Embryos for sale
A new company in America is offering embryos for sale in a package deal from around £5,000. Our correspondent talks to the Texas woman behind it and reports on the ethical furore
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As any devotee of internet shopping knows, there are few things these days that cannot be bought off the shelf. Snap-on teeth, brand-new breasts, even human kidneys can be yours “to go” if you have the cash and the determination to find them.
But until now, embryos were not one of those things. Yes, you could buy yourself an egg and some sperm in separate transactions or find an IVF patient who would donate leftover embryos to you. But buying a ready-made embryo as you might purchase a Marks & Spencer suit — surely that would be taking consumer culture too far?
Apparently not. A company in Texas that calls itself “the world’s first human embryo bank” is offering couples and single women the chance to order from its batches of existing embryos after browsing detailed information sheets about the race, education, personalities, hair and eye colour of the egg and sperm donors.
The Abraham Center of Life is the first commercial enterprise making embryos in advance for unspecified recipients who pay $2,500 (£1,290) for each embryo. The total price tag for each attempt at pregnancy, including the implantation procedure, is estimated at between $8,000 and $10,000. It has provoked a predictable outcry over the creation of “designer babies” and accusations that human reproduction is being turned into a factory production line, treating babies as groceries on offer.
If you are in the business of buying babies though, it certainly seems to be a bargain. Jennalee Ryan, a mother of six, runs the company from her home in San Antonio. She says the total cost of embryo donation without involving a surrogate mother is “approximately half the cost of adoption and much less expensive than the total IVF procedure, with a greater overall success rate”, (she rates IVF at 30 per cent successful, and claims her method is nearer 70 per cent). The cost for IVF in America can range from $12,000 to $20,000. Adoption, depending on the circumstances, can run into tens of thousands of dollars but, thanks to falling birth rates, contraception and availability of abortion, babies are scarce.
Of course Ryan’s service is so far unproven. She says that the first two women to use it are five months pregnant, though we have only her word for that. Having endured a failed IVF attempt herself three years ago and witnessed many surrogate pregnancies go wrong, she claims that she is motivated more by a desire to help others than by money, and insists that those who criticise her do not properly understand what she is doing.
“If you are a pro-life person, you should be happy because I’m creating a life. If you are pro-choice, you should be happy because I’m creating choice,” she says at her home as she is bombarded for requests for interview by media outlets around the world. What about those who are uncomfortable about the notion of being able to buy instant, designer, babies off the shelf? “All babies are designer babies,” says Ryan. “We mate with people we find attractive.”
And why not, actually, you might say. People have been choosing the physical characteristics of donors for years. Arranged marriages go back centuries and constitute a form of gene selection. Is there much difference, ethically, between obtaining the sperm and egg separately and putting them together for your purposes and someone else doing it for you first? Surely it is only a logical next step in accommodating infertile people who long for a baby in the modern world?
Legally, there is nothing to stop an infertile British woman going to America and availing herself of the services of the Abraham Center of Life. If she is implanted with an embryo that she buys in the US and gives birth in Britain, then in the eyes of the law she is that baby’s natural mother (for women who cannot carry a baby, by the way, Ryan can also arrange a surrogate-mother service at extra cost). But the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority warns that a British woman seeking such treatment in America would not have the benefits and guarantees afforded by law in the UK because the fertility business is not regulated as strictly. “You must ask yourself, what will the clinic do with your records. Will it be confidential for ever? What if the clinic closes?” says a spokesman. “As the UK is unique in its standards of fertility treatments, we advise that patients who are considering going abroad check the standards and regulation of clinics in that country.”
There is confusion surrounding the service that Ryan offers, and she is eager to clear up misconceptions. The first is that people can submit a checklist of requirements — such as blue eyes, a rosebud mouth, a fondness for classical music — and she will look for matching donors to “create” a baby to suit them in a manner that evokes the word “eugenics”.
It doesn’t work like that, she says. Ryan already has donors in place to create embryos — typically 20 to 30 from a particular cycle — and she will show applicants the backgrounds of those donors so they can decide whether to accept or reject. “I don’t take orders,” she says. “I say, ‘This is what I have’ and send them the background. If they don’t think it’s right for them, they don’t have to take it.” However, she does use only sperm donors in their twenties and thirties who have at least some tertiary education — some may hold a doctorate or law degree. But, as she says: “Most people who donate at sperm banks have to be college-educated, so why doesn’t anyone shout at sperm banks?” Another misconception is that Ryan runs a clinic. What she actually does is broker between donor embryos and recipients. She hires the services of doctors to perform the medical procedures; the embryos are stored at their various clinics and not, she says laughing, in a refrigerator in her kitchen. One doctor in Houston whom she hired to create her second batch of embryos (the service has been running for only a few months) pulled out after learning what she was doing. She is keen to tell me that she does not have “thousands of embryos sitting on ice”.
Because the service is new it is relatively small: “We are still in the embryonic stages, if you don’t mind the pun.” She has a long waiting list of recipients and, in reality, each batch of embryos is “spoken for” immediately. If the service grows bigger, however, this might not be the case and the idea of “shopping” for a baby may become a fair accusation.
Ryan’s own background is complex. She says she has five children who are biologically hers, and which she raised largely as a single parent, and one adopted son. Ryan recently moved to Texas from California, where she ran an adoption business, Abagail’s Silver Spoon Adoptions, which she says is one of the largest in the nation and provides the bulk of her income. But Ryan’s local newspaper reports that two top San Antonio adoption agencies do not know her. “I’ve been around for 30 years doing adoptions and I’ve never heard of her,” Jan Couve, the executive director of Adoption Affiliates, told the San Antonio Express-News.
