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."
"We find this very troubling," agreed Steven Ory, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. "This is essentially making embryos a commodity and using technology to breed them, if you will, for certain traits."
Ryan dismissed the complaints.
"People can say, 'Oh, this is the new Hitler.' That's not the case," she said. "I don't take orders. I say 'This is what I have' and send them the background. If they don't think it's right for them, they don't have to take them."
So far the embryos Ryan has created have been from white donors, but she said that was because most of the couples that have contacted her are white. Among the more than 150 couples on her waiting list are African Americans, and she plans to try to create embryos for them, as well as possibly other races and mixes of races.
Ryan is, however, using only egg donors who are in their 20s and have at least some college education and only sperm donors who have advanced education, such as a PhD or law degree. All must undergo a standard round of health tests required for all egg and sperm donors, as well as screening to make sure they have no criminal record or family history of mental illness, Ryan said. They answer detailed questionnaires that ask about their childhood temperaments, favorite books, adult hobbies and family histories.
"If I do discriminate, it's that I only want healthy, intelligent people," Ryan said. "People will say, 'You're trying to create the perfect human race.' But we've always done gene selection just by who women choose as their husbands and men choose as their wives. This is no different."
Ryan said the main advantage is not the attributes of the donors but the cost: She charges $2,500 per embryo and estimates the total price tag should be less than $10,000 for each attempt at pregnancy, which is much less than the cost of standard adoption or in vitro fertilization.
Some experts questioned the creation of embryos for unspecified recipients when about 400,000 excess embryos are in storage at fertility clinics. But Ryan said her embryos are better because she uses young, fertile donors, whereas excess embryos frozen in storage tend to come from older women with fertility problems.
The cost, convenience, prospects of success and ability to vet the donors all are attractive to Ryan's clients -- potentially not only infertile couples and single women but also gay men and lesbian couples.
"You get to get an idea of what your baby will look like, and it just seems like it's a lot easier and more affordable," said Joan, 42, of Birmingham, Ala., who asked that her last name not be used. She contacted Ryan after she was unable to get pregnant using three egg donors and becoming disenchanted by the prolonged process of trying to adopt a child or a leftover embryo. She and her husband want a sibling for their 3-year-old son. "I am not going to give up until I have another baby. This seems very, very attractive," she said.
Some experts, however, warn that the legal status of these embryos remains unsettled.
"Having an interstate business involving human embryos seems to be a bad practice from pretty much every perspective," said Susan L. Crockin, a lawyer in Newton, Mass., who specializes in reproductive technology.
So far, Ryan said, she has produced one batch of 22 embryos using an egg donor in her 20s from Arizona and a sperm donor from Fairfax Cryobank, a sperm bank operated by the Genetics & IVF Institute in Fairfax. He is a 6-foot-tall lawyer with blond hair and blue eyes. She is a student with brown hair and hazel eyes.
A single woman in her 40s from California and a married woman from Canada in her 30s each had two of the embryos implanted and are five months pregnant, Ryan said. In case they want more children or the pregnancies fail, the two clients split the rest of that batch and had the embryos frozen.
A Houston doctor whom Ryan planned to hire to create the second batch dropped out after learning what Ryan was doing, she said. Another doctor in New York subsequently signed on to use the same sperm donor and a blond-haired, blue-eyed egg donor from Utah who works for an airline. The egg donor started taking hormones this week to trigger ovulation.
Another single woman from California in her 40s has signed a contract for two of these embryos, with a 30-day option for more, Ryan said. Any remainders can be shipped frozen to clients on the waiting list, she said.
"When the first 'test tube' baby came out, some people said it was evil," Ryan said. "I think the same thing is happening with this. Because it's new, it's getting all this criticism."