Eggs for sale

Recently the Chinese dissident Harry Wu assisted the police in the arrest of two men in New York City for allegedly offering to sell the kidneys of executed Chinese prisoners for transplant. Responding to those who think it is a "waste" not to use such organs, Wu pointed out that the prisoners, many of whose crimes are "political," cannot give consent. Wu should know; he spent nineteen years in a Chinese prison. "Uncollected body is possible Harry Wu’s body," he angrily told the New York Times. "Do you want buy this kidney?...Maybe is Harry Wu. ...You don’t care? You just want a kidney? A part, body parts for yourself?"

Medicine’s marriage to high technology has created novel threats to human dignity. Wu reminds us that in harvesting the organs of the dead to save the living, we can undermine the value of all human life, especially when those organs come with a price tag. Similar threats pervade the highly profitable world of reproductive technology. Medical science now makes it possible for a man to be the biological father of a child whose mother he’s never met. And egg donation allows that same child to have three different mothers: genetic, gestational, and social. In these circumstances, "making babies" becomes a depersonalized, even dehumanizing, process to be carefully arranged by contract.

But, of course, who would be so naïve as to imagine that reproductive technology would stop with the altruistic spirit with which medicine first introduced it to infertile couples and justified it to society at large?

Read the New York Times front-page headline: "Price Soars for Eggs" (February 25). Under increasing pressure from the demands of the marketplace, human eggs "donated" by some women for fertilization and implantation in other women are now fetching thousands of dollars. Saint Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey, made front-page news by advertising that it would pay donors $5,000. That doubled the customary rate to compensate for a donor’s risk and inconvenience. In many eyes this dramatic escalation in bids crossed the hard-to-define line between offering fair "compensation" for a donor’s risk and "enticement." We are on the brink of crude commercial transactions in human eggs. Instinct and history tell us that selling human beings and human organs, even for apparently altruistic motives, is an assault on the integrity of the human person. Still, the wholesale commercialization of egg donation is gaining momentum.

It is illegal in the United States to sell human organs such as kidneys and livers. (Blood and sperm are considered "body parts" and can be sold, although blood banks have striven mightily to encourage voluntary donations of blood, "the gift of life.") Other countries have not been as fastidious as the United States. A robust commercial trade in kidneys exists in India, for example, with the poor providing spare parts for the wealthy. And, as Harry Wu dramatically demonstrated, the organs of prisoners executed in China may soon be marketed worldwide.

The likely exploitation of the poor and the moral taint, even revulsion, associated with the idea of selling human flesh have traditionally fueled strong resistance to the commodification of human life. Now the conundrums thrown up by medical science, especially organ transplants and genetic manipulation, combined with notions of unfettered individual choice and self-determination, are eroding even those barriers.

When everything has a price, we are unable to determine the value of anything. Our thinking about human procreation obviously has a profound impact on our attitudes toward children and how we understand what it means to be a human person. Giving technology and commerce such a large role in babymaking will increasingly compel us, legally and in other ways, to think of new life as an object to be manipulated and sold like any other.

For some time, deference to medical professionals and compassion for infertile couples has stayed the hand of regulatory bodies. But it has become clear that at least in the case of some new infertility treatments, physicians are themselves incapable of controlling and restraining their own practices. It is time for the appropriate professional bodies to do it for them. And if medicine can’t restrain itself, the federal government or state legislatures should.

Published in the 1998-03-27 issue: 
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Wilson Carey McWilliams, R.I.P.

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