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Selling our pound of flesh—and blood

Donor conception leads to the commodification and objectification of babies


In vitro fertilization in a laboratory Associated Press/Photo by Sang Tan (file)

Selling our pound of flesh—and blood
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Colorado recently passed legislation to ban anonymous sperm and egg donation. Donor conception, part of lucrative “Big Fertility,” seeks sperm and egg donors for babies being made through in vitro fertilization. The word “donors” in this context is misleading, though, because the vast majority of them get paid. Sperm and egg buyers and sellers are more accurate.

There is no doubt that the children conceived this way are very much wanted. The parties involved in human gamete donation generally have good intentions. The parents buying the sperm or egg long for a baby, often following the heart-rending pain of infertility. (Or they are by definition unable to have children, such as those in a same-sex relationship.) The donors, though paid, may be motivated by altruism: “Do you want a baby? I can help. (But it doesn’t hurt if I get paid good money for it.)”

If a baby is what we’re after, what exactly is a baby? He is a being made in the very image of God, by nature a possessor of inherent dignity and worth. He is created as an embodied being: a body-soul unity. His body is no mere appendage of himself as if he is a ghost in a machine. His body is who he is, an intrinsic and essential part of the self. So out of the sperm or egg, put together with the other gamete, is this very person. The child would not be who he is without his genetic parents. He is dependent on them for his identity, his very existence.

To be human is to long to love and be loved and to know and be known by our parents, the people who gave us life. Under normal conditions that would lead to an important insight about the child’s welfare: Every child has the right to his or her parents. (By contrast, adults don’t have the right to have children.) If the whole idea behind donor conception is that the donors not be the parents who raise the children (and worse, to have them often stay hidden in the shroud of anonymity so that their children could never know them), then donor conception is deliberately bringing children into the world with a certain inherent woundedness: a loss, a hole, a sense of something missing—a genealogical bewilderment.

Unlike adoption, in which adoptive parents heroically step in to redeem an already-broken situation, parents in donor conception actively participate in creating the brokenness and fragmentation. Adoptive parents take up and engraft into their own families children who already exist, whose lives are already in crisis. But in donor conception, parents play a hand in creating the very wound. So even when the children are thankful to be alive, it may not preclude a sense of being wronged.

If the whole idea behind donor conception is that the donors not be the parents who raise the children, then donor conception is deliberately bringing children into the world with a certain inherent woundedness.

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the young man Bassanio borrows 3,000 ducats from Shylock the creditor—with the bond being a pound of flesh of the body of Bassanio’s friend Antonio. When Bassanio cannot pay back the money, Shylock insists on the bond. “The pound of flesh which I demand of him / Is dearly bought. ’Tis mine, and I will have it.” The play’s famous courtroom scene features a blade being whetted for the carving out of the pound of flesh as payment. The body for cash, as it were. The Merchant of Venice makes clear its grotesque wrongness. The audience readily grasps that the body should not be a commodity. The body, thus the person, ought not to be up for sale.

When we buy and sell gametes to make children, are we not, in a sense, selling and buying a pound of flesh? (Or perhaps, more accurately, a pound of our own flesh and blood?)

To be sure, unlike Shylock, the characters in donor conception are not seeking to create the wound. No malice is intended. And yet the commodification and objectification of the person are still there. Some argue that we aren’t really buying and selling children, only gametes. But this logic goes only so far. “Do vials of sperm require crib mobiles and changing tables?” author Alana S. Newman asks. “No, babies do.”

Current law prohibits us from selling our organs. Under our legal regime, though, it is perfectly legal to sell sperm and eggs. But unlike hair or blood, also sold, those sperm and eggs result in our children. Colorado has made a good first step in ending anonymous sperm and egg donations. But much more is needed. No money should be traded for a pound of flesh—and certainly not for our flesh and blood.


Adeline A. Allen

Adeline A. Allen is an associate professor of law at Trinity Law School and an associate fellow at The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.


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