Eggsploitation. Directed by Justin Baird and Jennifer Lahl. Pleasant Hill, CA: The Center for Bioethics and Culture, 2013. 45 minutes.
Maggie’s Story. Directed by Jennifer Lahl. Pleasant Hill, CA: The Center for Bioethics and Culture, 2015. 23 minutes.
Justin Baird and Jennifer Lahl’s 2013 documentary Eggsploitation addresses the demand for “donor” eggs within the assisted reproductive technology (ART) market, the way it exploits donors via advertising and marketing and the harmful impact that egg donation can have on donor women’s bodies.1 It applies a critical lens to a practice that has been described to potential donors as being a minimal risk: in a series of interviews, Lahl and Baird highlight the harm that young, fertile women have experienced from serving as egg donors. This film thus brings attention to a now standard practice that has become an unquestioned aspect of the ART market. As Lahl and Baird note, since 1979, with the birth of the first in vitro fertilization (IVF) baby in the UK, ART techniques and interventions have rapidly expanded. ART has become a booming industry in which high-tech infertility services have spread globally and countries are competing to draw international consumers for these services. This expansion has brought an increased demand for donor eggs: many individuals and couples require donor eggs to proceed with IVF and other assisted reproduction techniques. Eggs are also needed for biomedical research, presenting even more opportunities for women to undergo the risks associated with egg harvesting.
Lahl and Baird’s feminist critique of this market for women’s eggs also addresses the monetary offers that render questionable donors’ informed consent.2 This documentary poses the questions “are we fulfilling one woman’s dream at the expense of another’s health or life?” and “are we willing to advance scientific research even if it compromises a young woman’s health?” The answer to both, it seems, is “yes.” Eggsploitation is commendable in its attempt to raise awareness about the lack of research into the risks undertaken by donors, but it presents a very narrow perspective on the issue. More recent feminist analyses of egg donation and other applications of ART reject the depiction of women as mere “dupes” and instead emphasize the complexity of their choices within an expanding reproductive market.3 This documentary, by contrast, presents only the viewpoints of those who are critical of ART and particularly egg donation.
Maggie’s Story focuses on a thirty-three-year-old woman who served as an egg donor in her twenties. This extended interview brings forth in a focused and personalized way the concerns that Eggsploitation raises, linking Maggie’s diagnosis with stage 4 breast cancer—a condition for which she had none of the risk factors—with her previous service as an egg donor. Since few studies focus on the long-term effects of egg donation (which require hormone injections that encourage the production—and over-production—of oocytes), the health risks associated with it remain unknown. The industry claims that “there are no known health risks” associated with egg donation, which young donors take to mean “there are no health risks” when agreeing to do it. Yet Maggie provides one example of a woman whose cancer may be correlated with the hormone injections she received as an egg donor.
Both documentaries highlight the (willful?) lack of research surrounding the health effects of egg donation, which results in a lack of informed consent for the women who serve as donors. They also depict ART as a multi-billion-dollar industry with a strong interest in ensuring the availability of eggs for its client base; there is thus a disincentive to carry out clinical studies on the long-term risks associated with egg donation. If ignorance prevails, clinics can continue to advertise that the practice bears “no known health risks.” Eggsploitation and Maggie’s Story attempt to correct this ignorance by highlighting potential consequences, such as ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (or OHSS), that are associated with the practice.
In the end it is not clear what these documentaries are recommending, though there is a strong anti-egg-harvesting message and a call to research its long-term effects. Despite their limited view of egg donation, they offer strong feminist critiques of this practice and its potentially harmful impact on women. As such, they are useful for sparking discussions in feminist classrooms about medical and economic contexts surrounding the use of women’s bodies in the practice of ART.
1 I put the term “donor” in scare quotes because it is a misnomer for the practice of paid egg vending in the United States. As Lahl and Baird note, egg “donors” receive monetary offers—often large ones—as an inducement to undergo the egg retrieval process.
2 For other critiques of the egg donation industry in the United States see Katie O’Reilly, “Egged On: The Commodified Altruism of the Assisted-Reproduction Industry,” bitchmedia, June 28, 2016.
3 For example, see Alana Cattapan “Precarious Labour: On Egg Donation as Work,” Studies in Political Economy: A Socialist Review 97, no. 3 (2016): 234-52; Diane Tober, “The Politics of Women’s Eggs,” Undark, June 10, 2016. Some feminists have recently endorsed other novel reproductive interventions like ectogenesis; see Kathryn MacKay, “The ‘Tyranny of Reproduction’: Could Ectogenesis Further Women’s Liberation?” Bioethics 34, no. 4 (2020): 346-53.