May 29, 2024


From Texas, the state where Michael Dell pioneered custom-built computers, come custom-built embryos. Commercialisation of the IVF process has achieved a new milestone with the world’s first embryo bank at an innovative adoption agency in San Antonio. The allows people to order custom-made embryos and have them shipped to an IVF clinic for implantation.

The embryos are created with the eggs and sperm of rigorously screened, "qualified" donors who have never met each other. Conception occurs as the embryo bank fills its orders. Customers can even specify the eye and hair colour that they would like their baby to have.

Jennalee Ryan, the director, says that her program is superior to both normal adoption and "adopting" surplus embryos in IVF clinics. Babies offered for adoption tend to come from lower class women, she says, who often have a history of drug or alcohol abuse. IVF embryos come from couples with fertility problems and the pregnancy rate is, at best, about 30%. Furthermore, adopting couples may have to deal with vexatious genetic parents. Often an adopting couple has to jump through hoops to prove that they will be good parents.

This new system skirts all these problems, offering a high probability of intelligent, healthy babies, without any interference from the biological parents. Most of her sperm donors have PhDs and most egg donors have had some tertiary education. All donors are medically screened and the medical quality of embryos is graded. With "proven" donors, the success rate for a pregnancy is around 70%, compared to IVF rates of about 30%. The centre can arrange for qualified surrogate mothers, if necessary. However, Ms Ryan told the London Daily Mail that most clients on her waiting list were not fussy about the characteristics of their embryos. They were happy just to get a child.

Like Dell’s computers, the other advantage of buying embryos through the Abraham Center of Life is price. At about half the cost of adoption, it is "a cost-effective, highly successful option to infertility", says Ms Ryan. For US$10,000, customers will get two embryos.

Critics react. Ms Ryan acknowledged that there was some opposition to custom-built embryos, especially from religious groups. "But what I say to them is Jesus was not conceived in the normal way either. I don’t lose any sleep over what we are doing. I feel what we are doing is positive. We are helping couples and putting good genes back into the universe."

The US media, for some reason, has largely ignored this novel business, despite a Ms Ryan’s press release. However, Josephine Quintavalle of the British lobby group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, told the Daily Mail that it represented the "absolute commercialisation of human life… It is heartbreaking to see children reduced in this way to the equivalent of a special offer supermarket commodity: cut price, tailor-made human embryos, complete with door-to-door delivery."

Even utilitarian bioethicist Arthur Caplan, of the University of Pennslyvania, was revolted by Ms Ryan’s entrepreneurial plans. "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?"