The Commercialization of Eugenics

The recent book by Debora L Spar, The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception, is exceptional in its neutral position on modern eugenics and its commercialization. It is rare to find a well-written and well-researched book, that tackles a politically sensitive issue, that does not bring the author’s bias into the discussion. She, unlike others, uses the term eugenics openly and explains the history of why it had to go underground for so many years—the Nazis lost the war.

She opens, “These children of the future are already among us. In 2001, nearly 41,000 children in the United States were born via in vitro fertilization (IVF)—’test tube babies’ in the older vernacular. Roughly 6,000 sprang from donated eggs; almost 600 were carried in surrogate, or borrowed, wombs. In 2003, Americans adopted 21,616 children from abroad and produced a handful of homegrown, biologically unrelated twins. All these children were conceived in a very different fashion from their parents. And all of them, through one means or another, were purchased.

“It is difficult to conceive of a child as commerce. For even at the start of the twenty-first century— even in an age driven by technological advances and dominated by market capitalism—we like to believe that some things remain beyond both markets and science, that there are some things money can’t buy. In economic terms, these things—like love, truth, kidneys, and infants—are defined as being inalienable: the people who ‘own’ the assets have no ability to profit from them. In moral terms, they are things that we as a society have chosen not to sell, assets or attributes that somehow are more valuable than any price they might fetch. This prohibition seems particularly strong for children. Who, after all, could put a price on a child? Who could imagine selling one? Across the world, baby-selling is strictly prohibited, defined as a crime more egregious, more unthinkable, than slavery….The Baby Business does not insist that this market is either good or evil. It simply argues that it exists.”

There are so few authors that will bring you the data without then telling the world what is wrong and how to correct it. Not Spar, she is too rational. She states, “Usually, this is the point in any provocative book where the author lays out a road map for reform. Having led readers through hundreds of pages of description and analysis; having criticized others’ theories and bemoaned the current state of affairs, the author concludes with a plan, an argument about precisely what should be done to fix the problem at hand. But this author is not going to do that. Why? Partly, it’s because offering a plan at this point would be unreasonable: the baby business is running so quickly and expanding so radically that time is likely to render any detail moot.”

Later on I will get into the behavioral ethicists bemoaning of the immorality of these new genetic technologies, but they have already lost the battle to stop this technology. People want it, it is difficult to uncover if it had to hide, the rich will go to other countries to get the eugenic results they desire, and in the end it will be as normal as birth control—which was also seen as a moral outrage when it was first made readily available.

Today, many women tend to work first and get married and have children later, but fertility drops off rapidly with age. When they finally have the opportunity and the desire to have children, they are often unable to do so—they lack sufficient eggs. “An average twenty-eight-year-old woman, for example, has a 72 percent chance of conceiving after a year of effort. An average thirty-eight-year-old, by contrast, has only a 24 percent chance. Put differently, female fertility drops 20 percent after the age of thirty, 50 percent after thirty-five, and 95 percent after age forty.”

Fortunately, hormone therapy now makes harvesting ripe eggs possible. Savvy young women who have the forethought to do so, can have there eggs harvested and frozen for use later on in life when they are ready to have children. If they never have children nothing is lost. But when they do, the eggs will be available no matter how old they are—even if they have to use a surrogate womb and a donors sperm.

Sperm banks and the more recent egg banks, keep eggs and sperm frozen until needed. Spar explains that these commercial enterprises are growing in size and only the largest will remain in business. She explains, “Much of this revenue goes to covering the banks’ fixed costs: donor screening, specimen storage, and the paperwork involved in tracking large numbers of anonymous, identical-looking ‘products.'” Donor screening of course is the eugenics involved in supplying sperm and eggs to those who want them. The public generally denies that genes make the person, but a tremendous amount of effort is put into detailing every aspect of the donor’s eggs or sperm. Apparently, the usually quite intelligent people who avail themselves of these services do not really believe the equalitarian hype of the media, academia, and government propaganda.

Fortunately in the United States, fertility clinics are strictly for-profit enterprises, and it is the combination of money and the desire for these services that’s driving the current eugenics’s phenomenon. And even if laws could be passed now to shut them down, they would just move over the boarder. And the money is good—”between $6,000 and $14,000 for each round of in vitro fertilization”—with average conception of about three rounds per patient.

