The flourishing free market of sperm, eggs, surrogates, uterine transplants, and embryos has outpaced functional regulation and ethical consideration. Consumers, donors, and clinics are exploiting an under-regulated marketplace to get what they want (namely, babies and money), and the results are gruesome.
Here’s one bizarre case: Melissa Cook is a forty-seven-year-old surrogate in California with four children of her own. She gave birth to triplets in February of this year (all boys, seven weeks premature), having entered into surrogacy with an out-of-state man who wanted a baby. The two had never met but with Cook, the man—a deaf postal worker who lives with his elderly parents, and is named in court documents only as C.M.—signed a 75-page contract created by C.M.’s lawyer. The sperm would come from him and the eggs from an anonymous donor. For her service as a surrogate, they had agreed, Cook was to be paid $27,000, with an additional $6,000 for multiples. C.M. would cover all of the medical expenses.
Cook underwent in-vitro fertilization, an extremely costly procedure. Due to the price-tag and the possibility that an embryo may not take, doctors often use two or three embryos hoping that at least one develops into a fetus. (This despite cases like that of Nadya Suleman, an unemployed mother of six who had twelve new embryos implanted in her by a physician. Seven took, with one splitting into twins. Since giving birth in 2009, Suleman’s become best known by her tabloid moniker: Octomom.)
In Cook’s case three embryos were implanted in her uterus and all three took. When C.M. learned of the triplets, he asked her to abort one because he was not capable of caring for three children; Cook refused. C.M. continued to ask for an abortion by arguing that giving birth to multiples was dangerous for the babies. Despite threats from C.M.’s lawyer that they’d cut off funding to Cook throughout the rest of pregnancy if she did not comply with the abortion, Cook refused and C.M. relented.
The three babies are now living with C.M. Cook petitioned the court for visitation rights but the motion was denied. She also filed a federal lawsuit against the state of California, arguing that its surrogacy law “provides no protection for the mother who enters into the surrogacy contract against exploitation and uses her as if she is an incubator or breeding animal.” The suit further argues that the surrogacy act “promotes and creates a breeding class of women” and
creates a class of motherless children who are deprived of the benefits of their relationship with their mothers by intentional design and plans made even before they are conceived, places them based exclusively upon the desire of the person who pays money for them without any regard for what is best for the children.
Cook is not too far off. These contracts leave huge room to degrade the surrogate. Then there’s the flip side—imagine being in C.M.’s position: You spend your life savings on doctors, specialists, attorneys, and surrogacy fees and now the surrogate is suing you for custody. The very relationship between a surrogate and an intended parent is deeply emotionally fraught and no amount of paperwork can diminish that, with several cases of surrogates refusing to yield the baby they were contractually obligated to turn over after giving birth.
Cook’s case doesn’t even get into the despicable practice of using cheap wombs for pregnancy rentals—purchasing a promising Scandinavian egg and then paying women in developing countries with relaxed surrogacy laws like Nepal or Venezuela to carry the pregnancy. Forgive me if I sound like an antipathetic, cold-blooded, second wave feminist with regards to the sanctity of biological ties, but Christ, why not just adopt?
A sperm bank unwilling to verify its donors’ claims is essentially operating on an honor system of men who jerk off into a cup for fifty bucks a pop.
Now, free market boosters will argue that eventually the market will figure a way out of all this dodginess, and right itself. One way could be for IVF clinics to offer one free round of implanting, so there wouldn’t be such a need to go for multiples. Or insurance companies could offer to cover the first round for families trying to conceive. But what seems more likely (and more necessary) is greater regulation. Some enforceable way to make sperm banks back up their screening claims, some mandatory record keeping, better laws, and protections for egg donors and surrogates.
Of course, a very radical move that could quickly change the power dynamic in all these arrangements: as in blood donation and organ donation, don’t allow money to enter into it. No pay for sperm donation, no pay for egg donors, no pay for surrogates. So many egg donors are college-aged girls who go half of a year without drinking or smoking while taking on a brutal regime of hormone treatments, often triggering something called ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. These girls often paid $8,000 for each donation cycle. If you removed that fee, do you think the students at NYU would still be lining up at the egg clinic?
This might also prevent cases like that of Donor 9623, possessed of a 160 IQ, claiming to be a polymath, a PhD candidate for neuroscience engineering, and a world-class drummer. In other words, he had it all: high intelligence, scientific aptitude, and the big soul of a rhythmic musician.
Except that Donor 9623, James Christian Aggeles, 39, was a mentally ill felon. According to a lawsuit filed against the sperm bank on behalf of one family who used Aggeles’ donations to conceive, Aggeles has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and narcissistic personality disorder. The suit also brings up Aggeles’s 2005 residential burglary, for which he spent eight months in jail. Schizophrenia is a heredity disease and typically begins to present symptoms in mid to late adolescence. Aggeles’s sperm was used to father thirty-six children in the United States, Canada, and the UK. He was an active donor for over ten years.
The recipients of Aggeles’s sperm learned his identity by accident when Aggeles’s sperm bank, Georgia-based Xytex, inadvertently sent out an email that included their donor’s identity. Several families conducted a Google search and, voila: there was papa.
Xytex is denying wrongdoing. They claim that they did not intentionally mislead their clients. The families are seeking millions in damages and preemptive care for their possibly diseased offspring.
This felonious sperm donor debacle is an obvious case of market demand outpacing the basic competency of sperm banks. If a sperm bank is unwilling or unable to verify its donors’ claims—at least run a cursory Google search on them—then it is essentially operating on an honor system of men who jerk off into a cup for fifty bucks a pop.
Currently there are no federal standards for what sperm banks must do to test for genetic diseases. There’s also no regulatory record-keeping in sperm-donor-assisted births. So if a family gives birth to a child with cystic fibrosis—a disease in which both biological parents need to be carriers—using donated sperm, they are not required to inform the sperm bank, who may continue to dole out the risky sperm.
Most banks are relying on a donor’s truthfulness, bioethicist Arthur Caplan tells me over email. “I think required testing could and should be tougher given progress in genetic testing. Also banks might want to get more references from doctors who have seen a patient before donation and perhaps other sources.” Nevertheless, Caplan warns, like any type of reproduction, “There are no guarantees . . . Your partner may lie to you.”
In the meantime, there are roughly half a million children in foster care in the United States but thanks to a woman in Fresno, California, there are six fewer. Lacey Dunkin was fostering two young sisters she intended to adopt. The girls have four more sisters who were living with their mother. When their mother lost custody, the girls feared being separated and put into different homes. Instead, Dunkin adopted all six sisters. Dunkin told a local news outlet that child services called her to tell her about the girls. “Four little girls, ages 5 to 2 and 1,” the woman said to Dunkin, “And I said yes, like, before she could finish talking.”