Is it Ethical to Sell a Human Embryo?

sepkowitz-nm0421-adopting-embryo-tease
06/05/13
In the Magazine
Gilles Podevins/Corbis

A RECENT article in The New England Journal of Medicine has what might be one of the most alarming headlines of the year: “Made-to-Order Embryos for Sale: A Brave New World?”

Here’s the issue: one of the great achievements of 20th-century medicine has been the progress made in the area of infertility. Infertile couples now have a wide range of options that include surrogacy, in vitro fertilization, and other approaches. But a unique problem arises when a woman has a functional womb but the couple, for whatever reason, is unable to create an embryo. Until recently, such couples could receive a donated embryo, free of charge, for implantation from a second infertile couple with a different fertility problem. These embryos were available for donation because, for that second couple, the approach to fertility included the creation of many embryos to be used until a successful pregnancy was accomplished. Often fertilization is successful on the first or second try, meaning that a lot of leftover embryos were available for donation to a needy couple.

In other words, these embryos are not the happy leftovers from another couple’s quest to get pregnant, but are created for the purpose of providing them to patients, who pay for the entire procedure.

In 2006 the Abraham Center of Life opened in Texas and introduced a second option for obtaining embryos: the commercial embryo business, called an embryo bank—a for-profit enterprise. The center closed within a year, but another for-profit group called California Conceptions currently provides full-service infertility treatments—including embryos created from sperm and eggs provided by paid donors who probably have never met. Using the techniques developed by infertility experts over the last 40 years, the component parts are mixed together, and an embryo is created. In other words, these embryos are not the happy leftovers from another couple’s quest to get pregnant, but are created for the purpose of providing them to patients, who pay for the entire procedure.

For many, this approach crosses an ethical line. The concern caught the attention of two lawyers, who wrote the article that appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine. Their conclusion is that, from both legal and ethical perspectives, the practice of selling embryos fills a need and should be viewed as acceptable. The debate has only begun and may draw in those passionately for or against the right to abortion, but in the meantime, the practice gives new meaning to the idea of a company’s “deliverables.”

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