Leaving the nation in search for foreign (?) eggs – The re-production of “German-ness”
Egg donations remain criminalised in Germany (Embryo Protection Act 1990). My research project will investigate how this legal prohibition reflects German national ideas of motherhood and reproduction. The study will be based on in-depth interviews with German policy makers, reproductive clinicians and Germans who travel abroad for egg donations.
First of all, what is an egg donation? And who needs it?
Advanced age (35+), illnesses and genetic diseases may be reasons why women cannot use their own eggs for a healthy pregnancy. Egg donations provide a way in which a woman can still experience pregnancy and have a healthy child.
A classic example: I want to have a child. But I’m 40 years old and my egg cells cannot be used anymore. As such, I look for a woman, ideally under 30 years old, who is willing to donate her egg cells.
This could be a friend or an egg donor. A fertility clinic may help me find an egg donor. Those countries that allow egg donations have different rules on how egg donors may be compensated.
For example, some countries like Austria and Canada prohibit any sort of donor compensation. The UK allows up to 750 pounds travel compensation. The US allow up to 10,000 USD.
If I choose to get an egg donor via a clinic, I usually get a questionnaire on which I can indicate preferences regarding hair / eye colour, BMI, ethnicity, education background, hobbies etc.
Once a suitable donor has been found, the donor’s egg cells are fertilised with my husband’s* sperm cells in a petri dish. The resulting embryo is implanted into my uterus.
If all goes well, I become pregnant and have a baby. Genetically, it is the donor’s child; but since I carry and bear the child, in a way, it is my biological child, too.
*Most countries require you to be married to undergo the procedure. Only few countries allow it for homosexual couples.
Why are egg donations prohibited in Germany?
And this fact, namely that there are ‘two’ biological mothers – one genetic and one gestational mother – is why the German law prohibits egg donations:
The justification for this prohibition is that egg cell donations are thought to “divide motherhood”, which is considered to be “to the detriment of the child’s well-being” and is believed to “inhibit the child’s healthy self-development”(German Medical Association 1996).
This idea of ‘divided motherhood’ only exists in the German cultural context. There is no scientific basis for it.
It will thus be a guiding theme of my thesis to unpack this idea, trace it, follow it.
What is the consequence of this prohibition?
The German Embryo Protection Act (EPA, 1991) prohibits the medical act of facilitating an egg donation, however, it does not punish the woman who receives another woman’s egg cell.
As such, a German woman who undergoes the egg donation treatment abroad will not be punished for this.
Consequently, a few hundred Germans travel abroad every year in order to receive egg donations, mostly to Spain, the Czech Republic and Austria.
Defying the German law – Guiding themes & research questions
In my research, I will be guided by the following questions:
How do German couples travelling abroad for an egg donation feel about the German law? How do they come to reach the conclusion to defy the German law by travelling elsewhere to get an egg? Does this mean that it is more important for them to have a child than to fulfil their country’s legal idea of ‘what’s right’?
Can this scenario be compared to Antigone’s position, who follows her own moral compass, which she considers superior to the law of her land? After all, German travelling abroad for an egg cell donations reject the law of ‘their land’ to get an egg cell donation elsewhere.
So it would be interesting to find out: How do people reach that conclusion, how do they reflect on what they have done? What is their theory of reproduction? What is their theory of national identity, of the law?
Finally – looking at Germans going abroad in defiance of German law to use foreign services to have a German baby, I want to know: What kind of personal, national identity does this baby have? What kind of personal national parenthood is that?
Short recap – what others have said on reproductive travelling
There is a limited number of qualitative and ethnographic studies that have advanced our understanding of decision-making processes in the context of reproductive travel globally (for example, Inhorn 1994, 2015; Gurtin 2011; Pfeffer 2011; Nahmann 2013), but very few in the German context (Bergman 2010, Bergman 2012).
Indeed, there is no study on Germans travelling to another German-speaking country for egg cell donations. As such, my work will make a contribution to fill this gap.
Existing literature includes Marcia Inhorn’s work on reproductive travelling (1994; 2011; 2015), in which she uses the idea of the ‘fertility journey’, which will be highly useful for my own research. In Marcia’s first book Quest for Conception (1994), she makes an implicit analogy between the quest for a child and a pilgrimage.
What is interesting about this concept of pilgrimage is that it is not about getting to a point, but really it is about the state of mind, of being on the journey. The book pertinently raises questions, such as, what does it mean to go on a fertility journey? And what does wanting a child mean phenomenologically?
As Sarah Franklin (1997) demonstrates, the pursuit of having a child can to a certain extent fulfil the goal of having a child itself. This is because while you are on that journey toward parenthood you are more aligned with other parents; even if they are not having a baby, you can still be baby-focused.
What is the value of the research?
As Franklin also points out that there is not a good language for how people describe this kind of agency, how they describe the justification of their behaviour (of travelling abroad for fertility treatment) and the moral basis for it.
Part of my task in my research will thus be to characterise these subjective and affective dimensions of a fertility journey.
In this research I see the potential to name, describe and analyse a specific kind of fertility journey that also has more generalisable implications.
This is because one of the implications is that there is a law of procreation – a personal law of procreation – which is more compelling than the national law of what you may call reproductive ethics or morality.
Methods – How I go about
To find interviewees for my project, I have set up a website www.eispende.com (German only). It describes the study, its aim and what will happen in the interview in detail. I share the website on social media, internet forums etc.
I am also attending public events in Germany that revolve around reproductive technologies. For example, I had a stall at the first German fertility show in Berlin in February 2017, where about 15 people signed up to be interviewed.
Finally, I have a cooperation with fertility clinics that help me get in touch with Germans who travel abroad for egg donations.
To learn more about the study and who can participate, go to www.eispende.com (German only).
Here you can learn more about who I am.
Questions, feedback, ideas? Drop me an email at yiif2 (at) cam.ac.uk.
Bergman, S. ‘Reproductive agency and projects: Germans searching for egg donation in Spain and the Czech Republic’. Reproductive BioMedicine Online, Volume 23 , Issue 5 , 600 – 608.
Franklin S. 1997. Embodied Progress: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception. London: Routledge
Franklin, S. and Lock, M. 2003. Remaking Life and Death: Toward an Anthropology of the Biosciences. Oxford: John Murray.
German Medical Association [Bundesärztekammer]. 1998. ‘Richtlinien zur Nutzung von assistierten Technologien’ [Guidelines by the German Mecial Association for new assisted reproductive technologies]. Available online https://www.kvbb.de/fileadmin/kvbb/dam/praxis/qualitaet/genehmigungspflichtige%20leistungen/kuenstliche_befruchtung/kuenstbefrucht_pdf. accessed 3-5-2016
Inhorn, M. 1994. Quest for Conception. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Inhorn, M., 2011. ‘Diasporic dreaming: return reproductive tourism to the Middle East’. Reprod. Biomed. Online 23, 582–592.
Inhorn, M. 2015. Cosmopolitan conceptions: IVF sojourns in global Dubai. Durham: Duke University Press.
EPA, Embryo Protection Act [Embryonenschutzgesetz]. 1991. Available online http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/cae/servlet/contentblob/480804/publicationFile/5162/EmbryoProtectionAct.pdf accessed on 1/1/2016.
 www.ots.at/presseaussendung/OTS_20160929_OTS0143/legalisierung-der-eizellspende-boom-in-oesterreich-und-grosse-nachfrage-aus-deutschland-bild 12/11/2016