What is truly shocking about this technology is how recent much of it is, how much farther it will go, and the accelerating pace it will take—just like personal computers. For example, in the need to be able to freeze eggs as easily as sperm, Spar notes, “Watching from the outskirts, a Harvard Business School student named Christina Jones realized that the potential market among her friends and acquaintances was huge. Having already launched and sold several software businesses, the thirty-four-year-old Jones poured $300,000 of her own money into research and began in 2002 to assemble ‘the best-of-breed components for premium egg freezing services.’ Armed with an exclusive license for cutting-edge cryoprotectant technology, Jones’s firm, Extend Fertility, jumped into the egg market in the spring of 2004, offering full-service egg retrieval and storage for $15,000 plus annual storage fees. At the time of launch, Jones predicted that egg freezing would rapidly become ‘bigger than IVF.'” That was just two years ago!

Once fertilized eggs can be created, sorting for the best of the best becomes possible. For example, not only could a couple purchase vials of the best Ivy League sperm, they could fertilize a dozen eggs and select the very best—or selecting from the best of breed—a eugenicists’ dream. Preimplantation genetic testing then can occur at many levels. Best of best sperm, best of best eggs—by selecting the best of best embryos.

One of the most controversial components of the new eugenics will be renting wombs for raising one’s children. As Spar explains surrogacy contracts, “the surrogate agreed to assume all the risks of pregnancy, refrain from intercourse during the insemination period, refrain from drugs, alcohol, and tobacco during the pregnancy, undergo amniocentesis or abortion at the contracting parents’ discretion, and accept a lower payment for a stillborn child….These couples were paying roughly $25,000 to $45,000: a $10,000 fee for the surrogate, $15,000 for the broker, and all expenses….The price of surrogacy, however, remained relatively steady throughout this period, settling at roughly $20,000 per pregnancy….Who will these women be? They will be young (to carry a successful pregnancy), they will already have borne children (because parents want surrogates who understand the experience), and they will almost certainly be poorer than those who contract for their services. Some of these poor, young mothers will live in the developed world. But many more, demographically speaking, will live in the poorer nations of the developing world, where opportunities for poor, young women are even scarcer. To put it bluntly, a surrogate earning $20,000 in California is earning only about 40 percent more than a fulltime, minimum wage worker. The same surrogate in Mexico, by contrast, would be earning roughly twenty times as much as the minimum wage. If we take the market lens, surrogacy should be outsourced, much like garment manufacturing or IT support.”

“International surrogacy” seems like a natural. All one needs are some willing young poor women; make sure they reside in a hospice by hiring people to watch over them during the pregnancy. When the child is due, the owners of the child fly in, wait for the birth, and after a short time at the resort-like hospice, fly home. Is this really any different than mail-order brides? Rent a bride or rent a womb—it is all very similar.

Prenatal testing is not as eugenically glamorous as some of these other procedures, but it will be more universal and is often state sponsored. It is one thing to seek the “best of the best”—it benefits all of society if fewer genetic defectives are born. Spar notes that, “Prenatal testing also shows signs of robust commercial competition. In 2004, for example, Baylor College of Medicine announced plans to offer its patients the largest panel of prenatal tests available: $2,000 to screen a fetus for fifty indicators of mental retardation…. [P]arents are treating detection not as a medical service but as something akin to a luxury good—an accessory to childbirth, rather than a need. More importantly, some small number of them are also using prenatal detection as a path to a new form of private eugenics: choosing, for a price, the children they want to keep and those they want to avoid.” Genetic testing is now becoming routine and growing rapidly. Whether outside the womb or in, parents want to know the quality of their future children—and the commercialization of that desire will drive the technology.

Any attempt to regulate this personal eugenics will fail, because the nations that embrace it the most will have the healthiest and brightest children to compete globally, and less money wasted on the genetically disabled. Spar notes that people who really want eugenics are readily crossing boarders to get it. Most Western countries have laws that have tried to hobble this or that practice of eugenics, but people just go somewhere else to get the service—and they are usually the fitter people to start with, thus increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots in terms of eugenic quality. There are for example over fifty clinics in the world that screen embryos prior to implantation. Soon, well-off people will look down on their cohorts if they do not likewise test for defects.

The United States is still one on the most unregulated countries, and the technology is far outpacing any attempts to regulate the eugenics’s programs now in place. Spar notes, “Only in the United States can a young woman ‘donate’ her eggs for $50,000. Only in America can two gay Britons pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of conceiving ‘their’ child in a third-party womb.” I ponder, could two males soon be able to create a chimera of themselves—a child that carries genes from the donor egg and both males? Could lesbians do likewise? These are interesting times. Chimeras have that fascinating conundrum of explaining how one soul could be in each of two embryos that merge, creating a person with two souls? Do identical twins each have a half soul or the same soul?

