Has sex become irrelevant?

Jennalee Ryan with a photo opportunityIncreasingly, the world seems divided into those who think that sex is life-affirming and exciting and those who don’t. There was a time, long ago, when these Puritans were god-botherers, but the tide has turned. Nowadays they’re reproductive health experts. Take, for instance, Marie Stopes International, one of the world’s leading promoters of contraception and abortion. It was the organiser of last week’s Masturbate-a-thon in London, an event exported from -- where else? -- San Francisco. “In our work all over the world, every day, we see the consequences of fertile orgasms,” said spokesman Tony Kerridge. A rather roundabout way to describe children, most people would think.

But even for some who do want children, sex is about as exciting as blowing your nose. The latest development is custom-built kids in Texas, the state where Michael Dell pioneered custom-built computers. An innovative adoption agency in San Antonio, the Abraham Center for Life, has set up the world’s first embryo bank. It allows its customers to order custom-made embryos and have them shipped to an IVF clinic for implantation.

According to the centre’s press release, the embryos are created with the eggs and sperm of rigorously screened, "qualified" donors who have never met each other. Customers can even specify the eye and hair colour that they would like their baby to have. Back in 1993, Tina Turner sang, “What’s love go to do with it?” Now, one might ask, what’s sex got to do with it?

Jennalee Ryan, the director of the centre, 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 women of the lower classes, 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 per cent. 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 her pregnancies is around 70 per cent. The centre can even 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 their embryos.1 They were happy just to get a child.

What the children will think is another thing. They might feel disillusioned when they discover that they were conceived without love or passion in a Petri dish. They might feel dehumanised when they discovered that they were assembled from a portfolio of anonymous sperm and egg donors. They might feel cheated by the fact that they have no idea who their true mothers or fathers are, what they look like, or whether they have brothers and sisters.  

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.

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 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."

Truth to tell, the Abraham Center for Life looks like a very shonky outfit indeed. Ms Ryan was rather vague about how it was organised when she spoke to the San Francisco Chronicle.2  It turns out that there’s no “embryo bank”, just embryos in different banks or clinics. She appears to be merely a coordinator. And her client base is small -- only about 30 at the moment.

However, as she told the Chronicle, "As of right now, there is no regulation. You know how it works? If there is no law against it, it's legal." If her business fails to attract customers, she will soon be forgotten. But if it succeeds, she will soon have imitators, lots of them, no doubt. For some would-be adoptive parents, her product could be extremely attractive: adopted kids with no genetic baggage and no troublesome parents or siblings, manufactured with just the right eye colour and IQ.

Assisted reproduction in the United States is largely unregulated. It is unlikely that the public will be so revolted by the prospect of Ms Ryan’s assembly-line designer babies that laws will be passed. She and her customers will surely contend that childless couples should not be thwarted in their quest to have the baby of their dreams -- an argument which has trumped all ethical considerations in the past.

It is hard to know how to deal with this disturbing new development. But it’s easy to know where we went wrong. Back in the 60s contraception separated loving sex from beloved children. Four decades later, technology has made it possible to separate sex from love as well. The logical consequence is that Texas children are being sold like mail-order computers. Isn’t it finally time to rethink the legacy of the Pill?

Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet.

(1) "Ethical row over world's first 'made to order' embryo". Daily Mail. Aug 4, 2006
(2) Debra J. Saunders. “Embryos made to order”. San Francisco Chronicle. Aug 8, 2006.


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