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Embryo Sales: Been (Nearly) There, Done (Almost) That

Jennalee Ryan is a San Antonio, Texas, entrepreneur who recognized a market opportunity. If she could persuade a young woman in college to sell her eggs, and get sperm from a man with an advanced degree, and both of them had cute baby pictures, she could hire a fertility lab to make embryos, which she could then sell at $2,500 apiece. Like spec houses, these embryos were created in the hope that buyers would show up. Ms. Ryan is the developer, hiring the subcontractors and marketing the product.

No one has done this with embryos before. Is there anything to worry about? Not according to John Robertson, as quoted in the Washington Post. “I know some people say: ‘This is shocking. Embryos made to order.’ But if you step back a little bit, you realize that people are already choosing sperm and egg donors in separate transactions. Combining them doesn’t pose any new major ethical problems.”

In other words, been (nearly) there, done (almost) that. If we didn’t fall to pieces over the other stuff, we shouldn’t waste our energy agonizing over this slightly novel wrinkle.

“Been there, done that” is a popular refrain in debates over the ethics of new practices and new technologies. But it can conceal more than it reveals, so it’s worth looking under the hood now and then to see how the argument works.

The first thing to notice is that “been there, done that” has nothing to say about whether where we’ve been or what we’ve done were good ideas to begin with. Were we mistaken to worry in the first place? Or have our concerns been valid all along, even if at each step we’ve decided, on the whole, that the good outweighed the bad? We look back on something like IVF and wonder how anyone could have been categorically opposed. IVF has allowed many adults to become parents, and many children to be born into welcoming families. Yes, the occasional disaster happens: quarrels over payment, over who is responsible when things go awry. And predictable problems grow larger, like the 400,000 embryos now in storage, most destined never to be implanted, residing in a moral and legal limbo. On the other hand, the ever more naked intrusion of commerce and commodification into baby making and parenthood evokes continuing concern. Is it really a good idea to offer women at elite colleges $50,000 for their eggs while other women get a tenth of that? To make and market spec embryos?

Euphemism, by the way, is a sign of moral discomfort. John Robertson employs the standard linguistic disguise when he talks about egg and sperm “donors.” When I paid a contractor thousands of dollars to paint my house, I didn’t refer to him as a “painting donor.” He sold his materials and his services just as women who are paid for their eggs and men for their sperm are selling theirs. Now, on balance it may be acceptable, even a good thing, that women and men sell their gametes so that others can use them to make babies. That’s a conversation worth continuing. But let’s not avert our eyes and pretend that what’s happening is more like giving our unwanted presents to Goodwill. Gamete sale is a commercial transaction. That our language persistently denies this reality should alert us that something important is being avoided.

Underneath “been there, done that” is a crucial division: either we were foolish to think that there was ever anything morally troublesome about those earlier practices or, despite the fact that we’ve tolerated them, perhaps there is something genuinely disturbing about them, something that may be exacerbated by this next step, however tiny or “natural” it may appear.

Likewise, there are two paths one can take to stand up against “been there, done that.” The most common is to argue that this case really is different, that, for example, selling eggs and sperm is not the same as selling healthy embryos. This argument isn’t a particularly bad one, but it steps into the dark crevasse that threatens to swallow any attempt to think clearly about the moral significance of human embryos in early twenty-first century America, where debates over embryos stand in for larger conflicts over women’s and men’s natures and their flourishing.

But I want to remind us that there is a second path we can take: to look back over the long stretch of been there’s, done that’s, and try to assess what has been gained and what has been lost in our hurried scramble over that erratic terrain. This is never an intellectually or emotionally easy task, and vastly more difficult, I suspect, than telling the next been there, done that story.

There is no shortage of signs warning us that a serious re-evaluation may be overdue. The fear bubbling barely under the surface of the obsessive denial implicit in the “donor” euphemism is one clue. Another is the astonishing, exclusive focus on the rights and preferences of adults, leaving the well-being of children almost completely out of sight. The ludicrously inadequate standard for evaluating new reproductive technologies and practices – that it is okay to create a child as long as that child would not have been better off never being born – is another.

What questions should we ask as we survey the ground we’ve covered? This, itself, should spark a vigorous debate. But I hope that we will focus on how we can best build a world that is good for children and good for parents, a culture whose norms give children the space to become themselves, and whose institutions support adults in the relentless, often thankless, and astonishingly wonderful and fulfilling work of loving and raising children.

– Thomas H. Murray

Published on: January 11, 2007
Published in: Bioethics, Human Reproduction

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