According to Ryan, her adoption company in California is less an agency and more a service that facilitates adoptions, while the Texas incarnation is only an adoption advertising service. She says California law allows “adoption facilitators”, who introduce pregnant women to adoptive parents for a fee, but Texas does not.
Josephine Quintavalle, of the UK campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE), is horrified by what she describes as a move towards “supermarket babies” and the “absolute commercialisation of human life”.
“There are plenty of ‘ready-made’ babies around the world that one can adopt,” she says. “This is further devaluing human life.” She worries that with a child bought in such a consumerist way there might be more scope for disappointment. “Expectations are so high now — what about if you don’t get what you want?” she says.
Robert George, of Princeton University, who serves on the President’s Council on Bioethics, says: “This is just more evidence that we haven’t been able to restrain this move towards treating human life like a commodity. This buying and selling of eggs and sperm and now embryos based on IQ points and PhDs and other traits really moves us in the direction of eugenics.” Others, however, do not see it as a particularly alarming development.
John Robertson, of the University of Texas at Austin, who advises fertility specialists on ethical issues, says: “If you step back a little bit, you realise that people are already choosing sperm and egg donors in separate transactions. Combining them doesn’t pose any new major ethical problems.”
The Abraham Center’s name is taken from the first family to use surrogacy services. The introduction to the website quotes from the Bible about how Abraham, at his wife Sarah’s urging, had a son by his wife’s slave-girl Hagar because Sarah was too old to conceive. Some of the language on the website is euphemistic; it talks of egg and sperm “donors” when they are clearly “sellers”.
According to the website, “typically a donor fee will range from $3,500 to $15,000 . . . Additional compensation is offered to those donors who have earned a post-graduate degree; have a unique skill, characteristic or trait; or if she has previously cycled with our programme and her couple achieved a pregnancy.” So far, Ryan says she has produced one batch of 22 embryos using an egg donor in her twenties from Arizona and a sperm donor from a sperm bank operated by the Genetics & IVF Institute in Fairfax, Virginia. He is a lawyer, 6ft tall (1.83m) with blond hair and blue eyes; she is a student, with brown hair and hazel eyes. All donors undergo a health screening and even provide photos of themselves as children as a guide to what the baby might look like.
A single woman in her forties from California and a married woman from Canada in her thirties are said to have each had two of the embryos implanted, and are now five months pregnant. In case they want more children, or should the pregnancies fail, the two clients divided the rest of that batch and had the embryos frozen.
Another young egg donor from Utah (blonde, blue-eyed) who works in the airline industry, is taking hormones to trigger ovulation and create another batch with the same sperm donor. “She is as sweet as can be,” says Ryan. “She is a Mormon, and one of the things that Mormons believe is that we are souls waiting for bodies. So by doing this she is helping to create the vessels for those souls.”
A single woman from California in her forties has signed a contract for two of these embryos, with a 30-day option for more. Any remainders can be shipped frozen to clients on the waiting list.
Ryan argues that her embryos are of good quality because they are from young, fertile donors, and says that there is no emotional attachment on the part of the donors. Joan, 42, from Alabama, is on the waiting list. She and her husband want a sibling for their three-year-old son and contacted Ryan after Joan failed to get pregnant using three egg donors and despaired of the protracted adoption procedure. “You get an idea of what your baby will look like, and it just seems a lot easier and more affordable. I am not going to give up until I have another baby. This seems very attractive,” she says.
Unlike in Britain, American donors can remain anonymous; whether they offer any details about themselves is up to them — and some do. Ryan says she has decided to use only those who would theoretically agree to be traced since she believes it is beneficial to the child to be able to access such details, if desired, at a later date.
Ryan says she would “love” to be able to help women from Britain and elsewhere, and has already had inquiries from Europe. “It was a control thing for me,” she says. “After years of dealing with birth mothers who decided to take [the babies] back . . . watching poor families have to kiss these girls’ butts when they know they are using drugs and alcohol in the pregnancy . . . having to tell a couple who have had their baby at home for two weeks that, actually, they have to give it back . . . If I could have a child for these people, I would do it.
“To me, it’s an answer. If you are desperate for a child, it is an option for you. People can come up with $8,000, but not many can come up with the $30,000 [the potential, accumulated costs of other routes]. I haven’t made money at this; it has cost me money, but I would be happy to break even.”
Despite some of the euphemisms on her website, I remark that she does answer a question with a straight answer. “I don’t apologise,” she says. “I believe in what I do. I am used to having stones thrown at me.”
As her service takes off, that might be just as well.
LEGAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN UK AND US
Legality of creating embryos in advance
No US law prohibits the concept of creating such embryos; in Britain it is illegal to form an “embryo bank”. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority can grant a licence under the Human Fertilisation Act to create embryos only in the course of providing treatment to a person (ie, not in advance). In the US, the embryos created are not used, their future is in the hands of the recipient; here there is a five-year limit on freezing embryos. A British citizen could undergo treatment abroad, then have the baby in Britain entirely legally.
In Britain, a child can contact the egg or sperm donor at the age of 18; the donor cannot trace the child. This would apply had artificial insemination taken place outside Britain. In the US, regulation is on a state-by- state basis, and donors and recipients can waive their right to future contact. Should the child grow up and want to contact his donor parents, the courts are often sympathetic.
Adoption in the US
Britons wishing to adopt internationally must undergo a Home Study assessing their suitability through a registered adoption agency to get approval from the DfES. In the US this can then be taken to adoption agencies for the matching process of finding a child, which varies from state to state. There are varying degrees of difficulty for a potential parent regarding age, marital status (some states preclude unmarried couples), sexual orientation and expense. There may be additional requirements, ie, a psychotherapy report. Many state laws also prefer the foster-care system in the hope of returning children to their natural parents. The adoption is recognised by British law, but the child must obtain entry clearance and Home Office approval to be recognised as a British citizen.