Beauty by the Dozen?
November 1, 1999
Web posted at: 4:03 p.m. EST (2103 GMT)
by Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
University of Minnesota
In the news last week was a report of a new Web site that offers the auction of eggs from fashion models, with the implicit, if not explicit, promise of beautiful babies from the eggs of beautiful women.
Subsequent reports have questioned the motives of the site -- ronsangels.com -- as to whether it really exists to auction eggs or merely to attract customers to pornographic Web sites. Whether or not it is the real thing, the interest it has generated and the millions of hits the site has received speak to the issues it raises: Should the market determine whether people want to buy human eggs, and for how much? Does selling the prospect of beautiful children even make sense? What limits, if any, can and should be imposed on the sale of human eggs and sperm?
Given everything else people buy and sell -- especially online through a growing number of auction sites -- why not let the market put buyers and sellers together?
There are a few reasons. First, it is against federal law to buy and sell human organs, but not human blood and tissue. Are eggs more like organs or tissue, and does the distinction between the two really matter?
Organs cannot be bought and sold for a number of reasons, mainly for concern of the potential exploitation of donors, and the unfairness created by allowing those with more money to have better access to very scarce resources. The same reasons seem to apply to donated eggs, since they are in short supply.
And the reasons given by some donor models seem to imply their motivation may be less than altruistic -- one reportedly hopes her egg donation will allow her emigrate to the United States from Romania.
Getting what you pay for?
Besides, it is unlikely that buying model's eggs will give people beautiful children. It is not clear how much of beauty is genetic, and everyone knows examples that argue against a direct relationship between how parents look and how their children turn out. In fact, to see the range of possibilities, prospective egg buyers might do well to look at models' parents. The point is that whatever genetic component of beauty exists can't be assessed by just looking at a potential donor. This caveat is further complicated by the wonders of modern cosmetic surgery.
Lastly, eggs don't guarantee children, and so the tens of thousands of dollars spent really buys no more than the right to use eggs to try to conceive. Overall, this is an expensive prospect with no guarantees of children, let alone beautiful ones.
Eggs, but no clinic
Even if buyers and sellers are able to strike a deal, they still need a clinic and a physician to perform the egg collection and subsequent in vitro fertilization. It threatens the professionalism of the practice of reproductive medicine for clinics to perform these services for buyers and sellers who meet via the Internet. Standards of medical practice require a relationship between doctors and the patients in their care, so physicians are in a position to take a stand on the sale of eggs from models. If they don't, it seems likely that the government will.
So what are the take-home lessons in this case? There are many reasons to be skeptical and worried about selling human eggs -- from concerns over exploitation and the illegal sale of human tissue, to issues of professionalism and whether the sellers can actually deliver what they offer. But if and when auctions of human eggs take place, good advice is to let the buyer beware. Otherwise what they hope will be treats may turn out to be a cruel trick.
In the news last week: a report of a Web site that auctions eggs from fashion models, with at least the implicit promise of beautiful babies from the eggs of beautiful women. Should the market determine whether people want to buy human eggs, and for how much? Does selling the prospect of beautiful children even make sense? What limits, if any, should be imposed on the sale of human eggs and sperm?
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"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.
"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.
Surfing for sperm: Reproduction in cyberspace
Bioethics in Brief - Is there a difference between selling eggs and selling kidneys?
American Society for Reproductive Medicine
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