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'Wal-Martization' of Embryos

by Osagie K. ObasogieBoston Globe
February 1st, 2007

JENALEE RYAN has just opened the Abraham Center of Life in San Antonio, Texas, billing it as "the world's first human embryo bank ." Put bluntly, Ryan sells infertile couples their choice of designer embryos that, after being brought to term, become designer babies. Matching what Ryan considers "attractive and intelligent" sperm and egg donors, she designs and brokers embryos for people looking to have the perfect child

Ryan, in many ways, has Wal-Martized human reproduction: by buying preferred eggs and sperm wholesale, centralizing embryo production, and creating a business model that curbs inefficiencies in the assisted reproduction market, she hopes to undercut expensive fertility costs that many people can't afford and most insurance companies won't cover. Assisted reproduction costs can run up to $45,000 to produce a child; Ryan estimates that her clients can become pregnant for about ten grand.

And with this smiley-face price rollback comes the instant rebate of being able to choose what your child looks like. Ryan markets her embryos as coming from men with Ivy League sperm and women with Fabergé quality eggs, stacking the genetic deck so that her clients can have children that will look and behave like society's presumed best: blond hair, blue eyes, and with other genes that match their donors' intellectual, musical, or athletic credentials.

Is this simply, as Ryan told the Washington Post, "just helping people have babies?" Perhaps. But only if you think the Gap is "just helping people have jeans" or Starbucks is "just helping people have coffee." Debora Spar, a Harvard business professor, notes that assisted reproduction has become a $3 billion a year industry in the United States. One in 8 couples are infertile; 40,000 children were born through assisted reproduction in 2001 alone. As market pressures and business strategies like Ryan's drive prices down further and fertility services become more accessible -- and perhaps tempt those with no fertility problems who want kids with designer genes -- this number is likely to explode.

Assisted reproduction is in many cases a wonderful thing; it has brought tremendous joy and happiness to many families. But we should also acknowledge that this is big business, especially in Massachusetts. Fertility clinics and middlemen such as Ryan are trying to get a cut of the multi billion dollar fertility kitty by competing for your dollars the same way any other for-profit endeavor does. An interesting example can be found in Madison, Wis. , where three fertility clinics plan to open in the next few months like gas stations competing on each corner of a freeway exit ramp. One clinic is even trying to outsell the competition by offering money-back guarantees not unlike what someone might find on a used car lot

Should human embryos be treated like any other commodity, bought and sold according to supply and demand? After marketing and selling designer human embryos at wholesale prices, what's next? It's fair to assume that this envelope will continue to be pushed.

What's most remarkable, however, is that in this rapidly expanding industry, there is little regulation to oversee these businesses. The loose patchwork of federal and state laws that govern assisted reproduction makes it easier to design and traffic human embryos than to open a barbershop. With assisted reproduction's current state, we have the worst of both worlds: baby-making is being turned over to the market without really considering whether that's where it belongs while we're also refusing to establish rules to keep businesses honest. This regulatory abyss has hit Massachusetts hard, leading to its growing reputation as a "go to" place for fertility treatment. Stronger oversight of this burgeoning trade simply makes good sense.

Almost everyone has weighed in on the profound questions raised when embryos are used for scientific research. And, in some states people have even voted on it. But these events drive home the need to also consider how a civilized society should treat human embryos' growing presence in the market economy. Families and children deserve better.

Osagie K. Obasogie is a bioethicist with the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, Calif., (www.genetics-and-society.org) and is a contributor to the blog Biopolitical Times (www.biopoliticaltimes.org)

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