This brings up the issue of the sanctity of life and the bioethicists’ numerous arguments against eugenics. Spar notes that, “At the University of Chicago, biologist Leon Kass argued that ‘this blind assertion of will against our bodily nature—in contradiction of the meaning of the human generation it seeks to control—can only lead to self-degradation and dehumanization.’ Similarly, Paul Ramsey, a leading Protestant ethicist, pronounced, ‘Men ought not to play God before they learn to be men, and after they have learned to be men they will not play God.'”

A eugenicist can rebut that without eugenics humans will never be intelligent enough to be rational, combining intelligence with wisdom. So without eugenics, we will continue to slide into a dysgenic morass where low IQ populations out breed and will replace the more intelligent ones. However, if humans reach a high level of rationality, then they will be able to understand that since there is no God, we can play at anything we desire as part of our creative selves.

And Spar notes just how wrong Kass is about how humans link reproduction, children, and sex: “As matters turned out, the supply of both of these components grew as a result of their unbundling. In other words, women were considerably more interested in providing eggs if they didn’t also have to undergo pregnancy, and they were more interested in serving as surrogates if the child they carried was not genetically theirs. By removing the traditional-link between egg, womb, and mother, gestational surrogacy thus reduced the legal and emotional risks that had surrounded traditional surrogacy and allowed a new market to thrive.”

And later she notes: “For the first time, parents could now choose not only whether to have a child and with whom (the focus of eugenics) but also whether to give birth to a specific child, one blessed or cursed by a revealed genetic fate. If eugenics had grasped for control over parents, then genetics gave power to the parents, allowing them to decide which child to produce.”

Over and over again, people are initially outraged or frightened by new technology, but then very quickly accept it as quite normal. We are a highly adaptive creature, not one that is programmed to accept some ethical or moral system.

The record to date is that contrary to Kass’s assertion that this technology will lead to dehumanizing, it has led to quite the opposite. Those who embrace eugenics pay exceptional notice and show a great deal of perseverance in making sure that they have healthy, bright, attractive, tall children and are willing to use all available technology to get what they consider to be the perfect child.

It has also been shown that children and adults alike want to have high status, and that status develops during adolescence based on stature, attractiveness, intelligence, etc. (See No Two Alike by Judith Rich Harris, 2006)) What parent wouldn’t want their children to have higher status, dominance, and a happier life being free of disease, and free of the struggle to pursue anything they want. With intelligence, athleticism, beauty….it is all the more probable that a person will achieve their goals in life.

There is a great deal of angst concerning eugenics because it will be sought out by normal parents, it will certainly turn into an arms race, and because of its inherent inegalitarianism, it will be fought on many fronts. Now note the inherent contradictions with regards to eugenics. Anyone who has debated or discussed the issue knows that many people, who understand eugenics from its historical perspective, still call it pseudoscience. At the same time, many on the Left are now calling for an equal distribution to access to this “pseudoscience.” They have a real dilemma—for decades the heritability of intelligence and eugenics have been denied and attempts to bury these notions are now failing quickly.

Spar states what happened in the past to excess children, “In some parts of Europe, the putting-out system was vibrant enough to encompass most of society’s ‘surplus’ children. Putting-out didn’t work, however, for some of the toughest cases: the infant children of unwed mothers, the bastards of illicit love, or the orphans of famine or war. Many of these children were quietly killed or abandoned.” And the killing of unwanted children goes on today in many parts of the world. (See Mother Nature by Hrdy on all the many ways that children have been disposed of, used as slave labor, buried alive at birth, etc.)

Spar states the ethical issue clearly: “At a conceptual level, it is easy to bemoan this market, to insist that reproduction—like truth or love or honor—should never be sold. It is also easy to decry the cutting edge of reproductive science, arguing that it breaks the rules of nature or threatens, as Leon Kass once predicted, to lead to ‘voluntary self-degradation, or willing dehumanization.’ Such arguments, however, are increasingly unrealistic: the baby business, as this book has shown, is alive, well, and growing. It’s hard to imagine that we could ever put this particular genie back in its bottle. Moreover, it’s not at all clear that we should. For the baby business—unlike, say, the arms race or the heroin trade—produces a good that is inherently good. It produces children, for people who want them. Some paths to these children may be less virtuous than others. Some parents may not deserve the children they get. Yet the underlying dynamic—parents getting children—is certainly not bad.”

