Centre for Health, Technologies and Social Practice

In/visibility of Ova Provision

By Alexandra Gruian

water dropsRomania has become something of a token country when talking about ova provision and the risks of ova providers’ exploitation. This is the result of increased international media attention to ova trafficking cases in Romania, in spite of its ban on any material rewards for providers. However, little is known about what is actually happening on the ground, and this is why I am currently in Romania researching ova provision.

When talking about ova transfers involving material rewards, ova provision in Romania seems to be organised in two types of flows. The first istrafficking: the clinics act as intermediaries, attracting ova providers with the promise of material gratification and anonymously matching them with IVF patients. In this case, the chances that they will be both misinformed about the risks involved and overmedicated, in order to yield more ova, are higher, as police investigations reveal. This model is paralleled by a decentralised, spontaneous flow kept alive by intended parents and women willing to provide ova, often in exchange for money. In this type of agreement, as one ova provider told me, one can negotiate the terms of the transfer and the risks of being maltreated (overmedicated for example) are lower.

I think of these ova flows like a water circuit: sometimes they flow at the surface, sometimes they are submerged underground, at times they surprisingly spring out, and at other times people drill to reach them. There is an interplay of visibility and invisibility that seems to act as a dam to ova flows, enabling and disrupting them. This visibility regime is at times consciously enforced or maintained by some, but can unintentionally emerge out of the interplay of other factors. It is hard to establish exactly what is the result of intended vs. unintended effort, especially because visibility and invisibility do not necessarily overlap with legality and illegality, legitimacy and illegitimacy, or with officialdom.

Visibility and invisibility engulf actors both human and non-human (e.g. ova), actions, feelings (e.g. suffering due to childlessness, despair due to poverty), discourses (e.g. stigma). When women intend to become ova providers without intermediaries, or intended parents decide resort to a provider, the ova flow needs to be dug after, most often in the form of internet searches. People sell and buy ova in a very visible manner, offering their personal contacts on free access web sites. But when it comes to actually investigating the legality of such a transfer, there is nothing illegal to find: the only official agreement struck at a notary acknowledges the ova donation with no material gains; the money potentially involved remains hidden. But even an ova transfer with no material advantages can be kept unseen by those involved, who thus wish to protect themselves from stigma – although nothing has to be hidden from the authorities, everything has to be hidden from peers.

At other times the ova flow travels “below”, as in the case of ova trafficking, when strict visibility regimes are imposed by the medical and administrative personnel in order to maintain secrecy. In these instances, invisible ova providers (often unknown as such for their families or for the commissioning parents) and unofficial ova are put to work in order to deliver live babies, similar to the laundering model described by Ana Manzano. At times, the information hidden behind closed doors leaks in a controlled manner, for instance in the form of brokerage aimed at attracting new ova providers – it is the invisible made visible. At other times, information about this activity springs to the “surface” unintentionally, as when various insiders denounce what is happening to the police (information from police file on ova trafficking).

These examples are only the starting point for a deeper discussion about how visibility/invisibility, legality/illegality, legitimacy/illegitimacy are established and managed and the extent to which they arise out of sheer intention. Ova provision is ultimately connected to gendered, classed and raced hierarchies enforced and perpetuated through the combined personal, commercial and state interests.


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