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Eggsploitation: Giving Voice to the Women hurt by the Fertility Industry

March 29th, 2012 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

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Few issues are more sensitive than those surrounding infertility and our attempts to overcome it.

Because infertility is so rarely talked about (or talked about badly), it's easy for younger married folks to assume the process will go smoothly.  Consider Facebook:  you see the baby photos and the birth announcements, but never the fertility test results.  Those friends from high school and college who show up in your stream, pregnant and overjoyed, may have been through all manner of things to arrive at that point.  But except in the very closest of friendships, we only see the results and only rarely the process.

But for many couples, the process of infertility brings them into a sector of society and the economy that is fraught with ethical perils.

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.

That all sounds a bit conspiratorial and the truth is usually much more boring than all that.  And the film isn't about the medical industry's reluctance to study the question per se as much as the need to study it in light of the growing body of anecdotes raising problems.

But it does highlight the dilemma the viewer faces in watching Eggsploitation.  It is only one side of the story and has come under criticism for it (read also the comments, where Jennifer Lahl admirably defends the work).  But given the lack of studies and documentation around the women who have undergone the process, viewers are left with the dilemma of incorporating the anecdotes into their decision making process.

The film, then, is not itself an argument for or against so much as a strong caution and a means of introducing into the broader conversation a new set of questions and concerns around IVF and the buying and selling of eggs.  And as such, it is worth every penny of your support and every minute of your time.


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.