"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, April 22, 2024

Surrogacy, In Vitro, And Designer Babies - The End Of Natural Reproduction

Virtual reproduction has been an idea in the making for decades, made possible by the deciphering of the human genome, the precision of in vitro fertilization, and the burgeoning market for surrogate motherhood.  Thousands of poor women in America and the Third World are quite anxious to be indisposed for nine months for a generous stipend.  Besides, most of these Indian and Pakistani women have been barefoot and pregnant for generations, so one more load to carry is nothing given the promised rewards.


Ten years ago the price for surrogate motherhood was $10,000 for bringing a baby to term plus room, board, medical supervision and attention, medicine and supplements, and social care; and it has more than doubled since then.  The stipend was three times what a woman would have made in Bihar and almost double that in more prosperous states.  

The Indian clinics are state-of-the-art, attractive, congenial and professional.  The women who are treated there have never seen bright lights, chrome, white surgical gowns or anything resembling a clean room, so not only would they be paid a maharajah's fortune, but they would be interned when their time came in a heavenly palace. 

Everyone is happy.  The surrogate mother  is paid well, the donor parents are delighted - Mrs. Jones is spared from the inconvenience and hardship of pregnancy - the clinic reports record profits, and both governments are willing to live and let live and let technology and the free market take their course. 

So why should there be any debate?  One investigative journalist suggested that the owners of such birthing clinics were  being disingenuous at best and misleading at worst because they were dressing an exploitative practice in pretty clothes. Women who become surrogate mothers have no freedom of choice in the matter and cannot refuse this staggeringly lucrative opportunity. Furthermore, they are illiterate peasants who cannot understand the nature of the contract.

Nonsense of course. Freedom of choice means exactly that. No woman is forced to become a surrogate mother, and if the choice is made perfectly clear – that is, if the woman understands exactly what she will be contracted to do – then there is no question of unethical coercion. Although some religious critics might share the sentiment that motherhood is sacred, and that God’s intentions should never be ignored or his laws violated, most economists would agree that children have economic value and that surrogacy is but one expression of this valuation.

Children have always been first and foremost economic units. Children have provided the additional labor required to sustain the family, to provide for the welfare of aged parents, to add status and privilege. 

That hits the nail on the head.  Children have always been economic units, whether to collect firewood, draw water, or till the fields; to provide security in old age; or simply to assure legacy and the continuation of a family line.  In fact, it is curious that in the United States and Europe where these advantages are gone, couples are still having children.  Why, when the cost of rearing them far exceeds the benefits realized?

Only in today’s modern developed societies have the costs of raising children exceeded the benefits.  There is no logical reason why families should continue to have children. The countries of Western Europe, faced with severe drops in fertility rates among native-born citizens, have offered bonuses and other benefits for each additional child.  In other words, they have acknowledged the economic nature of children and have intervened in the market by way of subsidy.

A negative expression of this valuation of children is the high abortion rates in the developing world, especially for girls. When the number of children exceeds their economic value, women abort; and in male-centered cultures, abortion becomes gender-specific.  Abortion is no less common in industrialized countries where well-off women abort because a child would interfere with their professional careers and increasing income.

Unless one is mystical, religious or both, procreation is essentially an economic matter. While the value of each individual child may vary, their fungibility does not – every child is a commodity to be managed for the greatest return.  The value of a surrogate child in India is $20,000.  In the US it is $200,000. The incremental value of an additional child decreases as family income rises. White children have more value than black ones on the adoption market. White eggs have more value than black. Eggs donated by Harvard students have more value than those from West Appalachia Community College. 


The market for Harvard eggs is booming, and girls have lined up to provide this resource.  Not on a first come, first served basis, however; since prospective parents want brains and beauty, only the eggs of attractive, smart girls are in demand.  Marketers have tried the reverse - going to southern universities where the proportion of beautiful girls is high but IQs are low - but have been unsuccessful.  The chances of an attractive Harvard girl from an unattractive lot are still higher than the other way around. 

Another market, however, will soon overwhelm the eggs-for-sale one - recombinant DNA, gene-splicing, and genetic engineering.  The DNA from the most beautiful Hollywood starlets, the best professional athletes, and the smartest and most talented mathematicians, scientists, and artists dead or alive will soon be for sale.  A couple will be able to choose from an online catalogue and mix and match Taylor Swift with Michael Jordan and Robert Oppenheimer.  The estates of those deceased will be parsed in ways to enable non-invasive disinterment for gene harvesting and the living stand to make millions. 

There has been surprising little outcry from the religious community about all this.  Their focus has been entirely on abortion and the removal of an unborn human life is murder; but the transformation of a natural, normal heterosexual reproduction into a test-tube, laboratory-based, surrogate, genetic cataloging affair should be even more concerning.  The whole Biblical applecart is being upset.  The very essence of the most intimate of human activities - reproduction - is being neutered and claimed by secular forces.

This brave, new world is not close enough yet for protest.  Once it becomes more common and more approaching the norm, the outcry from the pulpit will be loud, angry, and clear.

Yet, who would turn down a designer baby?  A baby natural enough because it would come from a woman's own womb and would contain at least some if not most of her and her husband's genetic traces, but a more ideal, perfect one. 

The genie is out of the bottle.  Just as AI is transforming human exchange, the nature of knowledge and information; and just as virtual reality is replacing 'the real thing' as the first choice of existence, artificially engineered human beings will replace random offspring. The future is here. 


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