What's wrong with auctioning human eggs on the Internet?
This week, soft-porn entrepreneur Ron Harris began auctioning the eggs of fashion models on the Internet. His site, ronsangels.com (named after the 1970s' babe show Charlie's Angels), invites visitors to "bid on eggs from beautiful, healthy and intelligent women." Like Dr. Richard Seed, who recently declared his intention to clone human beings, Harris has attracted the attention of the media and politicians who are "looking into" whether he can be stopped. Most people agree that Harris is a creep and that his site is an outrage. What they don't agree on is why. Here's what the critics have to say about the auction--and each other.
1. Egg auctions will produce designer babies. Harris cites his experience as a horse breeder and asks, "We bid for everything else in this society--why not eggs?" Alarmists, agreeing that Harris "can put you into your own designer baby by selling eggs," predict that his success will steer "the future of human breeding" toward "genetic engineering."
2. Egg auctions will fail to produce designer babies. While fretting about what will happen if Harris succeeds, fertility experts simultaneously debunk that scenario. "Not only is it ethically ludicrous, but the fact is, no kid's going to look like the model's picture," observes ethicist George Annas. The experts give four reasons. First, the child of an ugly man and a pretty woman is just as likely to be ugly as to be pretty. Second, everyone carries "recessive" genes, which are invisible in this generation but may become visible in the next. A model with a small nose can pass on genes for a big nose. Third, even if both parents are attractive, a child can combine their features unattractively. For example, a girl can inherit her mother's weak nose and her father's strong brow.
3. Egg auctions will promote the survival of the fittest. Doomsayers predict that once "beautiful eggs are available strictly to people who are willing to spend an ungodly sum for them," the rich will transform themselves into a "super-race" reminiscent of the Nazis. To this, Harris replies, "It is not our intention to suggest that we make a super society of only beautiful people. This site simply mirrors our current society, in that beauty usually goes to the highest bidder." But this reply only fuels concern that gradually, society will separate into "genetic haves and have nots."
4. Egg auctions will promote the survival of the unfittest. Harris writes that only men with "substantial financial resources" are fit to give his models' offspring "a financially secure and stable life." But skeptics wonder whether women who sell their eggs to the highest bidder--and men who buy these eggs for the sole purpose of spawning good-looking children--may produce children just as dysfunctional as themselves. As Calgary Sun columnist Sydney Sharpe put it, "Any woman ... who enters into this mephistophelian pact has a few screws loose. Maybe her kid will, too. Not to mention the buyers who sign her up."
5. Egg auctions will fail to promote the survival of the unfittest. Many models, if not most, have had cosmetic surgery. A model who is perfectly ruthless will conceal this fact when selling her eggs. (One of Harris' "angels" has already been caught lying about her age.) How does Harris know whether his models have had collagen injections and nose jobs? "There's no way to know that. You can ask the girl and hope she tells you the truth," he says. Annas concludes that since there's "no way to know how much of their beauty is a product of their genes, plastic surgery, a makeup artist, or exercise," only a "naive" person would buy their eggs on the basis of the photographs displayed on the site. "You don't want to see the models," he points out. "You want to see pictures of their parents." On this theory, children produced by the egg auction are likely to be the offspring of liars on one side and fools on the other.
6. Beauty doesn't convey health. Harris casually asserts that beauty "shows healthiness and longevity." On his site, he writes, " 'Natural Selection' is choosing genes that are healthy and beautiful." Skeptics question this assumed equivalence, noting that traits men find attractive in women these days--thinness, for example--are often unhealthy. When asked on the Today show how much "medical screening" he has given his egg donors, Harris answered, "None."
7. Beauty is less meaningful than intelligence. Harris says he's not the first person to market good genes. Others, he notes, have sold sperm and solicited eggs on the basis of the donor's intelligence. Harris' detractors reply that beauty is "superficial" and conveys a "harmful preoccupation with exterior appearances over intelligence and content of character." This critique is usually offered by a blow-dried TV interviewer who, after thanking Harris for his time, urges viewers to stay tuned for the movie starlet who will join the program after a brief commercial break.
8. Beauty is less useful than intelligence. Harris advertises beauty not as an end but as a means to "success," since people who are physically desirable get more attention, power, and favorable treatment. Having chided Harris for exalting social advantage over "character," critics turn around and adopt his ruthless logic. While conceding that beauty is useful, they argue that intelligence is a better weapon in today's meritocratic information economy--and that although Harris claims his models are "beautiful, healthy and intelligent," he offers no evidence of brains, such as IQ or SAT scores. London's Independent envisions "Bimbo births." A fertility expert shrugs, "If people want to spend $150,000 for the eggs of a gorgeous woman who has an IQ of 68, let them."
9. The auction exploits desperate buyers. Harris preaches pure capitalism, saying it's "unfair to put a limit on a girl's ability to make money" by auctioning her eggs. In turn, fertility clinic operators accuse Harris of "taking advantage of couples trying to conceive" and exploiting "desperate people ... susceptible to the dreams he is trying to sell." USA Today laments, "This is about human need. And human greed."
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.