Just before Thanksgiving I put up a post about a fertility clinic in CA that is offering pre-made embryos for sale. (This is rather a coarse way of putting it, perhaps, but it makes the point.) There’s a lot to think about here and there have been a number of thoughtful comments. I wanted to return to the topic and offer a few further thoughts to continue the conversation.
First, for those who think that selling eggs and sperm is wrong, this too is obviously wrong. I think it is fair to say that for those people it is wrong for the same reasons selling sperm and eggs would be wrong–and there are a whole array of reasons. While I think there is an important conversation here–about the propriety of selling sperm/eggs–it is one that has already received extensive attention here.
This why I want to focus on why those who are comfortable with a market for eggs/sperm might nevertheless draw the line at the market for pre-made embryos. It is worth noting that this is where the line is drawn by many in the fertility industry. And of course, some people might decide not to draw a line here but to permit the sale of premade embryos as well.
Second, there is at least one simple justification for drawing a line between sale of gametes and sale of premade embryos: If you believe that life begins when the sperm fertilizes the egg (which I think is often called “conception”) then that could be one reason to say it is not okay to sell the pre-made embryos–because that is selling life. Interestingly, I don’t think this is why most people who would draw a line here do so. My impression (and it is only that) is that those who think life begins at conception generally object to sale of sperm and eggs, too. I’m not sure, however, that this is logically necessary. It seems to me taht you could have a weaker version of the idea that life begins at conception and this could lead you to the conclusion that embryos are qualitatively different from gametes in a way that mandates different treatment.
Third, there is an economic/class aspect to this discussion I’d like to highlight. I think it is generally agreed that most people would rather use custom-made embryos instead of pre-made embryos. There are a number of reasons why the custom made option is generally more desirable. For one thing, you get to pick the specific gametes. For another, you control the extra embryos which gives you control over the creation of full genetic siblings. There are probably more reasons, too.
If it’s clear that the custom-option is generally preferable then why have the ready-made? I think the answer is because it is cheaper. In other words, for some people the price of the custom made embryos is prohibitive. The ready-made are a low-cost option.
That means if we say “no ready-made embryo sales” we will be forcing people of limited means to either compromise their financial security to go the expensive route (which seems like a bad beginning) or forego using ART. (I suppose they might also enter one of the contests I’ve written about.) This seems like something that ought to be taken into consideration in the the discussion. It always worries me when we do things that essentially affects people with less money while those with more can simply walk around whatever obstacles you put in place.
Finally, a lot of the problems people have raised are really tied to anonymity and secrecy. If children do not know that they were created using third-party gametes that is, to my mind, problematic. These problems exist in the conventional egg/sperm market just as much (and really to my mind, no more) as they do in the pre-made embryo market. I don’t see why premade embryos must be composed of material from anonymous providers nor do I see why parents cannot be given access to the information and encouraged to tell their kids what they need to know. Again, I think there are very important issues here, but I’m not sure they are particular to the discussion at hand.