'Embryo Bank' Stirs Ethics Fears

Jennalee Ryan, who is selling the service, points out that selecting an embryo is more affordable than selecting both an egg donor and a sperm donor.
Jennalee Ryan, who is selling the service, points out that selecting an embryo is more affordable than selecting both an egg donor and a sperm donor. (Courtesy Of Jennalee Ryan)
By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 6, 2007

A Texas company has started producing batches of ready-made embryos that single women and infertile couples can order after reviewing detailed information about the race, education, appearance, personality and other characteristics of the egg and sperm donors.

The Abraham Center of Life LLC of San Antonio, the first commercial dealer making embryos in advance for unspecified recipients, was created to help make it easier and more affordable for clients to have babies that match their preferences, according to its founder.

"We're just trying to help people have babies," said Jennalee Ryan, who arranged for an egg donor to start medical treatments to produce a second batch of embryos this week. "For me, that's what this is all about: helping make babies."

But the embryo brokerage, which calls itself "the world's first human embryo bank," raises alarm among some fertility experts and bioethicists, who say the service marks another disturbing step toward commercialization of human reproduction and "designer babies."

"We're increasingly treating children like commodities," said Mark A. Rothstein, a bioethicist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. "It's like you're ordering a computer from Dell: You give them the specs, and they put it in the mail. I don't think we should consider mail-order computers and other products the same way we consider children."

Prospective parents have long been able to select egg or sperm donors based on ethnicity, education and other traits. Couples can also "adopt" embryos left over at fertility clinics, or have embryos created for them if they need both eggs and sperm. But the new service marks the first time anyone has started turning out embryos as off-the-shelf products.

Before contracting for the embryos, clients can evaluate the egg and sperm donors, and can even see pictures of them as babies, children and sometimes adults. A fertility specialist will then transfer the embryos into a client's womb or into a surrogate, which Ryan can also arrange.

"We're unique," Ryan said. "We're the only one in the world doing this right now."

Some fertility doctors and ethicists are undisturbed by the Abraham Center because the service does not differ markedly from what already happens routinely at fertility clinics.

"I know some people say: 'This is shocking. Embryos made to order,' " said John A. Robertson of the University of Texas at Austin, who advises fertility specialists on ethical issues. "But if you step back a little bit, you realize that people are already choosing sperm and egg donors in separate transactions. Combining them doesn't pose any new major ethical problems."

But others condemned the process as the unsettling culmination of recent objectionable developments, including the payment of egg and sperm donors and the growing tendency to try to select traits such as sex, intelligence and appearance.

"People have long warned we were moving toward a 'Brave New World,' " said Robert P. George of Princeton University, who serves on the President's Council on Bioethics. "This is just more evidence that we haven't been able to restrain this move towards treating human life like a commodity. This buying and selling of eggs and sperm and now embryos based on IQ points and PhDs and other traits really moves us in the direction of eugenics."

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