The Embryo Factory
The business logic of made-to-order babies.
What if you pooled these expenses? What if you hired two highly fertile and desirable donors, combined their eggs and sperm in one IVF round, made a big batch of embryos, and sold the embryos a pair a time? Why buy retail when you can buy wholesale?
That's Ryan's plan. She charges $2,500 per embryo. Two women split the first batch; a third has signed a contract for two embryos from the second batch. Ryan figures each batch costs about $22,000 to make. The yield from the first round was 26 embryos. With 300 buyers on her waiting list, Ryan is well positioned to sell out each lot. At $2,500 per unit, a batch of 26 viable embryos would gross $65,000 and net $43,000.
It's a good deal for Ryan's clients, too—"much less expensive than the total IVF procedure, with a much greater overall success rate," she points out. One reason for the higher success rate is that you're paying for an embryo, not an attempt. If you buy eggs and sperm separately and don't get an implantable embryo, you take the loss. Ryan, through her package deal, absorbs that risk for you. No embryo, no bill.
Buying embryos gives you all the advantages of buying eggs and sperm. You can screen donors—in this case, the embryo's parents—for physical and mental health, education, and looks. Since Ryan is shouldering the risk, she screens donors up front. Her embryos' moms are college-educated. The dads have advanced degrees. All the donors are white, since the clients are white. Ryan is no bigot, but business is business. "There is simply a demand for white babies," she shrugs. In fact, three-quarters of the DNA in her first two batches comes from blue-eyed blonds. This isn't eugenics; it's narcissism. "What I was really looking for was blond hair, blue eyes, so the child would look similar to me," one of Ryan's clients told ABC News.
Ryan argues that by using a manufactured embryo instead of a leftover IVF embryo, you can avoid "the discomfort of involving the biological parents." No need to worry that they're "a family somewhere." They've never met each other, much less the embryo. All they sold were eggs and sperm. "I am not emotionally attached to my eggs," says a donor quoted on Ryan's Web site as a model of suitability. "I am not giving my couple a baby." The easiest child to acquire, like the easiest child to abuse, is one who belongs to nobody.
The trouble with adoption agencies that handle leftover embryos is that they don't see it this way. They treat embryos like babies. That's why they screen you, to make sure the embryo will be in good hands. To evade this scrutiny, Ryan calls her service embryo "donation" instead of "adoption." The linguistic change is morally and legally pivotal. Adoption is what happens to babies. Donation is what happens to eggs and sperm. "Embryo donation" is a declaration that embryos should be treated like eggs and sperm—subject to purchase, screening, sale, and disposal—not like babies.
Ryan is explicit about this. "It is unfair that the 'creator' of the embryos can use an egg donor and donor sperm to create the embryos, and have no criteria or third parties to be 'approved' by; yet the family willing to undergo implantation of those same embryos after freezing must come under third party scrutiny," she protests. In other words, embryos deserve no more oversight than eggs and sperm do. John Robertson, chairman of the ethics committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, agrees: "People are already choosing sperm and egg donors in separate transactions. Combining them doesn't pose any new major ethical problems."
That's the central question Ryan's venture poses. She didn't invent commerce, quality control, or trait selection in human reproduction. Those trends are rampant in the egg and sperm markets. All she did was extend them across the line of conception. Does that line matter?
If it does, you'd better figure out how to square that with your views on abortion and stem-cell research. But if it doesn't, you'd better figure out where to draw the next line. Because the logic of what Ryan is offering—more control, more customization, higher quality, fewer hassles, lower cost, and lower risk—won't end here.
The first thing to go will be the fixed price of embryos. Ryan says "high demand" egg donors can earn up to $15,000 per cycle, more than four times what other women get. "Additional compensation is offered to those donors who have earned a post-graduate degree [or] have a unique skill, characteristic or trait," she tells them. That cost will have to be passed along. Meanwhile, competition will generate a more affordable low-end market. Ph.D. embryos will cost more than B.A. embryos.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.