Bioethics Forum Essay

The Perils of Embryo Banking?

Embryo banking is not an idea whose time has come. But at some point it might be, so a little ethical hyperventilating about the prospect is useful.

A previously unknown adoption broker in San Antonio with no discernible track record has gotten a ton of free (mostly negative) publicity for claiming to have made-to-order embryos ready for people to “buy” to have children. Maybe her clever use of the media will net her some clients, but my sense is that she’ll find only a few out there. Most infertile or gay and lesbian singles or couples need either a sperm or egg donor, not both. Nor will the made-to-order side of it close the deal. Most reproduction with mates or sperm and egg donors involves mate choice, so where’s the advantage?

Also, there are some market-entry problems. She’ll need a reproductive endocrinologist to stimulate ovaries and retrieve eggs and an embryologist to fertilize and store them. She claims to have one in New York City, but even if a doctor is in cahoots with her, the costs of an IVF cycle and donor services will limit the number of eggs and embryos produced. This is not a promising business model.

So why has this been a thyroid injection for weary ethicists? First, it’s a nagging reminder of the prevailing discomfort at the allegedly unregulated nature of the reproductive industry. Like Debora Spar, many ethicists are shocked that commerce is going on–indeed, even interstate and global commerce. There oughta be a law, but it’s never clear what the law should be or who should carry the water to get it passed.

The second is our old friend the embryo. Though smaller that a 12-point period, the embryo always generates handwringing and controversy. In this case a blatantly instrumental entrepreneur has pressed the anticommodification button. It seems shocking that embryos might be bought and sold like other products. Sure, the cosmetics of a deal matter, but some compensation for services rendered is needed.

The third nit is the eugenics of it all. The story ran only because the “made to order” tag of blond and blue-eyed donors reminded us of Aryan eugenics and the many ways that parents might seek an edge for themselves and their children. No matter that few complex traits will be amenable to embryo or genetic selection, nor that humans exercise some choice over whom they mate.

Tom Murray eloquently reminds us about a fourth factor – the welfare of the children. But it’s unclear to me how the children get short shrift in this or other assisted reproductive arrangements. I thought love and nurture were the important ingredients for children, not whether a paid or unpaid gamete or embryo donor was involved.

One aspect of the child’s welfare that deserve attention, however, is the question of connection with gametic parents. Rearing parents now discuss the matter as they choose, within the limits of whatever information they have. There should be some way to ensure that children, if they choose, can learn about or even meet the gamete provider. It’s time for all the players to get together to set some standards for doing so.

– John A. Robertson is author of Children of Choice: Freedom and the New Reproductive Technologies and a member of the Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

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