There is no shortage these days of media coverage on assisted reproduction and the myriad complex issues entwined with the topic. The July/Aug 2006 issue of Mother Jones offered a comprehensive look at various ethical considerations of assisted reproduction, among them questions of who should be allowed access to in-vitro fertilization, whether doctors who often make these decisions have the right to do so and what should be done with the 400,000-plus unused embryos at fertility clinics around the country.
Then there was a report about the 67-year-old woman, the oldest woman to ever give birth, who had twins this past December in Barcelona. She's nuts, if you ask me. I know how taxing it is to act as Sherpa to a 22-pound Tasmanian devil and I'm in my 30s. Good luck to her, is all I'm sayin'. I have my opinions on all of this but, generally speaking, I believe in reproductive freedom.
My personal grace period expired upon reading a recent story in the Washington Post about the world's first embryo bank, which is making embryos 'in advance for unspecified recipients.' Based in Texas, The Abraham Center of Life is creating these hopeful humans from exclusively selected donors to 'help couples and single women' have a baby. Think of the donors as vetted and the embryos as commodities to be sold through a catalogue. This particular story, more than any other, caused the central alarm system in my brain to explode in one resounding cacophonous blast.
This topic is personal—I've experienced infertility. I could say that I 'suffered' from it since it certainly was a difficult journey at the time. But the term is disingenuous because I spent a comparatively short span of my life on the what's-my-next-move locomotive, disembarking before doing even one cycle of IVF. After my husband Sam threw a glass of cold water in my deranged, I-have-to-get-pregnant-yesterday face, we made our decision to move forward with adoption and never looked back.
I don't have a smidgen of regret that I'll never carry a baby, or that Sam and I won't see our biology reflected in the crackling eyes of our child. Instead, I'm grateful I never got pregnant because I have the most amazing daughter in the world, a child who couldn't have come to me any other way. But until you endure X-number of negative pregnancy tests and veer sharply down this particular detour on the way to Parentland, you can't possibly know the choices that will be spread out before you or which of those often-unpalatable choices you might be willing to embrace.
To the reproductively challenged, the dangled carrot of IVF is blindingly seductive. Near the end of my journey, one of our doctors confidently promised: I can get you pregnant but you have to decide soon because you're going to be 35 next year. (In that moment, the only thing that could have been any more enticing would have been Javier Bardem's accent whispered into the delicate curve of my ear.) Upon hearing those magic words, I actually entertained IVF as a reasonable option, even though I had always been philosophically opposed to this choice for myself. Ultimately, it was more important for me to be a mother than it was to be pregnant.
We infertile people are a uniquely desperate and vulnerable bunch who, after having hopes repeatedly squelched, will often stretch boundaries and bank accounts to attain something to which we feel entitled but are sadistically denied.
And it is upon this desperation that The Abraham Center of Life and its perky, un-credentialed founder, Jennalee Ryan, prey. According to the Washington Post, Ryan denies any ethical lapse in what she's doing; she's simply 'helping make babies.' Since, you know, we don't have enough of those on the planet. Her embryo brokerage is busily creating embryos by combining the eggs of 20-something women with 'at least some college education' and sperm from men with advanced education such as 'a PhD or law degree.' Add a dash of entrepreneurialism, a pinch of patriarchy, two liters of megalomania and-voila!-potential über-human for the taking of, well, nobody specific.
Oh, and did I mention that all her donors are white? Yeah. They are. But that's just a formality, you see, because most of the couples that have expressed interest in her services are white. Ryan says she 'plans to try to create embryos' for the undisclosed number of African-Americans she claims are on her waiting list of 150 couples and, according to the article, intends to 'possibly [create] other races and mixes of races.' And she channels a very convincing God-complex while offering this compelling explanation in defense of her practice: 'If I do discriminate, it's that I only want healthy, intelligent people.'
Anyone else feel a tingling sensation at the back of the neck?
Breeding humans for desirable traits, made to specification, is abhorrent. This is not purchasing a car with an aftermarket sunroof or heated seats. The whole thing smacks of eugenics and is more than a little bit disturbing, though hardly surprising given advanced medical technology. If this clinic were creating only African-American babies or Hispanic babies, flooding the market with brown people, somehow I doubt the practice would be accepted so unflinchingly.
Meanwhile, as The Abraham Center of Life is taking orders, the U.S. can't decide what to do with the almost half-million 'leftover' (a term I despise) embryos and hosts nearly 700,000 'undesirable' children in its foster-care system. Beautiful, adoptable children, alive and breathing right now who didn't have the good fortune of being hand-selected by Jennalee Ryan prior to becoming zygotes.
Shame on Ms. Ryan for thinking she has any right to hand-pick a future population. Even more than that-and this is hard for me to say-shame on the desperate people signing up for her designer embryos. When a person's infertility journey leads them to Jennalee Ryan's doorstep, priorities and motivations are in alarming need of re-evaluation. This is not reproductive freedom. This is privilege and entitlement on steroids.