Superior people

Advertising is the lingua franca of the modern age. Everyone has something to sell or something they want to buy, and advertising is what brings sellers and buyers together. Guaranteeing the quality of the merchandise is a routine advertising technique. Take the venerable Charleston, South Carolina, wholesalers Austin, Laurens, & Appleby. They had a boatload of highly valuable merchandise ready for a competitive consumer market. Assuaging prospective customers’ concerns about any hidden defects in their inventory was important. "To be sold on board the ship Bance Island, on Tuesday the 6th of May next, at Ashley Ferry; a choice cargo of about 150 fine healthy negroes, just arrived from the Windward & Rice Coast," reads the firm’s eighteenth-century ad. "The utmost care has already been taken, and shall be continued, to keep them free from the least danger of being infected with the small pox, no boat having been on board, and all other communication with people from Charles-Town prevented."

Selling human flesh is an ancient practice, and one that seems to find a new manifestation in every age. It’s not impossible to imagine an Austin, Laurens & Appleby-like advertisement appearing somewhere on the Web, or perhaps in a student newspaper at a prestigious university.

The New York Times recently reported that the following ad-illustrated with drawings of a baby carriage and a stork delivery-has been appearing in select college newspapers across the country: Egg Donor Needed / large financial incentive / intelligent, athletic egg donor needed / for loving family / You must be at least 5’10’’ / Have a 1400+ SAT score / Possess no major family medical issues / $50,000 / Free Medical Screening / All Expenses Paid.

What, no blonde hair, blue eyes, and pure Aryan bloodline required? If this pitch for a eugenically "superior" donor is any indication, American culture seems to have made as little progress over the last 250 years in securing the intrinsic dignity of human life as it has in elevating the quality of advertising copy. For when it comes to the commercialization of human reproduction and the marketing of human eggs, we are fast returning to a world where persons carry a price tag, and where the cash value of some persons (or at least of their genetic "endowment") is far greater than that of others. Still, it is hard to believe that campus newspapers, otherwise notoriously sensitive about economic and social injustice, as well as the exploitation of women and minorities, would see fit to run such ads. Egg donation, after all, entails both present and possible future medical risk, not to mention that donors are selling their own genetic progeny to the highest bidder. Are nineteen-year-olds able to make truly informed decisions about such things? Is consent voluntary or subtly coerced when such large sums of money are involved?

The response to the ad has been robust-after all, $50,000 will pay almost two years’ tuition at an Ivy League school. Of course, there is an aspect of absurdity in the idea of screening a genetic reproductive partner on the basis of SAT scores and height. One can imagine a whole new SAT coaching industry springing up to help dolts with a meager 1350 SAT qualify for egg donation. Athletic coaches will be swamped with requests from the egg-bearing but uncoordinated. Or think about the potential for graft and corruption in the business of certifying that candidates have "no major medical issues." And won’t a few vertically challenged prospective donors, stunted at a mere 5’9’’, devise clever ways to add an extra inch? Already it appears that students at less prestigious state colleges and universities are demanding equal opportunity in the egg race. Will today’s egg procurers, following in the entrepreneurial footsteps of Austin, Laurens & Appleby, let boatloads of such "fine, healthy" specimens go to waste?

A year ago on this page ("Eggs for Sale," March 27, 1998), we noted the moral dangers and the threat to human dignity signaled by the escalation of fees for donor eggs. At that time, Saint Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey had made headlines by upping its fee to $5,000. That looks like chump change now. There is little surprising in the most recent tenfold increase in what people are willing to pay to gain a genetic advantage-some of it real, some of it illusory-for their children. The logic of the marketplace is inexorable. If left unregulated by the medical profession or by the state, the business of reproductive technology will become little more than a tool of the wealthy and an increasing rebuke to those who forswear such opportunities for eugenic "improvement." In the widespread practice of aborting Down’s syndrome and other "defective" fetuses, American society is already establishing a dangerous pattern for its genetic future. These private "choices" implicitly fuel resentment against those who "unnecessarily" bring handicapped children into the world, not to mention against the handicapped themselves and their "cost" to society. And as the $50,000 egg ad exemplifies, it is but a small step in logic from aborting for physical or mental handicaps to selecting or engineering for intelligence, height, athletic ability, or other "desirable" qualities. Bryan Appleyard writes in his important new book Brave New Worlds: Staying Human in the Genetic Future (Viking), the "key problem with privatized eugenics [is that] it amounts to a judgment on the existing human population." Appleyard warns that the more control technology gives us over procreation and genetics-and it will give us increasing control over attributes such as sex, intelligence, and physical size-the easier it becomes to "generate new classes of human inferiority."

Advocates for untrammeled "reproductive freedom" argue that genetic information and the spread of private eugenic practices will not threaten the dignity of those who may be regarded as mentally or physically "inferior." That judgment seems naive at best, if not disingenuous. We are just beginning to feel the subtly corrosive effects that eugenic abortion and genetic screening have on our ideas about the value of children and human life, the meaning of sex and procreation, and the nature of the family. Yet already our children need only open their college newspapers to see how the new classes of human superiority and inferiority are taking shape.

Published in the 1999-03-26 issue: 
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