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News of the Day ... In Perspective


New life for sale: $3 billion human egg industry booms

There’s a new kind of brokerage firm in our brave new world: agencies that assemble databases of young women and market their eggs to customers who want a baby and can’t produce one themselves.

Some offer photographs and information about hobbies, education, and religion, along with health screening, so customers can pick the “donor.” Some consider “donor shopping” for “designer babies” unethical, and match the donor on the basis of a few genetic traits.

The broker charges around $16,500, which includes the donor’s fee of $4,000 or more. A woman who has successfully “cycled” three or four times can command up to $8,000.

A donor must inject herself with fertility drugs every day for 6 weeks. Donor #8447 produced 16 eggs during one cycle. Some of the embryos that were created were implanted, and some frozen.

“I think it’s great,” she said. “Men have always been able to spread their genes. Now I can spread my genes” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune 10/22/07).

The outcome of these “miracles for sale” is not always happy. Some clients have held a newborn in their arms and said “I don’t feel attached to my child,” reported University of Minnesota psychologist Linda Hammer Burns. Or years after children are born, divorcing parents use the means of their conception as emotional weapons in bitter legal fights (ibid.).

An unasked question is how many years of her own potential fertility has donor #8447 sold? There is apparently no limit. Tests for infectious diseases that could be transmitted to surrogate or baby are among the few regulations governing egg and sperm donation in the U.S.

Infertile women who create frozen embryos tend to have a view of them that differs from that of donor #8447.

“Our data suggest that for most of the individuals who create embryos in hopes of having a baby, the preference is not that their remaining embryos have a chance at life, but rather that they be used in a way (research, and if not, simply destruction) that ensures that they do not,” write Anne Drapkin Lyerly of Duke University Medical Center and Ruth R. Faden of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics (Science 2007;317:46-47).

More than half would donate their embryos for research, apparently believing that “scientific progress justifies the instrumental use of early human life.” Only around 20% would donate to another couple, suggesting that “there are deep responsibilities to one’s own embryos…that preclude allowing them to develop into children without the knowledge, participation, or love of those who created them.”

About 400,000 human embryos are currently cryopreserved.

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