“7 days for 20,000 pounds!” Have you ever imagined that there could be such a well-paid job in the world? It is not like a trader in an investment bank, because this job does not require overnight work and frequent business travel. It is not a position for a business owner, because this job does not require engagement in tedious board meetings and business negotiations. It is not like a drug dealer either, because taking this job does not really violate state laws. Sounds attractive? What kind of job is it? It is called, egg producers from prestigious universities.
Five years ago, I received an offer from Peking University, which is the best university in China. Ready to embrace my new college life, I was surprised to receive similar leaflets almost every week in my mailbox. In fact, the leaflets were everywhere around campus including in students’ mailboxes and on poles. The leaflets depicted a desperate infertile mother looking for eggs from an altruistic girl who is healthy, highly educated and good looking. The mother is so rich that she is willing to compensate the girl 20,000 pounds for medical expenditures and nutrition fees. The leaflets stress that the egg retrieval process only takes 7 days and causes no harm or pain.
The advertisement sounds enticing. The average annual salary for graduates from Peking University is around 20,000 pounds. It is astonishing that my eggs when commercialized are also highly valued. Why are eggs of girls from prestigious universities so expensive?
In 2003, the Chinese government issued The National Regulations on Assisted Reproductive Technologies. The National Regulations ban the commodification of eggs. It is illegal to buy or sell human eggs. Though the National Regulations permit egg donation, only women who are taking IVF treatment are able to donate their surplus eggs. The donation should be voluntary and altruistic. Hospitals will only compensate donors for their travel and medical fees instead of paying them. Therefore, few patients are willing or have surplus eggs to donate. The Third Hospital of Peking University, which is a leading hospital in assisted reproductive technology (ART) treatment, tried to establish an egg bank in China in 2005 but failed for lack of donated eggs. As a result, there is currently an egg crisis in China. Patients have to wait for 5 to 10 years to secure donated eggs. Due to the unsatisfied desire to achieve parenthood of many couples, the underground trade in eggs is prosperous in China.
In order to skirt the National Regulations, illegal clinics write “nutrition subsidies” rather than “payment” and characterize egg producers as “volunteers” on their leaflets. Even while the leaflets try to convince college girls that they are doing good deeds by selling their eggs, the illegal clinics make great profits through the underground egg trade. The main motivation for those college girls is to “help” desperate mothers and earn money. Another way for illegal clinics to whitewash the underground egg trade is to portray egg selling as employment. Desperate but rich mothers are the employers. They provide subsidies for college girls’ labor, which is egg production. No matter how the leaflets veil the fact that the underground egg exchange is commercial, it involves monetary value assignment. How does the black market assigns value to the eggs of girls from prestigious colleges?
In her book The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception, Deborah Spa (2006) discusses the popularity of “selling” eggs to legal clinics among female students from prestigious universities in the U.S. In addition to checking the health status of those girls, clinics value egg donors’ appearance, education and race. Eggs of girls from Harvard University will receive higher compensation than eggs of girls from community universities. Eggs of white college girls are more popular than eggs of black college girls. The compensation difference between Harvard students’ eggs and community university students’ eggs is not based on the health status of their eggs but on the social imagination of their eggs. Eggs fulfill people’s imagination of the appearance, personalities, and intelligence of new-born babies. Future parents envision the qualities of the babies from the eggs. If the egg donors have a prestigious education background, the buyers believe they can produce smart babies with their eggs. Society values qualities such as a high education background and beauty. Women who are good looking and highly educated earn higher salaries in companies because they fit the imagination of what talented and capable employees look like. They receive more gifts for marriage, because men imagine those girls as qualified wives. In this sense, though the black market is very much illegal, it echoes how things are valued in regular society. The black market replicates the value assignment rules in regular society and even engages in social discrimination.
The higher value placed on prestigious college students raises another interesting question. Even in the black market, we seldom assign value discriminately to organs and blood. A kidney from a Peking University student will not be more expensive than a kidney from a student in a community school. Why do we treat eggs differently? The social imagination process still works here. We consider organs and tissues only as parts of the human body. The only criteria to decide whether organs are valuable is their compatibility with human bodies. We cannot dig out any other cultural and social meanings, codes or values from organs and tissues. However, people make direct connections between eggs and human beings. Even if future parents cannot see the eggs with their naked eyes, they believe the eggs represent the qualities that egg donors own and hence will reflect the qualities of their children in the future. Therefore, when eggs are traded in the black market, not only the eggs are valued but also the people who own the eggs. This effect is similar to the add-on value of a luxury brand. We pay a large amount of money not for the bag itself but also the personal characteristics such as wealth and superior taste that can label owners.
The advertisement emphasizes earning money without pain, but the egg retrieval process is risky. Since women need to take ovary stimulants to ripen more eggs in one cycle, it is possible for them to get ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, causing edema, ascites and pulmonary embolism. In some cases, egg retrieval might even cause bleeding or necrosis. In such circumstances, women will become infertile. Also, frequently ripening multiple eggs in one cycle will increase the possibility of early menopause. Even worse, since those college girls trade eggs in the black market, illegal clinics seldom sign contracts with those girls. Those girls have no legal resources if the surgery causes harm. Safety is not guaranteed in illegal clinics.
To avoid the underground egg trade and protect college girls, some feminists in China propose liberalizing the current restrictions on egg donation by allowing all women to donate their eggs and compensating them for the donation. However, even if the government legalizes donation programs to recruit egg donors and compensate them, value assignment still occurs in these programs. In this sense, value assignation becomes normalized and institutionalized because these programs are legal and acceptable. The legalization cannot prevent college girls from “donating” their eggs for monetary reasons. The issues are not black or white when it comes to the question of is it good to liberalize egg donation. Legislation or abandoning a legislation involves conflict among different social forces such as feminists, officials and clinicians. Obviously, there is no simple answer to who will win.
Spar, D. (2006). The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.