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A recent edition of The Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper at the University of Chicago, included two paid advertisements that caught my attention. The first reads: “Exceptional Egg Donor Needed. Help a loving, married couple struggling with infertility realize their dream of becoming parents. Intended parents working with prestigious Los Angeles IVF clinic seek the following: 100% Korean woman, aged 20 and older, altruistic nature, highly educated with outstanding SAT/ACT scores, extremely healthy family history, height above 5’3” and slim build.” Reeling from the implications of this, I turned the page, only to find a second “Egg Donor Needed” advertisement. This one read, “We are an Ivy League couple seeking the help of a special woman who is healthy, Caucasian, with highest percentile ACT/SAT scores, tall, slender, dark to light blond hair, blue eyes, and under the age of 28.”
I have no scruples against in vitro fertilization. Millions of couples have benefited from this medical technology which has enabled them to realize a dream of parenthood. I don’t begrudge the struggling graduate students who are, I suspect, the targets of these ads, for the opportunity to earn $20,000 or more for their “work” if these ads are to be believed. As for the editors of The Maroon, they were probably just following editorial policy in accepting these ads which, I assume, are also perfectly legal.
What repels me about these ads is the unapologetic striving after some socially constructed notion of perfection built around race, physical attributes, and intellectual ability. Do these would be parents want a human being to love or a product to display, a best in breed to show? I have two sons, one over six feet tall, one just barely over five feet as a result of a growth syndrome that has kept him small since birth. Should I value one over the other? A colleague has a lovely daughter with a form of autism. There are challenges others don’t face to be sure, but should her likely low SAT/ACT scores cause us to diminish her personhood? After the election of a president who was born to parents of different races, should we assume that a mixed race child’s vocational future is automatically constrained? And should the ability to spend tens of thousands of dollars engineering a child give some the right to extend the privileges of wealth back into the womb?
Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether you can really get what you pay for. Even the vaguest memories of college biology remind us that there are enough recessive genes floating around in each of us to confound the most careful plans. I can understand parents desiring some level of genetic testing to determine whether a potential donor carries genes for devastating diseases, though even here the moral boundary seems quite murky. But it seems one thing to worry about something catastrophic like Lou Gehrig’s disease, or a difficult family history of depression, and quite another to be concerned about the percentile of the SAT scores. A friend who used to farm read these ads with me. “This is how we used to breed cattle!”
Babies are conceived in many ways. Sometimes it’s in the marriage bed of a happy and healthy couple. Sometimes it’s in a messy dorm room after a night of too much drinking. “What was I thinking?” Sometimes it’s a rape in a dark stairwell. Sometimes it’s with the assistance of a surrogate or a donor of eggs or sperm. What matters most is not so much origin but destiny. Will that child’s family, neighbors, teachers, friends, religious community and broader society so cherish her or him that regardless of height or weight or strength or intellect or race or even accomplishment, every human being can exalt with the Psalmist, “It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb, I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works!”
The ads for egg donors were joined by ads for concerts, lecture series, cello lessons, cosmetic dentistry, and Jimmy John’s sandwich delivery. I guess everything can be monetized today and, as a result, valued by its price. The fact that I’m not so naïve as to be unsurprised by this doesn’t make me any less appalled. Morally suspect things occur all the time and each of us know how we are complicit. The fact that in this case the ads are so unapologetically out in the open suggests a level of social acceptance that is disturbing. Did printing these ads make any of the student/editors at a world class university even a little bit queasy? Let’s hope.
John H. Thomas
February 21, 2013