Jennalee Ryan of Texas advertises "The World's First Human Embryo Bank" online. There's no need for would-be parents to settle for already-born babies or leftover embryos from couples with fertility issues. Ryan sent out a letter that explains, "Recipient parents will receive pictures of the donors as infants, and sometimes as adults; full medical background and health reports, and a family history." Her group, The Abraham Center of Life, uses sperm donors only with college degrees -- although "most of them have doctorate degrees" -- while most egg donors have some college.
O Brave New World that has such Petri dishes in it. Prospective parents can pick the sperm and the eggs to produce their designer babies. Ryan even says she can find a surrogate mother to carry the fetus to term.
Ryan would not give me the names of any clinic or any doctor with whom she works -- so I could not verify that she can deliver on her claims. Buyer beware. But her announcement has bioethicists in a lather. In response to a British story on Ryan's work, the Weblog for the American Journal of Bioethics wrote, "Welcome back to the Wild, Wild West of Assisted Reproduction."
Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that even if Ryan is operating out of her own freezer, even if she is -- excuse the pun -- a "mom-and-pop entrepreneur, there will be bigger fish swimming in pretty soon." Why? "The demand is there. The behavior of people selling sperm and eggs is wild enough; there's no reason to think this isn't the natural next step in making babies: embryos to order."
Aren't you selling designer babies? I ask Ryan over the phone last week.
"Designer babies? Yeah. Why not?" she replies with a laugh. For years, she adds, sperm banks have required college degrees from donors, and she often uses a sperm bank that requires sperm from Ph.D.s. "Does that make it a designer baby because they have a Ph.D.? But why wouldn't I use someone with a Ph.D. versus a truck driver? It's all the same cost."
"You know why I did it? Because I could." Ryan explains. She started Abigails Silver Spoons Adoptions, Inc. years ago, and while that enterprise continues, Ryan saw a new market in embryos.
If a couple tries to adopt a baby, but the birth mother changes her mind, that couple can be out $10,000 -- with no baby to show for it. If a couple wants to adopt a frozen embryo, the couple usually is screened by the embryo's parents (if you will) -- and with frozen embryos the success rate is around 30 percent.
Ryan says that with proven egg and sperm donors, "medical experts predict that the pregnancy rate is closer to 70 percent." I'll ask the American Society for Reproductive Medicine about that, I tell her. Ryan says they'll confirm her number, but ASRM Sean Tipton spokesman flatly refuses to do so.
He wonders if Ryan is a third-party broker, because she is not a member of his medical group. No, she says, she is "a business."
It also turns out that the embryo bank is not really a bank. "When we say an embryo bank, it's not like a closet," Ryan explains. "We have embryos at different clinics." How many? Again, Ryan would not supply their names, but she says she has 32 embryos and "they're all spoken for." When she has another backlog and knows what her clients want, she'll cook up a new batch.
Caplan can't stand the language used in the embryo biz. Don't call them egg donors and sperm donors, he says. Call them "egg sellers and sperm sellers." (In case you're wondering, Ryan's site lists the egg donor's fee as $3,500 to $15,000, although, "exceptional and repeat donors will often receive higher compensation.")
As for Ryan's statement that, "Egg donation is a safe, simple procedure that requires little more than several scheduled doctor appointments and the administration of fertility medication, " Caplan disagrees. "That's too kindly a description," he says, citing women who have died using fertility drugs.
Caplan believes that the United States should be regulating the embryo trade. He asks: "Who the hell are they and how do we know that these numbers are true?"
William Hurlbut of Stanford University, a member of the president's Council on Bioethics, a White House advisory council, looked at Ryan's Web site and noted that the practices she advertises are happening, although, "This would be one of those realms where it would be pretty hard to detect fraud."
Caplan asks, "How do we get to the point where you go to jail if you go up to someone on the street and say, 'Do you want to buy my child for $10,000?' You'd think they were barbaric, immoral, heinous people. But if they come down the street and say, 'Hey, there's an Internet site. Do you want to buy an egg, sperm and surrogate mother?' We think they're just entrepreneurs. What's going on here?"
I wonder: If would-be parents choose sperm and eggs to design an ideal child, what's next? Will there be a world led by designer babies and serviced by us undesigned folk?
Ryan tells me, "As of right now, there is no regulation. You know how it works? If there is no law against it, it's legal."