Embryos For Sale

Is the new service ethical?


The Abraham Center of Life, an adoption and infertility service company in San Antonio, Texas run by Jennalee Ryan, is offering made-to-order embryos through the mail. The Center's name evidently refers to the first family to use surrogacy services. The Bible tells the story of the patriarch Abraham who, at his wife Sarah's urging, had a son by his wife's Egyptian slave-girl Hagar.

Infertile couples have long had the option of adopting children given up by their birth parents. In the 1960s, more couples began to use donor sperm. Then, nearly 30 years ago, assisted reproduction took off. Infertile couples could have their own eggs and sperm combined in a Petri dish (in vitro fertilization or IVF) to produce embryos that were then implanted the woman's womb. Shortly thereafter, it became possible to implant IVF embryos into the wombs of surrogate mothers who carried them to term for infertile couples. In what is essentially a form of egg and womb donation, sperm donated by men would be injected into the wombs of women who would bear a child for infertile couples. More recently, infertile couples have used donated embryos left over from other patients' fertility treatments to produce children.

The Abraham Center of Life says that it is going a step further. The Center combines both donor sperm and donor eggs to create embryos which are then frozen. These embryos can be shipped to other fertility clinics where they used to help infertile patients bear children. According the Center's press release, this procedure has a number of advantages over earlier options. First, infertile couples seeking to "adopt" one of the made-to-order embryos don't have to undergo scrutiny by embryo donors. Secondly, leftover IVF embryos may not be of the highest quality. After all, they were produced for people who are having their own difficulties with fertility and the embryos thought to be more likely to come to term would already have been selected and used.

In contrast, the Center claims that it "makes available ONLY embryos that have been created by BOTH qualified egg and sperm donors. Medical experts predict that the pregnancy success rate is closer to 70% using both proven donors. Moreover, there is no emotional attachment from the donors. Nor is the recipient family forced to have to "sell" themselves to the biological parents in the hopes that they would be chosen as suitable parents."

The Center also says that it screens egg and sperm donors for clean medical backgrounds. Recipient parents also get photos of donors as infants, and sometimes as adults. From diverse ethnic backgrounds, most male donors have doctorate degrees, and most female donors have had some college. And if the couple cannot or prefers not to bear the child themselves the Center offers the services of pre-screened surrogate mothers. The cost? Without surrogacy services, it is "approximately half of the cost of adoption," according to the Center.

The Center doesn't warehouse embryos on ice in its backrooms. As Ms. Ryan explained to the San Francisco Chronicle the embryos are not kept in a freezer at the Center but are located at different clinics. How many embryos have been produced so far? Thirty-two, all which have already been spoken for, says Ryan.

Naturally, the Center's new service has provoked ethical hand wringing in some quarters. Not surprisingly, it's a "Brave New World" according to the prolifers over at In a San Francisco Chronicle article, University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan compares selling embryos to selling children and wonders why one is illegal and the other not. And the British newspaper The Daily Mail deploys the conventional Aryan baby/implied Nazi eugenics polemic when Ryan says that she has a waiting list of would-be parents for embryos produced using gametes from blue-eyed donors with blond hair.

So what about the worries over Aryan babies? Ryan says that she has donors from diverse ethnic backgrounds. This is just good marketing, since it is unlikely that any black clients using the Center's services would want blond babies. Already some fertility clinics supply eggs from Jewish donors in order comply with Orthodox rabbinical rulings concerning whether a child is born Jewish or not. In other words, parents who use assisted reproductive techniques already can and do select for traits related to ethnicity.

Finally, let's be clear—the Abraham Center of Life is selling embryos. Is that unethical? Josephine Quintavalle the British activist group Comment on Reproductive Ethics thinks so. The Daily Mail quotes her as saying, "It is heartbreaking to see children reduced in this way to the equivalent of a special offer supermarket commodity. Cut price, tailor-made human embryos, complete with door to door delivery."

But whose heart is being broken? People are paid for donating sperm and eggs. The stock in trade of fertility clinics today is combining the two and then providing willing customers with the resulting embryos. Physicians who run IVF clinics expect to get paid for their services. But hold on—we don't allow people to sell children, right? First, embryos are not children. Second, adoption has evolved into a long complicated process in which adopting parents fork over fees adding up to as much as $30,000. In some cases, adopting parents pay living as well as medical expenses for the birth mother. And why not? After all, people using surrogates also pay them a fee up to $30,000 to carry a child for them. In all of these cases, money is changing hands to supply people with something that they want, yet somehow it is not "commerce."

When it comes to reproduction, the language of commerce currently jars the tender ear, so we mask what is being done with a verbal fog of more pleasing "donation" euphemisms. But why use euphemisms? These commercially produced embryos are presumably being sold to loving families and will endure no more servitude than will kids produced by more conventional means. If the Abraham Center of Life can honestly supply willing customers embryos that have a good chance of being born healthy at a lower price than other alternatives, that seems to me to be a recipe for mending hearts rather than breaking them.