Our modern fertility industry allows couples to shop for sperm donors like an online dating service. They specify hair and eye color, educational background even screen for genetic diseases.
Egg donation is a growing option, with ads placed in Ivy League student newspapers, but no service had actually taken the next step of putting human embryos up for sale. Until now.
An Unconventional Matchmaker
Jennalee Ryan sees herself as a pioneer. She runs a fledgling company, the Abraham Center of Life, out of her spacious San Antonio home.
"We are the world's first donor-created human embryo bank, in that we're the only service out there that's actually creating embryos as a company for the purpose of infertile families to adopt," she explains.
Ryan is an unconventional matchmaker who buys sperm from labs that require donors to have doctorate degrees. She hires only attractive egg donors in their 20s with college educations. She then sends both the sperm and eggs to a doctor who creates the embryos. Price tag? $5,000 for a pair, which is what Ryan recommends.
But there has been some concern from the medical community that Ryan's company is not just selling embryos, but it is actually selling babies.
"Well, I think when somebody goes to an adoption agency, and they pay $40,000 to adopt a child, are they going to then say, 'I just bought my baby for $40,000?'" Ryan asked.
But there are bioethicists who say that what Ryan does comes very close to designing genetically desirable babies and putting them up for sale.
"In adoption you get kids that are here," said Art Caplan, a bioethicist from the University of Pennsylvania. "And they do need homes. In embryos, you're making something; you're creating something for sale."
'The Better Baby Angle'
And what about Ryan's claim that she's merely putting together egg donors and sperm donors?
"She's basically saying, 'I got Ph.D. donors. I got women who are college graduates. I have people who are gonna get you -- somehow or another, the suggestion [is] -- a better baby,'" Caplan said. "I think if she just said, 'I got embryos, wanna buy 'em?' she wouldn't be able to command a business. It's the 'better baby' angle that's really pulling people toward her operation."
Ryan disagreed, saying that it's harsh to judge couples who are desperate to have children and are willing to pay.
"Bioethicists disturb me," said Ryan. "An ethics committee made up of infertile couples will tell you that this is the most ethical thing in the world. The same committee with families who can have children are going to throw rocks and say it's not. So it depends on who the bioethicist is."
Let's Have a Family
Sherrie and Mike Baggett are Ryan's case in point. An attractive, college-educated couple in their mid-30s, they were high school sweethearts who at first put off having kids in favor of careers. Ryan says they are in the top 200 of a list of 450 clients from all around the world.
Mike Baggett is candid about his early thoughts on parenthood.
"I hate to say it, but I was probably kind of a little selfish at the start. And it took a little while for [my wife] to convince me that, 'it's time…let's have a family.'"
After five years of struggling to get pregnant, the Baggetts were forced into the emotionally fraught world of fertility treatments.
"The physical part of it I can handle," said Sherrie Baggett. "I mean the shots I can handle and all that kind of stuff. It's just, 'will this work now?' It's the wondering. It's lack of control."
They tried two rounds of in-vitro fertilization, costing $12,000 a round. But each round failed.
"It's kind of like, your heart's breaking," she said, her voice cracking. "You know, it's frustrating and it makes you want to scream inside. It's obsessing."
"You're supposed to grow up and be a mommy. You know?" she said. "You're supposed to have grandkids and, you're supposed to have a family."
Financial and Emotional Costs
The Baggetts tried giving up on parenthood, spending time instead with their three prized horses and building their dream home. But over time, they realized they still wanted to have kids. And Sherrie wanted to experience pregnancy.
"I think it would be kind of nice, you know, to breast feed and to bond with the baby and to do all that stuff," she said.
The couple felt paralyzed. They were still not sure if they wanted to go through another egg extraction, and Sherrie says she just couldn't pick an egg donor to fertilize with her husband's sperm. So the idea of buying a premade embryo made sense to the Baggetts, to improve their odds of carrying a baby to term and to save money.
How does the cost compare? The costs of in-vitro vary widely, but the Baggetts Ryan's service was actually cheaper. Sherrie said it was "$6,000 less using Jennalee than to even use our own [egg and sperm], because we don't have the costs of medications and taking all the eggs."
And of course that doesn't even factor in the emotional toll of risking another failure.
Not every embryo will implant, so Ryan recommends that couples buy two or more. The Baggetts are hedging their bets, thinking that while waiting on the Abraham Center of Life's list, they may try other methods, like traditional adoption. But they admit that maybe next week they'll think differently.
Customizing the Gene Pool
Adopting an embryo from Ryan's service -- rather than adopting a child -- also allows her clients, in general terms, to literally choose babies created from the most highly educated, physically appealing, pre-screened gene pool she can find.
But couples who go on the list must wait their turn before getting a chance to choose a donor.
"If you come to me, you'll go on the list of 450 people that are there," said Ryan. "So no, you won't pick through a list. What will probably happen is that when you get to the top of the list, when it's your turn, you'll probably be shown two pictures of two egg donors and you can say 'yes' or 'no.' And if you say 'no,' then you'll just sit and wait."
Ryan's business has stirred critics. Is it, as some charge, borderline eugenics? Is it merely a way for people to design a "better baby" by ordering up the genetic characteristics of a child?
Ryan is insistent in her denial.
"We don't do that," she said. "These embryos are already created. So what the family does have a choice of is whether they want them or not."
But what if a couple did want to choose their baby's physical characteristics to have a baby that looked like them?
"I don't think there's anything wrong with trying tot seek out a child that matches your appearance or your racial and ethnic composition," said Penn's Caplan. "Conversely, what if I come to you and say, 'We're both black but we know white people do better in society, so we'd like a white child?' It's not so much that we'd like a kid that looks like us that's the problem. It's when the parents start showing up saying, 'We want a kid that actually we probably never, between us, would have created, but that seems to be more attractive.'"
Ryan says she's just offering her clients the same kinds of choices any women having children naturally make already:
"When you chose your husband," she said, "I know you looked at him and thought, 'hmm…I wonder what our kids would look like.' Everybody does. And so what I'm doing is offering families the same choices that every other woman has had out there from the beginning of time."