'Embryo bank': new hope or too far?

In an era when infertile couples often look to test tubes or surrogate mothers to create children, the notion of egg or sperm donors is hardly novel.

Yet a San Antonio woman's idea to bring the two together – creating complete embryos ready to be implanted into the womb – has drawn a raft of criticism, with bioethicists debating whether this is the commodification of children or just another – perhaps more effective – way to help people become parents.

The "embryo bank" at the Abraham Center of Life isn't a storage bank so much as an intermediary that creates embryos from anonymous donors of both sperm and egg, for a waiting list of interested parents.

But the ethical debate around selling such embryos has called attention to the delicate balance between harnessing reproductive technology to help people achieve cherished dreams of bearing children and the danger of selective genetics in the hopes of creating "designer babies." It's also, say some critics, one more example of why more oversight is needed in a field that is advancing rapidly but has had almost no regulation.

The embryo bank "sort of literalizes the fact that the United States is a Wild West when it comes to reproductive technologies," says Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a Texas nonprofit interested in the public policy implications of genetic manipulation. "We let the [Food and Drug Administration] think about safety and effectiveness, but we don't let them think about social consequences – it's very different from a lot of countries."

Jennalee Ryan, the director of the Abraham Center of Life, recruits qualified egg and sperm donors – all must have a clean medical history – and she looks for sperm donors with graduate degrees and egg donors with some college education, according to her website and recent news reports.

Ms. Ryan turned down repeated interview requests for this article.

The center has a separate fertility specialist create the embryo, each of which costs her clients $2,500. She has created 26 embryos so far, and two women have become pregnant.

In some ways, her service isn't much different from common fertility procedures. Ryan simply acts as a broker to put the egg and sperm donations together for clients.

But critics have questioned the necessity of making new embryos when there are already many thousands left over from in vitro efforts – many of which can be "adopted." They also say the service seems to cater to clients who want the maximum control over their children's genes. Clients review information about the donors' physical traits and temperaments, their family and educational histories, and in some cases look at photos.

"This raises a real question of commodification – of creating a new human life as a commodity," says Robert George, a Princeton professor and member of the President's Council on Bioethics. "Any time you manufacture products, they have to be subjected to quality controls.... If we let the reproductive technology evolution erode the understanding of our fundamental worth and dignity, and begin to think of children as products that are better or worse [based on certain traits], the consequences for civilization really are dire."

Ryan has said that her service is particularly useful to couples where both are infertile, and the process is cheaper than in vitro fertilization, which typically costs between $10,000 and $15,000. She claims her method has about a 70 percent pregnancy rate, compared with a 30 percent rate from typical in vitro embryos created from couples with fertility issues.

She questions those that object to allowing clients to screen photos and donor traits. Such screening is already routine for people using just an egg or sperm donor, she says.

But some critics say any further step – like selecting traits from both donors rather than just one – needs to be scrutinized.

"We can argue whether this represents an inch, a yard, or a mile down the slippery slope, but we're headed down a slope toward eugenics, and we haven't figured out how to apply brakes," says Ms. Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society.

The issues raised by the embryo bank is only one more example in what will be an increasing raft of ethical, safety, and legal questions for a field that is advancing rapidly but has had almost no oversight, since it's privately funded.

No studies have been done, for instance, on the long-term health effects of in vitro, and tracking such children would be impossible since records aren't kept.

Finding a balance between no regulation and inhibiting technological advances that could help people is challenging, says Arthur Caplan, director of the Bioethics Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

"But in looking out for the best interest of children you've got to do it," he says. "It's a tragedy that we haven't gone very far down the road of protecting those interests, even though the business has gotten huge."

• Wire service material was used in this report.

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