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Oct. 28 1999 3:30 AM

eBabe

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.

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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."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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."

10. The auction exploits desperate sellers. By late Monday, Harris had only a handful of bids, and only one was verified as legitimate. On the other hand, 50 women had asked him to put their eggs up for auction. Gradually, the media concluded that the donors were the true victims. USA Today described the models as "struggling actresses," reported that they were unaware of the health risks of donating eggs, and quoted one as saying, "I'd rather do this than do Playboy or Penthouse." Harris' sole verified bidder told the paper that selling eggs was "better than prostitution."

Harris constantly refers to the donors as his "girls" and describes them like cattle--"We have a legitimate bid of $42,000 on one of the girls." He gets a 20 percent commission on each winning bid, though he takes no responsibility for executing financial transactions or medical procedures. "We have no control over the quality, safety or legality of the items advertised, the truth or accuracy of the listings, the ability of sellers to sell items or the ability of buyers to buy items," he stipulates. His role, he explains, is simply to "find beautiful girls, take beautiful photographs of them, [and] put them up on the Web." To some critics, the mystery isn't, as Harris suggests, how women throughout history have exploited their sexual power over men, but how pimps like him have come away with the profit.

11. The auction exploits voyeurs. The Washington Post thinks Harris isn't targeting either buyers or sellers. He's not serious about selling eggs, says the Post. He's just using the sex appeal of his models and the intriguing perversity of a human egg auction to drum up publicity and attract Internet traffic to his site, from which he can sell advertising and subscriptions ($24.95 a month to view profiles of the models), hawk his forthcoming book (Naked Power), and direct prurient visitors to his various porn sites. A spokesman for fertility doctors suspects that ronsangels.com is really aimed at "adolescent boys."

12. The Internet facilitates monstrous purchases. Technology watchdogs call the egg auction another chapter in the cultural slide marked by Jennycam (a Web site featuring live video of a young woman undressing and doing other normal activities in her apartment), the promised Webcast of a man and woman losing their virginity together (which turned out to be a hoax), and a human kidney auction that was conducted and aborted on eBay last month. "Ever since the Internet, it seems to snowball more rapidly, this depersonalization of people and selling of eggs," one fertility expert complains to the New York Times. USA Today says the egg auction "just might force an Internet-obsessed society to finally sit down and ask itself: Where is the Internet taking us?"

13. The Internet cheats people of their monstrous purchases. The only thing worse than buying human eggs on the Internet, according to the critics, is not getting the eggs you paid for. "When you have large transactions of this kind conducted over the Internet, there may be fraud," a computer crime expert warns USA Today. Lori Andrews, a reproductive technology lawyer, warns CNN viewers that "there's very little that you can do to prove that these eggs actually came from the donors that were expected," and "the Internet just adds ... a layer that it makes it even more difficult to scrutinize where the eggs are coming from."

14. Egg buyers will reap unintended consequences. Sophisticated skeptics point out that Harris' application of Darwin's theories to human professional success overlooks the interaction of genetics and human psychology. To begin with, if a child produced by Harris' auction fails to turn out as pretty as the buyer expected, the buyer may shun the child, or the child may grow to hate herself for disappointing her parents. (On the Today show, Harris said of this theory, "That's a pretty cynical view of human nature.") Second, if the child turns out pretty but doesn't want to be a beauty queen, her parents may force her in that direction anyway, thereby stifling her true talents and preventing her from becoming successful. Third, the child's good looks may attract too much attention of the wrong kind, eventually destroying her. Critics cite Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe as examples.

15. Other people's eggs don't pass on your genes. In defense of his auction, Harris quotes author Helen Fisher's statement that "having sex is the most important act of your life. This is how we get our genes to the next generation." But Harris seems to have overlooked the crucial words: "our genes." "The drive to send your own genes into tomorrow is much stronger than the [drive] to pick out of a sperm bank or egg site," Fisher observes. This consideration may not affect single men, but it can be a decisive turnoff for couples. On this view, Harris' mistake is not that he focuses too much on selfishness, but that he neglects it. He forgets that you don't care about reproducing unless what you're reproducing is yourself.

16. The power of beauty should be transcended, not exploited. Harris preaches that the world rewards beauty because it's human nature to favor those who are pleasant to look at, and therefore the way to have successful children is to make sure they're attractive. The most ambitious response is to attack the whole "prejudice" in favor of beauty. "The standards of beauty do vary with the culture. And they are social facts, not really genetics facts," says Hastings Center ethicist Bruce Jennings. Therefore, "we should think about" whether to "accept the existing prejudices and then try to eugenically manipulate them" or to transcend those prejudices.

This critique challenges two precepts of Harris' worldview. First, while pretending to accept human nature as a given, he violates it by peddling strangers' eggs and encouraging the production of children who will probably never know their mothers. Family association, loyalty, and love are among the best parts of human nature. Slavish catering to physically attractive strangers is among the worst. If we're going to challenge human nature, the critics ask, why not start with the latter rather than the former?

Second, Harris assumes that the perfection parents want in their children coincides with Darwinian perfection. "Every organism is trying to evolve to its most perfect state," he writes. What he doesn't seem to understand is that human beings aren't quite like other animals, just as the rest of the world isn't exactly like the modeling and soft-porn industries of Southern California. Humans have evolved to a stage at which our ideas about virtue, perfection, and success have become more than material. At least, most of us have.

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