Louise Brown was born in July 1978, but the story of how she would recast civilization had been written years before. The first baby born through in vitro fertilization came not as a shock but as an affirmation, exhibit A to the commentariat who had for a decade promised that the day of the test-tube baby was nigh. To many, little Louise Brown was just the first drop of rain in a monsoon; delicate, unobjectionable, and trivial in herself, but harbinger of an onslaught that would rip away the groundwork of civilized society.
In 1970, Princeton theologian Paul Ramsey railed against in vitro technologies in a sobering book titled Fabricated Man; a year later, The Atlantic Monthly ran a story headlined “The Obsolescent Mother.” Editorialists spun visions of a world in which women would exchange each other’s ova and rent each other’s wombs, creating all manner of tangled familial relations. White couples would implant strange ova and give birth to mixed-race children. Parents would select and breed for genetic matches for siblings in need of replacement tissues. University of Chicago Professor Leon Kass, a prominent conservative who would later serve as head of the President’s Council on Bioethics, emerged as an in vitro fertilization (IVF) opponent before most people had heard of the technology. A social philosopher with a knack for expressing visceral social anxieties in academic prose, Kass could not keep a tinge of hysteria out of a 1972 essay on the topic. He posed a sarcastic question to readers: “And why stop at couples? What about single women, widows, or lesbians?”
The right held no monopoly on test-tube trepidation; the sky was falling from all quarters. Left-wing feminists feared the new technologies would create new means by which to exploit women and entrench the patriarchy. In 1985 Gena Corea predicted that rich couples in the West would send ova to poor women in the Third World, who would endure the pain of pregnancy at bargain rates. She warned of a market for “breeders” who would be valued for the reproductive potential of their component parts.
IVF advocates could be forgiven for dismissing the righteous panic of Christian conservatives, alarmist feminists, and academic Luddites. But much of what has been prophesied has come true.
My interest in assisted reproduction is more than academic. In December 2005 I flew to Chicago, underwent general anesthesia, endured a minor medical procedure, and sold 12 ova to a pair of strangers for $10,000. Like thousands of other women that year, I joined in an assembly-line production of a human embryo.
How I Became “Donor #15”
The egg market didn’t emerge overnight. But by the mid-1980s, babies were being born via donated eggs that were fertilized outside the womb and later implanted in women incapable of producing viable ova. If you can imagine a scenario involving IVF-related technologies, chances are it has already taken place. In 1999 Adam Nash was conceived in a laboratory as a perfect genetic match to his sister, Molly, who would have died without the bone marrow transplant he later provided. A few years later, an IVF mix-up led to a white couple with half-black twin sons. Today in Bombay, surrogate mothers are carrying the genetic children of European and American women. To Kass’s visions of egg-trading singles, widows, and lesbians, add one more: gay men are now party to the trade in genetic materials, contracting for both eggs and wombs to create children half genetically theirs.
The once-hypothetical fears of bioconservatives are now walking and talking human beings, but the debate over the ethical implications of such children is still oddly abstract. “It is argued,” states a 2002 report by the President’s Council on Bioethics regarding the commercial trade in human DNA, “that we stand to introduce a commercial character into human reproduction, and to introduce commercial concerns into the coming-to-be of the next generation.” If that is the risk, we’re already running it, because the market in eggs, sperm, and reproductive technology has never been larger or more accessible.
The “breeders” Corea envisioned 20 years ago are now college students selling their genetic material and low-income women renting out their wombs. There is considerable debate about whether they should be allowed to trade reproductive capacity for cash, how they should be compensated, and how far is too far. But the more interesting questions are not regulatory. Reproductive technologies have spawned new markets in the business of baby-making while old fears about the commodification of human life persist; the social norms lag well behind the scientific capabilities. The result is a bizarre juxtaposition of crass commerce and high rhetoric, of conceptions cooked up in a lab to fill a demand for natural childbirth and an industry selling illusion along with DNA.
Selling ova to another woman is at once impossibly intimate and wholly impersonal, a connected but highly distributed process of exchange. It is a transaction well suited to the Internet, which tends to provoke uninhibited sharing among strangers cloaked in anonymity. The Web sites I found, trolling through hundreds of Google hits for “egg donor,” were similar, placing heavy emphasis on the motivation of donors. They spoke of fulfillment, of “making a difference,” of “one of the most loving gifts one woman can give to another.” The pictures were of babies, clouds, building blocks. The site I chose was among the most thickly written, its invitation to donate dripping with hyper-feminized expressions of motherhood and generosity. It was the linguistic equivalent of a doily.
The application invited me to “investigate the possibility of impacting a loving couple’s life with the gift of egg donation.” It promised that sharing genetic material is “one of the most powerful and rewarding decisions a woman can make.” It demanded “a candid humanitarian desire to assist an infertile couple/individual in conceiving.” It asked for all the basic facts: height, eye color, hair color, allergies, and ailments.
The application also asked, “What is the least amount of compensation you will consider accepting for an egg donation?” Elsewhere, the agency stated that it would not accept requests of more than $10,000. So I typed in: $10,000.
My picture was included in a donor database, a mail-order bride catalog with SAT scores. The Web-based list runs over 100 women long, listing our heights, weights, ages (all of us between 21 and 32), asking prices, standardized test scores, blood types, academic degrees, and whether we’d donated before. Later, I would find myself referred to as “Donor #15.”
The first offer came almost immediately; another followed a day later. “We have one couple who definitely want to work with you, and they are bringing me a check to reserve you tomorrow,” an e-mail message read. “The other couple…are [sic] deciding if they want to match with you for your next cycle.” That I was selling something people actually wanted to buy did not become obvious until that message. I hadn’t signed anything or talked to anyone; I’d simply answered a few questions and e-mailed a picture. And for what initially seemed a ridiculously inflated price, they were lining up.
It’s easy to be flattered by women who want to have your children. Alas, the appeal likely wasn’t that I stood out but that I blended in. I have brown eyes and brown hair; my height, at five feet, four inches, is exactly average. I am ambiguously ethnic, in turns thought to be Asian or Italian. Women look not for models but for mirrors; I was enough of a human Mad Lib that parents, scanning for pictures, could look at me and see themselves. One couple wanted to make sure my immediate relatives resembled me, reassurance that I wasn’t hiding a genetic predisposition for green eyes, a prominent nose, or dark skin. “What do you really look like?” they were asking. Not me—my genes.