Creativity and Body Parts

Science, technology, and life.
March 5 2009 9:36 AM

Creativity and Body Parts

An update on the human egg market, courtesy of

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Drawn by payments of up to $10,000, an increasing number of women are offering to sell their eggs at U.S. fertility clinics as a way to make money amid the financial crisis. ... The Center for Egg Options in Illinois has seen a 40 percent increase in egg donor inquiries since the start of 2008. New York City's Northeast Assisted Fertility Group said interest had doubled and the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine said it had received 10 percent more inquiries.

One clinic's egg donation manager explains that the bad economy "encourages women to find creative ways to make money." It's an interesting use of the word creative . In this case, two kinds of creativity seem to be involved. One is the invention of egg donation in the first place. Selling eggs was impossible until doctors learned how to extract, preserve, fertilize, and transfer them for successful implantation. These breakthroughs made eggs transferrable and commercially valuable.

The second kind of creativity goes hand in hand with the first. You don't normally think of selling your body's parts or products. But bad times can make you think hard. One reason you might not have thought of selling something from your body is that the idea felt unnatural or somehow made you uncomfortable. But for $5,000, with bills to pay and no other income prospects, you decide you can get over those feelings .

Economics clearly drives the donation market. Two years ago, Reuters notes, a study found that the average payment to an egg donor in the United States was $4,216. But the average sperm donor in New York City gets only $60 per deposit. And sperm banks, unlike egg donation programs, are reporting no recent increase in donations. The money's not good enough.

The next question is whether money can persuade you to donate not just a body product, but a body part. In principle, half the world's kidneys are expendable. People are already buying and selling them on the global market, regardless of laws. Some reformers are proposing to replace this black market with a regulated system of incentives ranging from $15,000 to $40,000 . If $5,000 is enough to make people think creatively about donating their eggs, $15,000 might well be enough to do the same for kidneys.