A company in San Antonio, Texas, is creating what it says is the world's first embryo bank. The embryos in the bank will not be used for research. Instead, they'll be available to infertile couples who wish to have a child. Even so, the very notion of an embryo bank raises some difficult legal and ethical questions.
The embryo bank at the Abraham Center of Life is run by Jennalee Ryan. For the past 20 years or so, she's been running an adoption agency. She says the bank is just one more way she can help people have children.
"I've labeled it the world's first human-embryo bank, although as of yet, it's a bank without anything in it," Ryan says. "And the reason for that is because, as these embryos become available to families that are looking for children, they're all taken."
To produce the first set of embryos for the bank, Ryan found a young woman willing to supply her eggs. She bought the sperm over the Internet. Put the two together, and you get an embryo.
"We charge $2,500 per embryo, which goes towards the cost of the services, and that includes the medications, the fees that the egg donors are paid, and so forth."
Ryan claims that she has clients lining up to pay for embryos.
But ethicist and lawyer George Annas of Boston University isn't sure this is such a good thing. Annas says paying for an embryo isn't the same as paying for eggs and sperm.
"We treat embryos much, much different, and I think rightfully so, than sperm or egg when they're separate," Annas says. "Once we put them together, we've created this unique construct."
And although Jennalee Ryan says she's not selling the embryos — but rather, selling the service of providing them — the whole business makes Annas uncomfortable.
"It's too close to buying and selling children, which I hope no one would ever be for," Annas says.
Annas also worries that, even if the embryo-bank concept does not really constitute buying children, it does turn the embryo into a commodity that you shop for, instead of a potential human being.
And there's another question that the new embryo bank raises: To whom do these embryos belong?
Doug Powers is scientific director of fertility clinic Boston IVF. He says that typically, when a couple creates embryos in order to have a baby, as parents they have legal rights to the embryos. But in the case of the embryo bank, Powers says, neither the sperm donor nor the egg donor has any intention of becoming a parent.
"Do these embryos belong to a corporation?" Powers says. "It's a very strange idea."
But Jenalee Ryan says that is indeed the case.
"We own all the embryos, so once the embryos are created, those are our bank of embryos, so to speak."
Until the embryo is transferred to the prospective mother, Ryan says her legal claim to the embryo is no different than the legal claim of a scientist given the embryos for stem-cell research. And unlike stem-cell researchers, Ryan says she's trying to turn those embryos into babies, not destroy them.
"I'm not troubled by what I do," she says. "I think what I do is wonderful, and the people that I work with do, as well."
So far, Ryan says two women have become pregnant using embryos she arranged to have created by a fertility clinic in New York. She says a second round of embryos will be ready for transfer soon.