Last year, Dr Riikka Homanen from Tampere University, Finland, joined the Centre for Reproduction Research as a visiting researcher. Dr Homanen has written a piece for us based on her Academy Research Fellowship project on fertility markets and industry. In this piece she will elaborate on the matching of gamete donors and recipients in the Nordic transnational gamete donation context of Finland.
Worldwide, a multi-million-euro, commercial industry is increasingly recruiting donors and surrogates, to meet the ever rising demand for cross border reproductive tissue and labour. Treatment for intended parents, which is unavailable at home due to a multitude of social, economic and legal barriers, is tailored for those able and willing to travel.
Within the Nordic region, Finland is the destination for donor eggs. In fact, a great deal of the Finnish donor eggs go to these cross-border travelers. In 2020, 560 ivf treatment cycles were performed on non-Finnish residents. Of these, 545 were performed with donor gametes (National Institution of Health and Welfare 2021).
I myself have conducted research on gamete donation in/to/from Finland, carrying out ethnographic fieldwork, (consisting of observations, video-recordings, interviews and documentary material) in five different clinics and agencies over two time periods (2015-2017, and 2019 – onwards). In addition to mapping the markets, I also became interested in exploring the process of matching of recipient intended parents and donors within the fertility clinics and agencies.
Nordics travel to Finland for a donor match
Some intended parents travel long distances for donor gametes. However, not all travel trend toward faraway places. People also travel to places geographically and culturally close. Service in one’s own language, and imaginaries of standard of care make one feel safe(r) on travels to foreign places for treatments which may feel scary.
Often, intended parents seek for a donor match that will assure phenotypic resemblance with the infertile recipient, travel to countries where they perceive residents as kin nationals or ethnically/racially similar.
For example, one intended parent in my study expressed they would “be happy just with a white Finnish-appearing donor”.
The travellers are mostly from other Nordic countries, specifically Sweden and Norway, but also to a lesser degree from places such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Russia is also the country of origin of a relatively large group of travellers; however, Russians use their own gametes.
Matching recipient intended parents with donors
Globally, the national context determines how much say intended parents have in the matching process depending on the legislative framework, policy and care practices. In Finland recipient intended parents’ choice is restricted by legislation (Act on Assisted Fertility Treatments 1237/2006), physicians are responsible for matching recipient and donors based on appearance. This is broken down into five characteristics on which information can legally be collected and shared with the recipients: colour of the donor’s skin, eyes and hair as well as the donor’s height and ethnic origin. The law does not define “ethnic origin” in any way, which has on its own part led to a varied practice of classifying using nationality, old racial classifications, and geographical and ethno-cultural regions.
The notion of matching intended parents with donors derives from adoption practices, whereby policymakers and medical professionals have even regarded the lack of physical or other personal resemblance as a risk to the successful attachment between parents and child. This risk argument reproduces the ideal of a solid base of genetic kinship.
Finns as kin nationals
The intended parents in my study travelling from other Nordic countries viewed Finns as kin nationals whose ethnicity is perceived as inheritable. When I discussed the reasons for coming to Finland for egg donor IVF with Nordic fertility travelers, they mentioned the “Nordic look” or that “Us Swedes/Norwegians and Finns do look alike”.
Often in the same discussion they mentioned that they also liked the fact that there was a donor register, intended for the future children. This state maintained, donor identity register was established in 2007, allowing children born as a result of donor-IVF to receive identity information about the donor upon turning eighteen. When I inquired as to why the intended parents in my study liked the register they responded that this way the donors were “truly known”.
Intended parents, however, will not actually know much about the donor, only the future child. The register can then only really work as a guarantee of traceability and the known characteristics: eye color, hair color, height, skin color and ethnic origin. When I discussed this with the clinic staff, I was told that before the register the cross-border travelers had been particularly concerned that the donors might be Russian.
Interestingly then, Finns are seen as kin nationals, and Russians are not. This has not always been the case. Finns have not always been considered true Europeans or part of the “white race”, but have been spoken of as a dark people of Asian and Mongolian origin. Racial theories of Finns’ Asian and Mongolian origin have maintained the view of Finns as dark or yellow-skinned, brown-eyed, small, clumsy, less talented and less good-looking than true Scandinavians. The borders of (Nordic and European) whiteness are porous and in specific historical moments some people are allowed to enter into it.
Protecting (Nordic) whiteness by matching
During my fieldwork I observed a selective and exclusionary rationale behind matching donors and recipients in some of the clinics, built around whiteness: matches between donors with dark skin tones and recipients with fair skin tones were rejected, but matches could be made between donors with fair skin and recipients with dark skin. This logic is not new. The notion that ‘one drop’ of non-white blood makes a person ‘of colour’ but not the other way around has a long history. The exclusionary rationale behind matching is the logic of protecting the ‘purity’ of whiteness, but not brownness or blackness.
Therefore, in this particular historical circumstance, the whiteness of Finns is not questioned as it has been in other circumstances. Finns are strategically seen as Nordic, and even Scandinavian kin, and clinics reinforce the inheritability of this “Nordicness”, which involves notions of the “Nordic look”. The establishment of a state donor identity register has also been perceived as a guarantor of this kin-ness – especially of non-Russian kin-ness.
By Dr Riikka Homanen
This blog post is based on two articles published by Dr Homanen:
Homanen, Riikka (2021) Creatively becoming a family in the fertility clinic? Matching donors with non-heterosexual and single recipients in commercial care. In J. Mikats, S. Kink-Hampersberger, & L. Oates-Indruchová (Eds.), Creative Families: Gender and Technologies of Everyday Life. Palgrave Studies in Mediating Kinship, Representation, and Difference. London & New York: Palgrave McMillan.
Homanen, Riikka (2018) Reproducing whiteness and enacting kin in the Nordic context of transnational egg donation: Matching donors with cross-border traveller recipients in Finland. Social Science & Medicine 203: April 2018, 28–34. DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2018.03.012