interest was in helping couples who wished to have children but were unable to do so owing to blockage of the woman’s Fallopian tubes. The real problems arise from interventions that go much further.

In vitro fertilization was first successfully achieved in Britain in 1978 and initiated a medical revolution. For the first time in human history, a child was born that had been conceived outside its mother’s body. This breakthrough led to the development of a range of variations on the method and then to further technological interventions and manipulations.

Over the past several decades, reproductive medicine has taken enormous strides, thanks to advances in medicine, biology and genetics. These have led, on the one hand, to improvements in the efficiency and applicability of in vitro fertilization with the refinement of freezing techniques and the establishment of sperm banks and, on the other, to increasingly powerful prenatal diagnostic procedures. Today, in vitro fertilization can be combined with the use of donor sperm, donor egg cells and a surrogate mother, and the embryo can be selected on the basis of its sex, and screened for an array of possible genetic defects.


What sorts of challenge does this present?

They raise very basic questions; the most basic is this: Should we make use of all the possibilities that technology now offers? Or is there not a case to be made for imposing limits and outlawing certain applications? Which of the available interventions are compatible with our concepts of justice and human dignity, and serve the best interests of the child, and which are not?

But is that not all covered by the “Embryo Protection Act”?

This Act does indeed lay down definite limits for this country. But there are other countries that have placed far fewer restrictions – or none at all – on the use of the technology. And this has given rise to a kind of “embryo” tourism, the “quest for one’s dream child”. People living in jurisdictions with legal provisions that they regard as excessively restrictive go to countries with less rigorous standards, or none at all. And then we have traffic from countries where the desired procedures are very expensive to places where costs are very much lower. In other words, those whose wishes conflict with the legal norms in their home countries can take advantage of the opportunities that globalization offers, and go somewhere else.

Where exactly?

Take the gay couple in Norway, where surrogacy is illegal. They can look for a surrogate mother in India, where surrogacy is not only permissible but cheap, because millions are unemployed and live in poverty. Or take the 60-year-old woman in Stuttgart or Flensburg, who suddenly develops an overwhelming desire to have a child, and travels to the US to have another woman’s egg implanted in her womb, because donation of egg cells is legal there. Actually, the word “donation” is misleading here, because we are talking about a business transaction. In many countries there is already a booming market for sperm, egg cells and embryos.

The term “market” also sounds strange in this context.

But it is no exaggeration; it is a realistic description of the situation. The price levels are determined by the law of supply and demand. If you want an egg cell from a student at Harvard, because you hope the child will be highly intelligent, you have to fork out more than, say, someone who is satisfied with a shop assistant’s egg cell.

In light of the variety of interventions available in the field of reproductive medicine, how should one proceed?

The central issue is deciding how our society can deal responsibly with the spectrum of new opportunities and new risks. Where should one draw the line? And how do we ensure that these constraints, once defined, are respected, and not avoided simply by crossing a geographical border? In other words, how can we set about formulating agreed guidelines in this area that go beyond the borders of national jurisdictions and are internationally binding?



Prof. Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, Professor of Sociology at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg until 2009, is currently Visiting Professor at Trondheim University.

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