People who want to have children have been able to buy donated sperm and eggs separately for some time, but the recent practice of selling embryos introduces a range of new ethical and legal issues.
A fertility clinic in Davis, California, has begun combining eggs and sperm to create embryos, which can then be used in fertility treatments for a pregnancy.
The embryo sells for $9,800 (€7,500), cheaper than the cost of becoming pregnant via traditional in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), said the Los Angeles Times.
The clinic can offer the treatment at a lower cost because it creates a batch of embryos from a single sperm and single egg donor together, and the sells the embryos to multiple patients.
Couples who opt for this method of fertility treatment would have no genetic relation to their children.
“I am horrified by the thought of this,” said Andrew Vorzimer, a Los Angeles fertility lawyer. “It is nothing short of the commodification of children.”
For some time, couples have been able to adopt embryos left over from other couples’ IVF treatments. In these cases, embryos are created with the intent of being used by a specific couple, whereas, in the case of the Davis fertility clinic, embryos are explicitly created for sale. A fertility clinic in Texas provided a similar service in 2007.
Selling embryos made from a single egg and sperm donor leads to the possibility of blood siblings unknowingly starting a romantic relationship, which would be incest.
However, Glenn Cohen of Harvard Law School said: “Once you give it a hard look, it’s not clear that the ethical issues here are all that different” from what is already being practiced with the sale of sperm and eggs.
“If you’re ethically OK with buying the individual components, the question we ask is ‘in what way is it different than buying the final thing?’” said Mr Cohen.
However, he noted that selling embryos introduces the question of who has parenting rights to the embryos. In a situation like that of the Davis fertility clinic, it is unclear if the clinic is the parent or guardian of the embryos, or who would have parenting rights if the clinic were to go bankrupt.
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