Ova for Sale: Sperm Now Included


Over at Slate, Will Saletan considers the business logic of embryo selling:

What if you hired two highly fertile and desirable donors, combined their eggs and sperm in one IVF round, made a big batch of embryos, and sold the embryos a pair a time? Why buy retail when you can buy wholesale?

[Jennalee Ryan] charges $2,500 per embryo. Two women split the first batch; a third has signed a contract for two embryos from the second batch. Ryan figures each batch costs about $22,000 to make. The yield from the first round was 26 embryos. With 300 buyers on her waiting list, Ryan is well positioned to sell out each lot. At $2,500 per unit, a batch of 26 viable embryos would gross $65,000 and net $43,000.

Why the flat fees? It's a lot easier to get away with using the word donation if prices don't fluctuate with demand. Officially, the company is just compensating donors; selling tissue is arguably illegal. And yet as Ryan herself notes, she is stockpiling desirable traits: white skin, blue eyes, blond hair. The flat fees, as Saletan points out, won't last. Payment for eggs can range from $3,500 to $35,000 or more, and sperm prices vary as well.

Other than the possible avoidance of legal trouble, there is no reason to sell the finished product at a fixed price. I get the feeling Ryan is just testing the water here, and she'll soon be basing the price of the embryos on the SAT scores, race, and physical desirability of the donors.

That said, I'm not at all convinced of a huge market for ready-made embryos. Women buy ova not to make superbabies, but because of infertility issues and heritable disease. They want babies that look like them, and more to the point, like their partners. The entire process of anonymous ova donation is geared toward erasing the identity of the donor, of reclaiming the baby as a product of the partnership between the intended mother and actual father. Collecting genetic material from two strangers, rather than one, will make that process more difficult and the product less desirable.

Ron Bailey was onto JennaLee Ryan's embryo-Mart back in August, and I put my eggs on the auction block in October.