I wish I had more time today to comment on this disturbing article from Alan Zarembo at the Los Angeles Times. Suffice it to say that I am disgusted that a medical facility would intentionally create embryos from donor sperm and donor eggs without any Recipient Parent in mind. To be clear, when I was contacted for comment about this article, it was well understood in the community that the medical facility and its embryo program, California Conceptions, was creating embryos from donor gametes with no specific recipient parent in mind. In other words, they were creating a bank of the most commercially desirable embryos to be “sold” to patients with a money-back guarantee.
Make no mistake, this is commodification. These are not donated embryos. Rather, they are embryos created from donors hand-selected by California Conceptions. It is one step removed from a mail order catalog. The only difference is that the product being sold is nascent human life.
There is no shortage of unwanted human embryos in the United States. The best estimates indicate that there are more than 500,000 unwanted cryopreserved embryos currently being stored in fertility clinics across America. Many of these embryos would be available for donation to a financially-strapped couple looking to begin a family. Then again, donated embryos do not make for a very profitable business model.
Beyond the despicable commercialization aspects of this program is the potential underlying harm to the resulting children and their families. Many will have genetic siblings they will never know. Further, patients who use this money-back program will likely be unable to have children who are genetically related to each other as any desire for a sibling will likely result in a brother or sister with no genetic connection to the first child.
I am an unapologetic advocate for access to assisted reproduction. But this program has pushed the ethical envelope beyond anything that can be morally or even pragmatically justified. There is simply no credible basis to justify a program that not only wrests the decision making from an infertility patient, but allows a physician to intentionally create the most commercially marketable embryos for potential sale in the future. We build houses on spec. We shouldn’t be condoning a practice that creates children on spec.
Dr. Ernest Zeringue was looking for a niche in the cutthroat industry of fertility treatments.
He seized on price, a huge obstacle for many patients, and in late 2010 began advertising a deal at his Davis, Calif., clinic unheard of anywhere else: Pregnancy for $9,800 or your money back.
That’s about half the price for in vitro fertilization at many other clinics, which do not include money-back guarantees. Typically, insurance coverage is limited and patients pay again and again until they give birth — or give up.
Those patients use their own eggs and sperm — or carefully select donors when necessary — and the two are combined in a petri dish to create a batch of embryos. Usually one or two are then transferred to the womb. Any embryos left over are the property of the customers.
Zeringue sharply cuts costs by creating a single batch of embryos from one egg donor and one sperm donor, then divvying it up among several patients. The clinic, not the customer, controls the embryos, typically making babies for three or four patients while paying just once for the donors and the laboratory work.
People buying this option from Zeringue must accept concessions: They have no genetic connection to their children, and those children will probably have full biological siblings born to other parents.
Inside the industry, Zeringue’s strategy for making embryos on the cheap has spurred debate about the ethical boundaries of creating life.
I will have more thoughts on this when time permits.