Should Australia have a free market for eggs and sperm?

Should women be paid to donate their eggs?


A 20-something woman is desperately struggling to pay her rent. She works as a freelance writer but the income isn’t cutting it, so she makes a fraught decision to sell her body.

In the traditional sense “selling your body” means sex work but this isn’t a story about prostitution. This is a story about a girl who wanted to sell her body parts. Specifically, her eggs.

In the USA, women can legally “donate” their eggs for financial compensation of up to $10,000 per cycle.

And egg donation is no easy business. The women who are involved, certainly earn their money.  A typical donor must have a full physical examination, ultrasounds, blood tests, genetic tests, access to family medical records, take fertility medications and go through egg retrieval.

But for women who are struggling financially, $10,000 is not just a lot of money – it can be life changing – and it is absolutely worth it.

In a recent article for Slate Magazine, Kaye Cain-Nielson wrote about her reasons for signing up for egg donation- namely the $8000 compensation and the allure of a “freedom from debt”.*

Kaye Cain-Nielson

I could use the money. I could assess the risks as abstractions: Who is to say that I would rage uncontrollably at the excessive doses of hormones? Would it be so bad? Would cancer be so bad? What seemed less abstract was my need to eat, have shelter, and the luxury of time to live rather than simply work, work, work.

Egg donation, as an option, can be seen at once demeaning and empowering: A job that no one else but a woman can have — or rather, a racially pre-selected, usually white, struggling, middle-class, educated woman — can have.

For the infertile, the homosexual, the single, and the well-to-do, egg donation is another of the joyous luxuries of modern science.

The egg donation industry is perhaps the only industry in the USA where the number of ‘jobs’ currently outweighs the number of applicants. But the wait for those couples who are seeking a donor egg is absolutely nothing compared to the situation in Australia.

Here at home it’s illegal to pay for any type of human tissue. So payments for eggs or sperm like the $10,000 figures that are offered in the US, is out of the question.

There can be small compensation offered to donors to cover expenses incurred (such as travel and time spent away from work) but it’s definitely not something that could be considered income.

The situation is different for men’s reproductive products though; sperm donors are given about $300 per donation and they can donate five times.


But then there’s this catch. The thing about egg donation in Australia – and it’s the same story for sperm donation – is that the law requires donors to make their identity available to conceived children (if that’s what the child wants), once the child turns 18.

The result? The number of egg donors in Australia is extremely low. Very low. And so many couples who are seeking a donor egg, are forced to turn to clinics overseas where the laws around incentivising egg and sperm donation are more flexible.

The question is, if there was a financial incentive here in Australia would women be more inclined to go through the process and help others get pregnant? The answer is, probably yes.

Last year, the UK changed its laws so that women now receive some limited compensation for donating their eggs – around $1000 – and the number of donations surged. The UK press reported that “Clinics that once had waiting lists of up to 18 months are now boasting none at all, meaning childless couples desperate for IVF treatment can start the process straight away.”

But while donating your eggs can be a wonderful gift to the receiving couple, allowing them to start a family they may never otherwise have had… what about the ethics involved? What does it mean to monetise the sale of eggs and sperm? Would this ‘paid donation’ system just be the first step towards a full blown market for other human products…. like organs?

This article from The Conversation looked at what the implications of monetary compensation would mean for egg donors – and recipients.

Is paying women for their eggs exploitation?

There are generally two arguments against compensation: women might be exploited if they are offered large sums of money to donate; and paying donors for eggs commodifies the human body, meaning it turns it in to a product to be sold in the marketplace.

Getting paid a lot of money to donate eggs could be tempting for women to donate. But this does not mean it’s necessarily coercive or exploitative.

If we view payment as compensation for a donor’s inconvenience and risk and not payment for a product (eggs), then it would be impossible to justify the high sums paid to donors in the US, for example, because every donor is equally inconvenienced by the process.

Furthermore, the majority of egg donors in the West are middle class women. So it’s unlikely that the “typical” donor in Australia has “no choice” but to sell her eggs.

The bottom line is that if payments that are too high “exploit” women, then payments that are too low or non-existent are equally exploitative. Why is it that egg donors are expected to act altruistically when everyone else involved in the process is compensated for their work?

Would you ever consider donating your eggs? Under what circumstances? Would you donate your eggs to a stranger for $10,000? What would the reasons be for your decision?

*In the end, Kaye Cain-Nielson decided not to go ahead with the donation. “Thankfully the rest of my body and my mind still work, and I do not need to risk the dissolution of those two organs to rent out my uterus at a premium just yet.”