Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Business of Babies

Debra Spar, an economics professor at Harvard, has written a nice piece that shows just how pervasive the desire to have children can be, and how easily economic manipulation can take advantage of it. She writes:
To those who suffer from it, however, infertility is a wretched curse — a disease that isn’t really a disease, with an outcome that seems to defy nature . . . many infertile couples become consumed with the desire to conceive, and are willing to do whatever it takes to create a child of their own.

The science of assisted reproductive technology (ART) has taken advantage of this desperation-driven market. In some cases, it has resulted in blessings for those who can afford such techniques as in-vitro fertilization or intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection, but at what cost for society as a whole?

Many are concerned about the commodification of reproduction, with the possibility that we will see children more as product than progeny. What are the limits? Do all couples have a right to reproduce, to have a child "of their own?" What about the unintended consequences of the unfettered drive to have a technological baby?

Many couples who engage in ART haven't really thought through the long-term implications of their decision. That is one reason there are over 400,000 frozen embryos in cryogenic storage in the U.S. alone. The couples who "own" these embryos have created a legal and moral dilemma. Are they persons or property? Should they be destroyed, given over for stem-cell research, or donated to childless couples who wish to adopt them? Most couples have deferred their decision to some later date, even if they have no intention of implanting the embryos themselves.

Sympathetically, Professor Spar recognizes that regulating the fertility industry and its excesses will be difficult: "These decisions will not be easy, since they will inevitably involve drawing thin lines across a slippery slope and subjecting private tragedies to public scrutiny."

Professor Spar's article can be found at:

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