The business logic of made-to-order babies.

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 15 2007 8:32 AM

The Embryo Factory

The business logic of made-to-order babies.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Friday morning, an investigator from the Food and Drug Administration spent four hours questioning Jennalee Ryan of San Antonio, Texas, about her new line of business. That business, outlined a week ago by Washington Post reporter Rob Stein, is making and selling human embryos from handpicked donors. The FDA says this doesn't appear to violate any rules within its purview. Embryo manufacture? Go right ahead.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

It's temping to label Ryan a madwoman, as many critics have. But that's exactly wrong. Ryan represents the next wave of industrial rationality. She's bringing the innovations of Costco and Burger King to the business of human flesh.

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To understand her line of work, you have to understand how she got into it. "Twenty years ago, as a single parent, I contacted agencies and attorneys in the hopes of adopting a child," she explains on her Web site. Unfortunately, "those that were willing to help me offered me older children with emotional problems or severe physical handicaps." These lousy offers drove her to find ways around the system. "With a background in marketing, I came upon the idea of advertising for potential birthmothers," she recalls. "My enterprise grew so quickly, that I soon quit my career in sales and marketing to go into the field of adoption advertising fulltime. … Within 2 years, we were the largest adoption service in the United States."

Ryan deplores the helplessness of adoptive parents. They can't control the child's race, sex, or health. "There is no guarantee … that the gender is absolutely known," she warns clients. "If you are open to different ethnic backgrounds, drug use during pregnancy, etc., there is a better chance that you will be called." You can't even verify drug abuse unless the birth mother consents to a test.

Worse, you have to suck up to the birth mother. She can pick any adoptive parent she wants. "After years of dealing with birth mothers who decided to take [babies] back ... watching poor families have to kiss these girls' butts when they know they are using drugs and alcohol in the pregnancy," Ryan says she began looking for ways to give clients more power over child acquisition. "It was a control thing for me," she explains.

One way around the drug problem is to adopt a leftover IVF embryo instead of a baby. That way, you control gestation. But these embryos often aren't viable. Like leftover babies, they may carry "genetic mental illnesses." And you still get screened. "The recipient family must be scrutinized by the biological parents as well as the agency which requires a home study," Ryan protests. "This can sometimes add insult to injury to an infertile family, who … must 'prove' that they will be good parents."

A better solution is to customize your embryo. By buying eggs, you can get "more control of the prenatal environment and heath of the child" than you'd get with adoption. Through Ryan, you can select an egg "donor"—in practice, a seller—based on "her complete application, her medical and psychological results, genetic screening," and "copies of all the pictures she sent our program of her children, if any, and siblings." The pictures are crucial. Ryan requires five color photos before she'll offer a donor's eggs to buyers. One advantage of buying eggs, she points out, is that you can "choose a donor with similar characteristics" to yours.

Better yet, donors can't screen you. Unlike the adoption scenario, in which an agency can examine your parental fitness, "there is absolutely no such screening required for either egg donation nor sperm donation," Ryan tells buyers. "Nor is the recipient family forced to have to 'sell' themselves to the biological parents in the hopes that they would be chosen as suitable parents." The only thing your donor will be told about the fate of her eggs, according to Ryan, is "whether or not a pregnancy resulted."

But eggs, sperm, and IVF are expensive. Ryan lays out the costs: $4,800 to find your ideal egg donor; $3,500 to $15,000 to compensate her; $3,500 for her drugs; $9,000 to $13,000 for related medical expenses; $3,000 for her travel expenses; $1,000 for legal fees; $500 for a sperm donor; and $1,000 in additional charges. And that's before you get into "medical fees associated with pregnancy and childbirth."