Sometimes certain information can propel itself forward regardless of its factual accuracy. In this case, one single sliver of hearsay printed four years ago sparked an entire body of academic literature that on closer inspection has no basis in reality.
In 2006 the Observer ran an article titled "The Cruel Cost of Human Eggs" about the growth of the Cypriot egg donation industry and the fear that certain clinics were endangering donors' lives. As I found in my own research, the Observer had a difficult time getting directly in touch with egg donors, but was able to speak with women through intermediaries. One of those intermediaries seemed to make a connection between Cyprus's brothels and fertility clinics, saying, "They work the cabarets, they'll sleep with men, they'll sell their eggs, and then they go back again."
To its credit, the Observer article does not make the connection explicitly between sex work and egg donation, however that did not stop academics from connecting the dots on their own initiative. References to this quote and article appear liberally in almost a dozen academic texts including Heather Widdow's "Border Disputes Across Bodies: Exploitation in Trafficking for Prostitution and Egg Sales for Stem Cell Research," which builds its argument based on "the trafficked Eastern European prostitutes in Cyprus who also sell their eggs to the flourishing private network of in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics there."
An anthropologist I spoke to in New York had made her career deconstructing the connections between commerce and tissue donations and said that Cyprus was the smoking gun for human exploitation. In fact, she had just given a talk on the subject at Columbia.
I came to Cyprus almost positive that there was a direct link between sex trafficking and the fertility industry. The beach road in Limassol is dotted with cabarets and brothels where trafficked women are sold by the hour. The country is a repeat offender on the UN Department of State's anti-trafficking TIPPS report that shows how the government here directly supports the trade in women. The government issues more than 300 special "artist" visas to cabaret workers and the local press is full of accounts of women tricked into working in brothels. The women are forced to pay back their plane tickets to brothel owners and have few rights in the eyes of the law. Along the way into the country they are first screened by doctors at the government hospitals, given a clean chit of health and set to work—a perfect opportunity for a fertility clinic to convince them to sell their eggs. After all, the profile of egg donors and prostitutes is fairly similar—young, beautiful women, mainly eastern European with an aura of fertility.
The facts on the ground, however, did not match the hype. After canvassing three brothels and speaking to sex workers and brothel owners, as well as the top ten anti-trafficking experts in Cyprus as well as two different sources who house and rescue trafficked women, no one had ever heard of anyone in a brothel selling their eggs. Father Savvas Michaelides, a Russian Orthodox priest, with a long flowing beard that is reminiscent of Santa Claus, has spent the better part of the last decade rescuing Russians from the brothels and says that more than 300 have come under his care.
After hearing about possible connections between egg donation and prostitution he frowns. "It seems like it could be possible, but I have never heard such a thing," he says. His colleague Eleni Pissaridou who runs a shelter for trafficked women said that a study she had conducted last year with more than 100 interviews with sex workers never came across a single case of egg donation.
I asked David Sher, who runs Elite IVF, an egg donation agency, if it was even feasible to harvest eggs from Cypriot Cabarets. "It just wouldn't make sense," he said, "To undergo the procedure we need to be sure that the women aren't having sex while undergoing hormone therapy. They're very fertile at that time and might get pregnant. Neither the sex worker nor the IVF lab want that."
For a journalist or academic working on the ethics of tissue donation and sales, a connection between prostitution and medical commerce is something of a holy grail. After all, if sex work is dangerous and exploitative by its very nature, then any related industry that depends on the same pool of workers is similarly corrupt. An academic can apply the same tools of analysis against egg selling as they do sex work.
In an e-mail to the sex industry magazine Spread, editor Will Rockwell said "it all sounds very seedy, as if as decent people we must believe that evil like this takes place, when you put the words "trafficking" and "eggs" together," he wrote, but there are other reasons that might compel people to sell their flesh. "Young people in need of high-paid, mobile, and mostly unregulated work often turn to sex work the same as they turn to medical studies or egg-selling."
Understanding that there is no clean link between human trafficking for sex work and egg trafficking makes this research all the more relevant. Egg selling, it turns out, has its own problems and origins that raise difficult questions about the motivations of egg sellers to approach fertility clinics.