Science & Technology

Made-to-Order Embryos for Sale—No Problem With That


Embryos for sale
Credit: Dreamstime Joseppi

Back in November the Los Angeles Times reported that a local fertility clinic, California Conceptions, offers "pregnancy on the cheap." How? Instead of infertility patients going through the expensive and failure-prone process trying to have children using their own gametes, the clinic whips up a batch of embryos by combining purchased eggs and sperm and then sells them to patients. As the Times explained the clinic owner, Dr. Earnest Zeringue …

…sharply cuts costs by creating a single batch of embryos from one egg donor and one sperm donor, then divvying it up among several patients. The clinic, not the customer, controls the embryos, typically making babies for three or four patients while paying just once for the donors and the laboratory work.

People buying this option from Zeringue must accept concessions: They have no genetic connection to their children, and those children will probably have full biological siblings born to other parents.

Instead of using donor embryos left over from other people's fertility treatments, the sperm and eggs used at the clinic come from young healthy donors which improves the chances that the embryos will be viable.

Earlier this month, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article that reviewed the ethical implications of making and selling embryos. The article found that (1) it was unlikely that selling embryos would crowd out embryo donations, (2) that people who sell their gametes are unlikely to be unduly coerced, (3) that the sale of embryos does not denigrate the value of reproduction, (4) and that selling embryos is more akin to selling gametes than to selling children. In addition, if it's OK to manufacture embryos using somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning) to produce stem cells, it's OK to make them for the purpose of overcoming infertility. Aside from some legal issues that should be cleared up, e.g, what if a gamete donor later demanded the embryos, the article concluded:

It is readily apparent why the prospect of made-to-order embryos for sale may give rise to apprehension. However, viewed through a legal and ethical lens, the concerns raised by this potentiality appear to be similar to those associated with widely accepted and more common reproductive technologies, such as the sale of gametes.

Selling embryos is not a fraught moral problem.