michael . benson on Sun, 24 Oct 1999 03:19:10 +0200


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Syndicate: brave new world


"It's frightening and horrible," said Shelley Smith, director of the 
Egg Donor Program, a center in Los Angeles, "It seems to escalate, 
and ever since the Internet, it seems to snowball more rapidly, this 
depersonalization of people and selling of eggs." 

Get your attention? Well, read on, depersonalized ones:


October 23, 1999

Selling Fashion Models' Eggs Online Raises Ethics Issues

By CAREY GOLDBERG

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- To the horror and disgust of mainstream 
infertility groups, a longtime fashion photographer has begun 
offering up models as egg donors to the highest bidders, auctioning 
their ova via the Internet to would-be parents willing to pay up to 
$150,000 in hopes of having a beautiful child. 

"It screams of unethical behavior," Sean Tipton, spokesman
for the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, said of
the Web site, www.ronsangels.com, which was already up on
the Web on Friday and is to be officially premiered on
Monday. 

Infertility specialists deplored the website as exactly the
kind of "commodification" of human egg donation that they
hope to avoid. Just this spring, signs of movement in that
direction came when a couple advertised that they would pay
$50,000 for an egg from a tall, athletic, top-college
student with high Scholastic Aptitude Test scores. 

The photographer, Ron Harris, justifies the egg auction as a
natural outgrowth of the urge humans have to mate with
genetically superior people and produce babies with
evolutionary advantages. Particularly, he says, in a society
like this one whose "celebrity culture" worships beauty. 

"If you could increase the chance of reproducing beautiful
children, and thus giving them an advantage in society,
would you?" he asks on the site. In a telephone interview on
Friday, he described the objections to egg auctions as
politically correct. Since not all women are the same, he
argued, what they are paid for their eggs "should be a price
that floats based on perceived value." 

Harris' melding of Darwin-based eugenics,
Playboy-style sensibilities and eBay-type
commerce struck some longtime infertility
specialists as the most worrying sign yet of
where the partly unregulated field of "assisted
reproduction" may be going. 

"It's frightening and horrible," said Shelley Smith,
director of the Egg Donor Program, a center in Los Angeles,
"and the worst part for me is to think there might be
something worse still beyond our imagination. It seems to
escalate, and ever since the Internet, it seems to snowball
more rapidly, this depersonalization of people and selling
of eggs." 

She and others said that as far as they knew, Harris' site
was legal. Federal law expressly forbids trafficking in
human organs but not in sperm and eggs, they said. Research
by Harris' lawyers reached the same conclusion. 

The site has already received a serious bid of $42,000 from
a couple who found it through a search engine, said Harris,
66. The models receive the full bid price, and Rons Angels
takes a commission of an additional 20 percent. 

The bid price includes no medical costs, the site specifies,
also saying that it takes on no medical functions. But it
does list scores of specialists who might possibly be
willing to perform the procedure once an agreement is
reached. Confidentiality is strongly guarded in such cases
and could make the ads the only visible sign of the
activity. That is the case with the ad seeking a college
student with the brokers declining to say what happened to
protect confidentiality. 

Harris said the models could not be interviewed on Friday
because of an exclusive agreement with another newspaper
until the site is launched on Monday. But each of the eight
displayed luminously on the Website offered their reasons in
print for selling their eggs: They ranged from "to not be
dependent on a man" to "to support her four-year-old son" to
"I want to help others." Several were from other countries,
and one said her goal was "to move to the USA." 

Harris is probably best known as the creator of Aerobicise,
a best-selling 1980s exercise video featuring fit models in
leotards, and "The 20 Minute Workout," a television show
with similar appeal. He has been a fashion photographer for
40 years, he said, and has also done some television
directing for Playboy. 

The use of donor eggs by infertile couples remains
relatively uncommon. According to Resolve, the National
Infertility Association, about 1,700 babies were born from
procedures involving egg donation in 1996. Those numbers
have been growing only slightly since then, experts say. 

But the compensation for egg donors is a burning issue these
days, one under discussion from the ethics panel of the
American Society for Reproductive Medicine to the meeting
here this week of Resolve, which brings together patients
and practitioners to support and educate infertile people.
Members of both bodies said they had recently discussed
Harris' website, which has been posted in various evolving
forms for about two months, as an example of the kind of
thing that needs to be stopped. 

"Things like this need immediate attention -- the thing is,
where is the appropriate avenue?" asked Diane Aronson, the
executive director of Resolve. 

It is routine for egg donation centers to offer would-be
parents an extensive profile of the egg donor, including
photographs and descriptions of their talents and
personalities. Several post donor catalogues online, and
West Coast centers report a surfeit of donors, though they
say there is a shortage in the East, particularly in New
York City. 

But mainstream infertility groups deem it acceptable only to
choose an egg donor based on her traits and then compensate
her -- usually between $2,500 and $5,000 -- for her time,
inconvenience and discomfort. (Donors receive hormone shots
to hyper-stimulate their ovaries and have a dozen or so eggs
removed with a needle.) The groups tend to frown on anything
that seems like actually trying to buy extra-nice genes --
though the line does seem blurred. 

"Basically what it comes down to is we're selling human
tissue and somewhere along the line we've got to bring
ethics into it," said Karen Synesiou, director of Egg
Donation, a private company in Beverly Hills. "I don't know
where the line is because I want to balance the needs of the
infertile community versus society at large, but I think a
bidding game crosses the line." 

Harris responded that it was "very unfair to put a limit on
a girl's ability to make money." And seeking to pay all
women the same, he said, "is like saying all women are the
same, which is not the case." 

While trafficking in eggs is not illegal, it is distasteful
enough that eBay, the giant auction website, specifically
bans offering eggs for sale, as well as the auctioning of
sperm and other human body parts (though hair is allowed.) 

Ms. Synesiou and others pointed out that in addition to
other concerns, mating with a model might bring tremendous
disappointment to some couples if the genetic dice fell
against them and their child turned out unattractive. Not to
mention how hard it would be for the child who failed such
expectations. 

"It's the same as couples who go to the genius sperm banks,"
she said. "How will the child feel when the child's no
genius?" 

Nancy Etcoff, author of "Survival of the Prettiest: the
Science of Beauty," (Doubleday, 1999) also pointed out that
acquired characteristics like dyed blond hair and lips made
plump by collagen are not inherited. 

Parents' quest for beautiful genes resonates powerfully with
a growing body of academic research into the possible
evolutionary reasons why certain physical characteristics
from hip-to-waist ratio to symmetrical faces are considered
desirable and beautiful. 

Harris, Dr. Etcoff noted, seemed to "put his own spin" on
such evolutionary research. 

Indeed, in an editorial on the site, he quotes a study that
looked at personal ads to determine the "market value" of
mate choice, and found that men wanted youth, beauty and
social skills, while women who had those qualities demanded
men who were rich, good-looking and young. 

"This," wrote Harris, "is Darwin's natural selection at its
very best. The highest bidder gets youth and beauty." 

A bit later, he wrote: "It is not my intention to suggest we
make a super society of only beautiful people. This site
simply mirrors our current society, in that beauty always
goes to the highest bidder." 




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