When I look around me, I see dehumanization in the form of the ghettoization of too many unfit. My worldview sees humanness as wholeness in health, character, intelligence, etc. Like so many other things, everyone could come up with a different description of what they view as humanness, so let the free market decide how each of us should pursue our reproductive methods as long as we have the resources to pay for them.

Spar goes on: “Similarly, although one can argue that any imposition of the marketplace into the realm of reproduction is inherently wrong, again this is an assertion rather than a fact. Empirically, we have no way of knowing whether expensively procured children feel any less cherished than those created for free. We don’t know whether their parents, or even other parents, were degraded by the market forces that contributed to their birth. By what right, then, can we claim degradation on their behalf?”

Early results of research on how adopted and children born using donated sperm or eggs do not feel any different. They sometimes have questions, at certain times during their life, where they might want to find out who their parents are or the person[s] who donated their genes. What has been shown is that these attitudes change quite rapidly. The disgrace of illegitimate children in the past has now morphed into many women of means having children without getting married. It has become a status symbol when chosen—rather than happening by mistake.

There is a true irony in how humans become indoctrinated. After losing World War II, and having effectively been stigmatized as the eugenics-genocide monster state, Germany has a fear of the subject and has restrictions against egg transfers, surrogacy or preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Now, if they continue with this madness, they will be left behind with defective children, duller children, etc.

On the other hand, Blacks and Jews have been the most active proponents of expanding genetic testing due to sickle-cell anemia and Tay-Sachs disease respectively. Researchers have found almost 900 diseases linked to a single gene defect (one gene one disease). Testing for these diseases is not only eugenic, it is kind. If possible, a child would prefer to be disease free and pain free. The material for making children is abundant, why not select the very best?

Israel is even more advanced: “Israel essentially views assisted reproduction as a national good. Accordingly, it permits most forms of high-tech reproduction, regulates them with a light but transparent hand, and pays for all fertility treatments until a given couple has given birth to two children.”

Numerous books have now been published on eugenics and on reproductive technologies. It is interesting to note that invariably, sperm and egg banks only recruit donors from elite universities because when people go looking for the desired genes, they know that such things as intelligence, attractiveness, athleticism, stature, and even hobbies and interests are highly genetic (about 50% for behavioral traits, 80% in adulthood for intelligence). If intelligence was not highly genetic, why wouldn’t sperm and egg banks recruit primarily average people with good health records rather than great SAT scores?

Spar notes that, “When parents purchase eggs, for example, they are clearly selecting along genetic lines. Why else pay extra for that attractive Ivy League donor? Sperm is also marketed by genes, as evidenced by information regarding the donor’s height, weight, and favorite hobbies. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis, in that regard, is only another step forward, a higher-tech means of achieving more accurate results. If parents will pay for smarter eggs and taller sperm, why not pay more to guarantee that the child who results from this high-potential pairing really does carry the optimal set of genes? In economic terms, perfected children make perfect sense.”

Granted, if one wanted to have a child that was primarily athletic rather than intelligent, it might be better to look somewhere else than elite universities for athletic genes. So we have a contradiction: most people still deny—explicitly—that intelligence is primarily genetic, and yet virtually everyone in the egg/sperm donor business openly acknowledge that at leas for them, genes are extremely important for a host of traits desired. This to me is very telling, for it shows that people do believe that intelligence is genetic but prefer to deny it because of the issue of differences between the average intelligence of different races.

There are some problems with current eugenic technology. Spar notes, “Even pregnancy and birth rates, moreover, don’t tell the full story of success, because recent research indicates that children conceived via IVF may carry a higher risk of birth defects. One Australian study, for example, found that IVF babies were twice as likely as naturally conceived infants to have multiple major birth defects. Others report higher rates of rare urological defects and increased risk of early childhood cancers. IVF also leads to a much higher rate of multiple births—37 percent, according to one recent study—which itself leads to more complicated pregnancies and a greater chance of premature or under-weight births.”

Overall however, with a combination of genetic testing, and improvements in IVF technology, the children will be on average more disease free than natural childbirth without testing.

Matt Nuenke, May, 2006

59 thoughts on “The Commercialization of Eugenics

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