Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

Embryos for Sale?

When you want them, how you want them, or your money back

For those who have struggled with the emotional, physical, and monetary stresses of trying unsuccessfully to start a family by using other people’s eggs or sperm, there is another option: embryo donation. Though a resulting child isn’t genetically related to either intended parent, the mother will be able to carry and give birth to the child, and the parents can be there from day one of the child’s life.

Typically, the available embryos are the result of in vitro fertilization treatments. People who don’t wish to give any of their “leftover” embryos to research or discard them have the option of donating them to another couple. In theory this kind of arrangement is a win-win for all involved: a happy alternative for the donors, and a new chance for a child for the recipients.

Several organizations have been established to facilitate these embryo donations. The reality, however, is that though there are hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos in this country, few people opt to donate theirs to other intended parents, and there is a long wait for couples hoping to receive one.

The California Conceptions Donated Embryo Program was started in hopes of changing this imbalance,” reads the informational page on embryo donation at the website of California IVF: Davis Fertility Clinic. But California Conceptions differs from other embryo donation organizations in a crucial way: They create the embryos themselves.  

The fertility doctor who introduced this concept, Dr. Ernest Zeringue, reportedly saw it as a way to remain competitive in a largely unregulated fertility industry.  He offers IVF with pre-created embryos for about half the cost of traditional IVF, and with an unheard of deal: Pregnancy for $9,800 or your money back. The Davis clinic says that nearly 200 couples have used this service already, with a 95 percent success rate.

Zeringue’s prospective patients are sent extensive profiles of sperm and egg donors before they commit; if there is sufficient interest, the clinic purchases the selected sperm and eggs and makes the embryos. Zeringue is able to cut costs because he creates batches of embryos, which he distributes among multiple patients, keeping any extras frozen for future use. When embryos are left over from IVF, they belong to the genetic parents; in this scenario, they belong to the clinic.

Zeringue doesn’t see a problem with this. He states that the embryos "are still treated ethically. They are no different than embryos that have a person's name assigned to them." But many believe that selling pre-made embryos crosses an ethical boundary.

Dr. Craig Sweet, medical and practice director of Embryo Donation International, sees Zeringue’s creation of “McEmbryos” as an unethical variation of the work to which he has given his life. He disputes Zeringue’s claim that this method can even be considered “embryo donation” explaining:

Embryo donation occurs when patients with excess cryopreserved embryos make the amazing decision to donate their frozen embryos to patients in need. The L.A. Times report indicates that California Conceptions is creating embryos through the combination of donor eggs and donor sperm and marketing them as donated embryos. If they are claiming they are donated embryos, nothing could be further from the truth.

Andrew Vorzimer, a Los Angeles fertility lawyer and “an unapologetic advocate for access to assisted reproduction,” raises a similar point and is alarmed that a company has control over the embryos:

Make no mistake, this is commodification. These are not donated embryos. Rather, they are embryos created from donors hand-selected by California Conceptions. It is one step removed from a mail order catalog. The only difference is that the product being sold is nascent human life. A similar kind of embryo bank has been attempted before.

In 2007, CGS Senior Fellow and UC Hastings Law Professor Osagie Obasogie wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe titled “‘Wal-martization’ of Embryos” about the Abraham Center for Life, “the world’s first human embryo bank.” The Texas center drastically cut costs by purchasing sperm and eggs wholesale and running out of founder Jennalee Ryan’s home. Many commentators voiced concern that Ryan was designing and selling genetically desirable babies. She accepted only attractive and college-educated donors, and offered patients their choice of “designer” traits. In effect, hers was a sort of Wal-Mart with couture aspirations.

Slate writer William Saletan pointed out at the time that “Ryan represents the next wave of industrial rationality. She's bringing the innovations of Costco and Burger King to the business of human flesh.” But what works for groceries and burgers didn’t work so well in this case. After just a few months, Ryan closed the center because she was losing too much money. She was also the subject of an FDA investigation.

Interestingly, her old website is now a blog with adoption tips; and Ryan now works as a “baby broker” at A Silver Spoon Adoptions Inc., one of the first adoption facilitation agencies, where she earns a fee matching birth mothers with adoptive parents. It turns out that Ryan is completely surrounded in controversy, having changed her name and the face of her company many times, possibly in part to take advantage of lax regulations in the fertility industry.

Zeringue, however, is not a rogue entrepreneur working out of his living room. He is a trained infertility specialist and the founder of California IVF: Davis Fertility Center, Inc. Have the past five years served to legitimize the selling of retail embryos? Zeringue’s business model and the issues it raises will be discussed at a meeting in January of the ethics committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

Jessica Cussins is a researcher at the Center for Genetics and Society.

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