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Selling Fashion Models' Eggs Online Raises Ethics Issues

New York Times
October 23, 1999
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To the horror and disgust of mainstream infertility groups, a longtime fashion photographer has begun offering up models as egg donors to the highest bidders, auctioning their ova via the Internet to would-be parents willing to pay up to $150,000 in hopes of having a beautiful child.

"It screams of unethical behavior," Sean Tipton, spokesman for the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, said of the Web site,, which was already up on the Web on Friday and is to be officially premiered on Monday.

Infertility specialists deplored the website as exactly the kind of "commodification" of human egg donation that they hope to avoid. Just this spring, signs of movement in that direction came when a couple advertised that they would pay $50,000 for an egg from a tall, athletic, top-college student with high Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.

The photographer, Ron Harris, justifies the egg auction as a natural outgrowth of the urge humans have to mate with genetically superior people and produce babies with evolutionary advantages. Particularly, he says, in a society like this one whose "celebrity culture" worships beauty.

"If you could increase the chance of reproducing beautiful children, and thus giving them an advantage in society, would you?" he asks on the site. In a telephone interview on Friday, he described the objections to egg auctions as politically correct. Since not all women are the same, he argued, what they are paid for their eggs "should be a price that floats based on perceived value."

Harris' melding of Darwin-based eugenics, Playboy-style sensibilities and eBay-type commerce struck some longtime infertility specialists as the most worrying sign yet of where the partly unregulated field of "assisted reproduction" may be going.

"It's frightening and horrible," said Shelley Smith, director of the Egg Donor Program, a center in Los Angeles, "and the worst part for me is to think there might be something worse still beyond our imagination. It seems to escalate, and ever since the Internet, it seems to snowball more rapidly, this depersonalization of people and selling of eggs."

She and others said that as far as they knew, Harris' site was legal. Federal law expressly forbids trafficking in human organs but not in sperm and eggs, they said. Research by Harris' lawyers reached the same conclusion.

The site has already received a serious bid of $42,000 from a couple who found it through a search engine, said Harris, 66. The models receive the full bid price, and Rons Angels takes a commission of an additional 20 percent.

The bid price includes no medical costs, the site specifies, also saying that it takes on no medical functions. But it does list scores of specialists who might possibly be willing to perform the procedure once an agreement is reached. Confidentiality is strongly guarded in such cases and could make the ads the only visible sign of the activity. That is the case with the ad seeking a college student with the brokers declining to say what happened to protect confidentiality.

Harris said the models could not be interviewed on Friday because of an exclusive agreement with another newspaper until the site is launched on Monday. But each of the eight displayed luminously on the Website offered their reasons in print for selling their eggs: They ranged from "to not be dependent on a man" to "to support her four-year-old son" to "I want to help others." Several were from other countries, and one said her goal was "to move to the USA."

Harris is probably best known as the creator of Aerobicise, a best-selling 1980s exercise video featuring fit models in leotards, and "The 20 Minute Workout," a television show with similar appeal. He has been a fashion photographer for 40 years, he said, and has also done some television directing for Playboy.

The use of donor eggs by infertile couples remains relatively uncommon. According to Resolve, the National Infertility Association, about 1,700 babies were born from procedures involving egg donation in 1996. Those numbers have been growing only slightly since then, experts say.

But the compensation for egg donors is a burning issue these days, one under discussion from the ethics panel of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine to the meeting here this week of Resolve, which brings together patients and practitioners to support and educate infertile people. Members of both bodies said they had recently discussed Harris' website, which has been posted in various evolving forms for about two months, as an example of the kind of thing that needs to be stopped.

"Things like this need immediate attention -- the thing is, where is the appropriate avenue?" asked Diane Aronson, the executive director of Resolve.

It is routine for egg donation centers to offer would-be parents an extensive profile of the egg donor, including photographs and descriptions of their talents and personalities. Several post donor catalogues online, and West Coast centers report a surfeit of donors, though they say there is a shortage in the East, particularly in New York City.

But mainstream infertility groups deem it acceptable only to choose an egg donor based on her traits and then compensate her -- usually between $2,500 and $5,000 -- for her time, inconvenience and discomfort. (Donors receive hormone shots to hyper-stimulate their ovaries and have a dozen or so eggs removed with a needle.) The groups tend to frown on anything that seems like actually trying to buy extra-nice genes -- though the line does seem blurred.

"Basically what it comes down to is we're selling human tissue and somewhere along the line we've got to bring ethics into it," said Karen Synesiou, director of Egg Donation, a private company in Beverly Hills. "I don't know where the line is because I want to balance the needs of the infertile community versus society at large, but I think a bidding game crosses the line."

Harris responded that it was "very unfair to put a limit on a girl's ability to make money." And seeking to pay all women the same, he said, "is like saying all women are the same, which is not the case."

While trafficking in eggs is not illegal, it is distasteful enough that eBay, the giant auction website, specifically bans offering eggs for sale, as well as the auctioning of sperm and other human body parts (though hair is allowed.)

Ms. Synesiou and others pointed out that in addition to other concerns, mating with a model might bring tremendous disappointment to some couples if the genetic dice fell against them and their child turned out unattractive. Not to mention how hard it would be for the child who failed such expectations.

"It's the same as couples who go to the genius sperm banks," she said. "How will the child feel when the child's no genius?"

Nancy Etcoff, author of "Survival of the Prettiest: the Science of Beauty," (Doubleday, 1999) also pointed out that acquired characteristics like dyed blond hair and lips made plump by collagen are not inherited.

Parents' quest for beautiful genes resonates powerfully with a growing body of academic research into the possible evolutionary reasons why certain physical characteristics from hip-to-waist ratio to symmetrical faces are considered desirable and beautiful.

Harris, Dr. Etcoff noted, seemed to "put his own spin" on such evolutionary research.

Indeed, in an editorial on the site, he quotes a study that looked at personal ads to determine the "market value" of mate choice, and found that men wanted youth, beauty and social skills, while women who had those qualities demanded men who were rich, good-looking and young.

"This," wrote Harris, "is Darwin's natural selection at its very best. The highest bidder gets youth and beauty."

A bit later, he wrote: "It is not my intention to suggest we make a super society of only beautiful people. This site simply mirrors our current society, in that beauty always goes to the highest bidder."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company