Eggs for sale! Get a load of beauty genes for your next child. Put in your bid for the reproductive eggs of a luscious model. Forget the trophy wife. Go right to the petri dish.
The supposed online auction of supermodel eggs to couples undergoing in vitro fertilization made headlines last week. The Web site proffered photos of models and called for bids starting at $15,000. The whole scheme may be a hoax, but it shows how far the country has traveled down the road of medicalized cosmetics. The stunning advances in genomics to treat and prevent disease have also produced a siren call to use these same medical techniques to enhance desired traits. If you can manipulate genes and genetic mechanisms at the cellular level to treat hemophilia, why not patent a few genes to enhance beauty? Or intelligence? Or height?
Call it Barbie Doll genetics.
Fortunately the laws of nature work against this tawdry narcissism. There is so much genetic diversity that when two individuals come together and have a child, there is no guarantee that the baby will get long legs from a father or brown hair from a mother.
"Sometimes the child will look like the mother, sometimes not," says fertility expert Robert J. Stillman of the Shady Grove Fertility Centers. "Every individual is an amalgam of genes that goes back generations."
Even before test tube babies and the Human Genome Project, people understood these basic rules of inheritance. The playwright George Bernard Shaw said it best. When a woman proposed that since he was the greatest brain in the world and she was the most beautiful woman, they should meet and procreate, he replied:
"What if the child inherits my body and your brains?"
The medical community, and especially the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, have roundly denounced the egg-auctioning scheme. For the most part, they say, couples who turn to fertility techniques and use eggs donated by another woman--or sperm donated by another man--just want a healthy baby. "I think a lot of this is created by the media," says David Hoffman, a fertility specialist in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area. "Most people are pretty well grounded in their expectations."
Yet there is an undercurrent in the largely unregulated field of "assisted" reproduction about getting a Grade A child. "There is clearly a subtext that some people bring to the fore," says Stillman. "They would like a child that has characteristics--mental and physical--that are at a premium. Sometimes that is beauty. Sometimes that is height."
Why not eggs from beauty queens?
In the fertility business, there is the opportunity to design your baby to some extent and make sure you start out with healthy sperm and eggs. Egg donors, for example, are usually screened medically and psychologically to see if their genetic package is suitable. They are already matched up with the recipient to be of the same race, religion, height, weight, hair and eye coloring. They are tested to see if they are carriers of certain diseases such as cystic fibrosis. And then, a short couple might want to get a six-footer into the gene pool. Most would prefer a donor who is "educated and attractive," says Hoffman.
But the idea that anyone would bid for the eggs of a supermodel goes over the ethical line. To some, the scheme is a chilling reminder of the evil of eugenics and historical attempts to "purify" the race. It conjures up a "Brave New World" scenario where couples would be screened for their fitness to reproduce and medicine used to manipulate the gene pool for socially approved characteristics.
Such as what? Supermodel lips? Basketball player height? A certain IQ? Skin color?
"It is not our intention to suggest that we make a super-society of only beautiful people," protests cyber-scribe Ron Harris, a self-described fashion photographer and promoter of the online egg auction site.
Fortunately, a world of the beautifully cloned and groomed is not possible, for biomedical as well as public policy reasons. (Cloning is banned.) But before this scheme disappears into cyber-trash, it may have an unintended but beneficial side effect: It has forced the public to take another look at today's rampant Beauty Culture.
"This site simply mirrors our current society, in that beauty usually goes to the highest bidder," opines Harris in an online essay.
"Beauty is its own reward. . . . This is the first society to truly comprehend how important beautiful genes are to our evolution. Just watch television and you will see that we are only interested in looking at beautiful people. From the network anchors to supermodels that appear in most advertisements, our society is obsessed with youth and beauty."
Harris is no Arnold Toynbee. But as a cultural historian, he's captured the essence of these Shallow Times as portrayed in the media. It's just that most couples who want to have children are smarter than that.