Embryos for Sale: When You Want Them, How You Want Them, or Your Money Back

Posted by Jessica Cussins on November 28th, 2012

For those who have struggled with the emotional, physical, and monetary stresses of trying unsuccessfully to start a family by using other people’s eggs or sperm, there is another option: embryo donation. Though a resulting child isn’t genetically related to either intended parent, the mother will be able to carry and give birth to the child, and the parents can be there from day one of the child’s life.

Typically, the available embryos are the result of in vitro fertilization treatments. People who don’t wish to give any of their “leftover” embryos to research or discard them have the option of donating them to another couple. In theory this kind of arrangement is a win-win for all involved: a happy alternative for the donors, and a new chance for a child for the recipients.

Several organizations have been established to facilitate these embryo donations. The reality, however, is that though there are hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos in this country, few people opt to donate theirs to other intended parents, and there is a long wait for couples hoping to receive one.

The California Conceptions Donated Embryo Program was started in hopes of changing this imbalance,” reads the informational page on embryo donation at the website of California IVF: Davis Fertility Clinic. But California Conceptions differs from other embryo donation organizations in a crucial way: They create the embryos themselves. 

The fertility doctor who introduced this concept, Dr. Ernest Zeringue, reportedly saw it as a way to remain competitive in a largely unregulated fertility industry.  He offers IVF with pre-made embryos for about half the cost of traditional IVF, and with an unheard of deal: Pregnancy for $9,800 or your money back. The Davis clinic says that nearly 200 couples have used this service already, with a 95% success rate.

Zeringue’s prospective patients are sent extensive profiles of sperm and egg donors before they commit; if there is sufficient interest, the clinic purchases the selected sperm and eggs and makes the embryos. Zeringue is able to cut costs because he creates batches of embryos, which he distributes among multiple patients, keeping any extras frozen for future use. When embryos are left over from  IVF, they belong to the genetic parents; in this scenario, they belong to the clinic.

Zeringue doesn’t see a problem with this. He states that the embryos "are still treated ethically. They are no different than embryos that have a person's name assigned to them." But many believe that selling pre-made embryos crosses an ethical boundary.

Dr. Craig Sweet, medical and practice director of Embryo Donation International, sees Zeringue’s creation of “McEmbryos” as an unethical variation of the work to which he has given his life. He disputes Zeringue’s claim that this method can even be considered “embryo donation” explaining,

“Embryo donation occurs when patients with excess cryopreserved embryos make the amazing decision to donate their frozen embryos to patients in need. The L.A. Times report indicates that California Conceptions is creating embryos through the combination of donor eggs and donor sperm and marketing them as donated embryos. If they are claiming they are donated embryos, nothing could be further from the truth.”
Andrew Vorzimer, a Los Angeles fertility lawyer and “an unapologetic advocate for access to assisted reproduction,” raises a similar point and is alarmed that a company has control over the embryos.
Make no mistake, this is commodification. These are not donated embryos. Rather, they are embryos created from donors hand-selected by California Conceptions. It is one step removed from a mail order catalog. The only difference is that the product being sold is nascent human life.

A similar kind of embryo bank has been attempted before. In 2007, CGS Senior Fellow and UC Hastings Law Professor Osagie Obasogie wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe titled “‘Wal-martization’ of Embryos” about the Abraham Center for Life, “the world’s first human embryo bank.” The Texas center drastically cut costs by purchasing sperm and eggs wholesale and running out of founder Jennalee Ryan’s home. Many commentators voiced concern that Ryan was designing and selling genetically desirable babies. She accepted only attractive and college-educated donors, and offered patients their choice of “designer” traits. In effect, hers was a sort of Walmart with couture aspirations.

Slate writer William Saletan pointed out at the time that “Ryan represents the next wave of industrial rationality. She's bringing the innovations of Costco and Burger King to the business of human flesh.” But what works for groceries and burgers didn’t work so well in this case. After just a few months, Ryan closed the center because she was losing too much money. She was also the subject of an FDA investigation.

Interestingly, her old website is now a blog with adoption tips; and Ryan now works as a “baby-broker” at A Silver Spoon Adoptions Inc, one of the first adoption facilitation agencies, where she earns a fee matching birth mothers with adoptive parents. It turns out that Ryan is completely surrounded in controversy, having changed her name and the face of her company many times, possibly in part to take advantage of lax regulations in the fertility industry.

Zeringue, however, is not a rogue entrepreneur working out of his living room. He is a trained infertility specialist and the founder of California IVF: Davis Fertility Center, Inc. Have the past five years served to legitimize the selling of retail embryos? Zeringue’s business model and the issues it raises will be discussed at a meeting in January of the ethics committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Posted in Assisted Reproduction, Bioethics, Egg Retrieval, Genetic Selection, Human Rights, Jessica Cussins's Blog Posts, Reproductive Justice, Health & Rights, US Federal


Comments are now closed for this item.

  1. Comment by Craig R. Sweet, M.D., Nov 30th, 2012 4:06pm

    Ms. Cussins:

    I greatly appreciate your review of the current concerns regarding the creation of embryos that are not necessarily owned by patients. Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has been attempted.

    Gina Kolata wrote a segment in the New York Times in 1997 ( describing a slightly different situation where Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital and Reproductive Biology Associates created embryos for infertility patients. The embryos were apparently created to salvage egg donation cycles when the original recipients backed out. The oocytes were still retrieved and fertilized by one or more sperm donors creating embryos which were to be given to infertility patients. To the best of my knowledge, the practice of creating embryos in such a way did not continue.

    I do believe that California Conceptions (CC) did not want to create an embryo bank. Nevertheless, as they stated in the recent L.A. Times article, they probably had 10 sets of embryos cryopreserved in storage at any given time. Originally, a group of embryo recipients agreed to use the combination of an egg donor with a sperm donor creating numerous embryos. Each recipient received one to two embryos with any excess embryos cryopreserved. I believe that CC would prefer that none would be left over but it is inevitable that some would be frozen for future use. I had a patient admit clearly that they indeed conceived using cryopreserved embryos at CC from a different batch (i.e., embryo bank) in order to successfully conceive. While I applaud California Conceptions for trying to minimize the size of their embryo bank, I truly feel it should not exist.

    From my perspective, I have a number of concerns:

    1) As you outlined in your blog, these are not really donated embryos but embryos created from a donor/donor cycle split among patients. Facilities that practice this should call it "Embryo Creation" or some such phrase and not "Embryo Donation."

    2) I feel strongly that a corporation, business entity or physician practice should not own embryos. Embryos should be owned by the patients who created them.

    3) The creation of embryo banks could have a host of unintended consequences. Besides reducing the respect to the embryo to that of simple cells that are discarded after use, you can be certain that legislative actions may be initiated to try to protect the cryopreserved embryos potentially making it increasingly difficult for practices to care for the infertile patient.

    4) If a small embryo bank is allowed to exist, you can be certain larger embryo banks will form and my prediction of the creation of a "McEmbryo" will unfortunately come true.

    There are remedies for California Conceptions that will bring it in line with accepted medical practices. All the excess embryos must be owned by the patients. In addition, so as to not mislead the potential patient, calling the practice of donor/donor split cycles something other than "embryo donation" would seem to be appropriate.

    Thank you for taking the time to publish your post and giving me the opportunity to explain my concerns further.



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