A Post-structural Analysis of Female Egg Donation in New Zealand
Since the introduction of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) in the 1980s, such practices have become increasingly commonplace internationally. In New Zealand alone, egg donation (ED) accounts for approximately ten per cent of all treatment cycles at fertility centres. New Zealand differs to many other jurisdictions in that anonymous donation is prohibited. This is enforced by the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology (HART) Act 2004, which recognizes the rights of offspring to have access to their genetic information. Donor-conceived individuals can access this information at age of majority, or earlier by application. Research suggests that ED involves potential complexities around donors’ motivations, experiences of ED, disclosure arrangements, and contact between the donor and recipient family. Psychological support is generally provided for egg donors to aid them in decision-making, navigating implications and dealing with adversities that may arise, however this support is often deemed inadequate by women and families in New Zealand and internationally. Research exploring the complexities of ED and women and families’ support needs in the New Zealand context is relatively limited. Therefore, the current inquiry aimed to explore egg donors’ motivations and experiences to better understand how preparation and support around this process could be provided for them, and to inform policy and practice.
Ten women donors who had donated their eggs to someone known or previously unknown in New Zealand were interviewed about their motivations and experiences of ED. A post-structural feminist discourse analysis approach was adopted to identify the discourses surrounding ED in New Zealand, how these ‘frame’ ED and make available subject positions for women, how women take up or critique these positions, and how power operated to enable and constrain possibilities for women in these positions. The implications of these discourses for women’s experiences, wellbeing and support needs were also explored.
Converging and competing discourses were identified in the findings. A dominant genetic discourse was identified, which enabled woman egg donors’ to assume a more involved position in the ED process as an extended relative, but could jeopardise the recipients’ position. A contesting altruism discourse was also identified, which minimized donors’ position following ED, and made available uninvolved/unattached positions, such as the ‘bystander’. From these positions, competing constructions of donors as ‘mothers’ or ‘not mothers’ arose. Women positioned themselves in various ways that exhibited a constant drawing near and distancing process in relation to the donor-conceived child (DCC) and the DCC’s family, which indicated discomfort with the positions available to them.
The findings demonstrate how women grapple with a genetic discourse to negotiate a role in the ED process. In this study, women are trying to find ways to care for/relate to children and families, in the context of some restrictive constraints that need not be such barriers. A genetic discourse was assumed and resisted in womens’ construction of eggs, the DCC, and the ED process. In this construction of eggs, this assume/resist action suggests there are tensions in the attachment women hold for their eggs, which evoked conflicting emotions for donors. In the construction of the DCC, donors drew on the genetic discourse to draw near and resisted the discourse to distance themselves from the DCC. This can be seen as a form of self-protection, suggesting that although women desire a level of involvement, too much involvement may be difficult for women. In the construction of ED, women drew on a genetic discourse to highlight that donating genetic material carried significant weight, in terms of ongoing consequences. Donors, therefore, resisted the discourse to enable their decision to donate and to protect themselves. Donors demonstrate a significant difficulty in negotiating the genetic, social and gestational discourses of motherhood available to them. These discourses can be seen as reinforcing traditional norms of kinship and enabled too much or not enough involvement for donors. These restrictive discourses required donors to position themselves as not mothers or mothers. Neither of these were comfortable for donors, therefore, a genetic discourse was drawn on in a different, less powerful way by donors to challenge traditional constructions of kinship and position themselves as only ‘partly mothers’. This enabled women to have some involvement within particular boundaries and circumscribed responsibilities (e.g. concern for the child’s welfare and responsibility to disclose genealogy). These implications suggest more support is needed for women to enhance their health and wellbeing. A suggestion for ongoing counselling to consider the ongoing consequences of ED and the effect on donors’ lifetime trajectories, setting donors up for a relationship that is organic, can shift and change and may require further support or may not. Ongoing counselling should also focus on promoting a critical awareness of the multiple meanings of ED in womens’ lives, by encouraging women to engage productively with discourses of motherhood and promote creativity to construct new terms of engagement that work for them. Implications for policy and practice are also suggested, including: a more thorough assessment of recipients in to facilitate selection, considering birth certificate annotations to enhance policy around disclosure, and relationships-focussed training approach for medical staff. Directions for future research are also outlined.