Genetic Engineering

Ivy League schools are inundated with ads for potential egg donors-women who for a considerable sum of money donate their eggs to a couple for in vitro fertilization. What happens once they sign on? And what role do the fertility clinics who match the donors to the recipients play?

A well-dressed couple in their early 30s walk into a building that from the outside has all the settings of a corporate office but from the inside looks more like a clinic. The receptionist gives them a big smile and ushers them into a smaller office room where a man sits in front of a monitor and the walls are adorned with pictures of happy couples with babies.

“Are you guys ready with the list we talked about last time?” he asks.

The husband pulls a sheet of paper out and starts reading out, “We would like an Ivy League undergrad with an Ivy League Masters in Business, SAT score over 2200, GMAT score over 700, blonde hair, height around 5.8, blue eyes, athletic, no history of obesity, heart risk or any other disease.”

The man hits a couple of keys on his keyboard and flashes them a huge smile. “I have found you a perfect match,” he says. “It will cost you $100,000.” He prints out a page and hands it over to them. The couple smile. They have just found their “perfect” baby.

What do you think of the above situation-a scene from a sci-fi movie? A dream? A possible event in the distant future not connected to you in anyway? Well, apparently not, if you caught the 5″ by 4″ ad for potential female egg donors in the Oct. 26 edition of The Harbus.

Most fertility clinics looking for egg donors to match their recipients’ interest send out ads seeking qualified women between the ages of 21-35 to donate their eggs in order to help a couple have a baby through in vitro fertilization. In contrast to sperm donation, which requires just a hand and a magazine and pays the donor a couple hundred bucks, egg donation is done through a surgical process that can earn donors up to $100,000 depending on their background. The process is not without its risks, however, and women considering donation should get all the facts before they make a decision. While the altruistic nature of the donation-to help a couple have a baby-is commendable, there is serious debate about the restrictive advertising and the large sums of money that get paid out to the donors. Consider, for example, why most of the ads run only in Ivy League schools’ publications or why there is differential pricing for donated eggs for different women based on qualifications. Some countries like the UK have regulated egg donation to make it free of monetary compensation, resulting in women donating only for altruistic purposes. In the U.S., however, the process is completely free of regulation, resulting in capitalistic free-market rules to be played out.

Once the donor eggs are obtained, they are matched to potential recipients. Recipients are usually couples who cannot conceive naturally and, after trying for a couple of years, have decided to try in vitro fertilization. While the egg donor’s name is kept confidential, character traits like height, weight, education and sometimes even standardized test scores are revealed to recipients to choose their egg. It is here that the problem starts. If parents are allowed to have a laundry list of traits for the baby of their choice, what implications might that have on natural selection and forced engineering of the gene pool?

For a couple willing to pay a lot of money in order to obtain a child, it makes a lot of sense to ensure that they get an egg free of disease or other health concerns. However, where does one draw the line between positive screening for healthy babies and the practice of eugenics (selective breeding with the aim of improving the species)? Is the implicit assumption that an Ivy League egg is genetically superior to a non-Ivy League egg valid? Does that mean that all Ivy League parents will naturally have brilliant children who will go on to become Ivy League themselves, and those that don’t belong to the pedigree will essentially languish?

The decision of donating an egg is a deeply personal one and unique to each donor. The subsequent process of matching is fraught with ethical and moral quandaries. Regulating the process, as is done in many European and Canadian countries, may be one step towards addressing some of the issues. Until then, however, the debate continues.

Lavanya Manohar is a first-year RC student in Section A. When not trying to decipher 3 different cases in a day, she likes to blog and watch movies.

November 16, 2009
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