Whenever I write about the underregulated multi-billion-dollar infertility industry, I receive anguished emails from women who can’t become pregnant, declaring that they “would do anything to have a baby.”
I can certainly empathize with their sadness, but their willingness to do anything is a problem. This deep and very human yearning has led to the development of technologies that are moving us away from the unconditional acceptance of the children we receive toward a perceived right not only to have a baby, but to have “the baby we want.”
When first invented, in vitro fertilization (IVF) was sold as a medical remedy to be limited to married couples who could not otherwise conceive. That moralistic restriction is long gone. Today, access to IVF has few limitations—and includes even women well beyond their natural childbearing years. Moreover, it is often combined with “preimplantation genetic diagnosis,” in which a cell is removed from IVF embryos and tested for medical or eugenic failings—as well as for the sex—so that only embryos with desired attributes will be implanted. If too many embryos implant, the next step may be “selective reduction,” the abortion of one or more gestating babies—or, as I once heard an industry rep put it, “turning triplets into twins.” And what of the embryos deemed not to be of the desired quality? They are consigned to the medical waste bag, or subjected to cryogenic freezing, or they become the objects of experimentation.
Meanwhile, couples who want only a beautiful and brilliant child may use sperm provided by good-looking men with high IQs. Or they may pay tens of thousands of dollars to beautiful women attending the nation’s top universities to undergo an egg extraction procedure—which can lead to serious side effects, such as infection, infertility, increased risk of cancer, and, on occasion, even death.
A couple may also pay a woman—known in the dehumanizing industry parlance as a “gestational carrier”—to carry their baby. In a few cases, surrogates have died bearing children for others. These women are commonly denied any right to participate in the life of the child they carried. Moreover, surrogacy contracts may require the surrogate mother to abort if the baby has a perceived defect or is otherwise no longer wanted, a requirement that has led to bitter litigation. Nor is there necessarily a requirement that the baby-buying parents actually accept their order. For example, a few years ago, an Australian couple paid a Thai woman to gestate two children but refused to take one home because he had Down syndrome. When it later came to light that the father was a convicted sex offender, the surrogate sued for custody of the boy’s sister but lost—even though the judge ordered the father to never be left alone with his daughter.
A recent Washington Post story details how these technologies are potentially distorting normal family relations. From the article:
The California IVF Fertility Center is pioneering what some refer to as the “Costco model” of babymaking, creating batches of embryos using donor eggs and sperm that can be shared among several different families.
Assisted reproduction is also the approach to take when not just “any” baby will do. Again, from the Post story:
Fertility companies freely admit that specimens from attractive donors go fast, but it’s intelligence that drives the pricing: Many companies charge more for donors with a graduate degree.
Talent sells, too. One cryobank, Family Creations, which has offices in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Austin and other large cities, notes that a 23-year-old egg donor “excels in calligraphy, singing, modeling, metal art sculpting, painting, drawing, shading and clay sculpting.” A 29-year-old donor “excels in softball, tennis, writing and dancing.”
What next: a right of return?
These sales pitches are examples of “positive eugenics,” using techniques of selection to ensure that a baby has desirable characteristics. (This is to be distinguished from “negative eugenics,” which involved involuntary sterilization to prevent the undesirable from “breeding.”)
Even more worrisome, technologies are being developed that could make the manufacture of “superior” babies more precise. Research on a new “gene editing” technology known as CRISPR—which theoretically allows any cell or organism to have its genome altered—is advancing exponentially, with early research ongoing on human embryos created for that purpose. The ostensible point of such experimentation is to prevent genetic disease. But many of these technologies could also be applied to make designer babies with enhanced intelligence, strength, and beauty. Indeed, Dr. David King, director of Human Genetics Alert, recently warned a Reuters reporter that CRISPR could “create this new form of consumer eugenics in which people choose the cosmetic characteristics and abilities of their children and enhance them to perform better than other people’s children.”
All of this is taking place without meaningful regulation. Even modest legal controls have, for the most part, been rejected, with the infertility industry bringing in people who are desperate to be parents to testify at legislative hearings. And here is perhaps the bitterest irony: As these extreme technologies are deployed to form families, many children without homes yearn in vain to be adopted—even as the adoption process has become increasingly difficult, due to the many bureaucratic hurdles here and tightening restrictions overseas. That means lost opportunities for love—illustrated in the viral video of a little girl wrapping herself around a school administrator’s legs out of sheer joy at being told a judge had approved her adoption.
As a famous man often tweets: Sad! And scary. I fear that soon the unconditional love of parents toward their future children will be undermined by the words: “We can pay, and here’s what we want.”