Zanini Giulia | Gender issues in sperm, egg and embryo donation. How people think of alternative reproduction


Assisted reproductive technologies (ART) belong to the potentially  global knowledge system of science which seems to have opened up new possibilities of thinking about reproduction as disjointed from partnership and sexuality. This tendency proceeds, in general, from the attitude diffused by scientific discourse to “literalise” everything, (Strathern, 1992) that is to make explicit and visible what is implicit and invisible. Science spreads information coming from the attentive research and discovery of new elements and processes concerning what is considered the field of nature. New notions that have been scientifically proved and approved, aiming to explain what is not visible through human eyes, enter the sphere of the common language and thought. People start to call “natural” everything that touches on biological facts and, in particular, the field of genetics. In parallel, the body is represented as the interaction of its detachable parts, procreation is considered a process composed of different stages and proceeding from the interplay of different substances and body-parts, and new bodies may be created from selection and combination of third parties' bodily parts. As a result of the deconstruction of the body, of the new conception of bodily parts and substances, of the increasing attention paid to genetics and of the technologies developed in the field of body scanning and assisted procreation, scientific progress has led to a new understanding of there productive event on the whole and thus, to a redefinition of the relationship between gender and reproduction.
This paper takes into account the way in which people question and give meaning to procreation when confronted with treatments involving gamete donation, embryo-donation and embryo-adoption. Facing the possibility of receiving donated gametes (sperm or eggs) and embryos people necessarily challenge their understanding of the reproductive process and discuss, in particular, the meaning they assign to substances and body-parts involved in this process. This implies reconsidering the meaning that these different elements acquire in relation to crucial concepts usually linked to reproduction, namely gender, sexuality, kinship, and family. In this paper the analysis of ethnographic data collected during my PhD fieldwork among Italians recipients of donated gametes and embryos will be presented and other ethnographic works about other cultural, social and political settings will be mentioned in order to show how the very notion of gender is variously challenged and discussed in the context of procreation with donors. The aim is to highlight how people use gender categories in order to make sense of their reproductive choices. In particular, the way in which the concepts of motherhood and fatherhood are differently challenged by gamete donation will be discussed, people's plan on how to perform parenthood will be presented, the reasons why donation is often perceived as affecting gender relations will be explained, and different “gendered” meanings associated to sperm and eggs will be introduced. The paper will develop these issues by looking at different cases of heterosexual and homosexual women and men, approaching procreation in a relationship and as single parents.